Chief rabbi held up conversions as leverage against government reform, group claims
Lau only started signing documents once coalition’s reforms fell apart, according to religious rights group Itim; chief rabbi confirms faster pace but denies political motivations
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
Chief Rabbi David Lau significantly stepped up his approval of conversions to Judaism only after the government’s proposed reforms to the process that he opposed fell apart earlier this year, according to a religious rights group.
The shift indicated that Lau’s motives were not based on religious concerns, as he initially claimed, but were instead political in nature, the head of the Itim advocacy group, Rabbi Seth Farber, told The Times of Israel last week.
Lau’s office denied the charge, maintaining that any change in the pace at which the chief rabbi signed the conversion documents was the result of improved work practices and that the timing was coincidental, not political.
“People were suffering, economically and emotionally, because they didn’t have this document. It was inexcusable,” Farber said. “But now because there’s no more political expediency, they’re signing them again.”
In the Israeli system, a potential convert to Judaism goes through the religious process with a local rabbi. They learn about Judaism over the course of several months or even years before they complete their conversion by immersing in a ritual bath, or mikvah. If they are not already, men are also circumcised; if they are, a small amount of blood is drawn from their penis in a symbolic ritual.
At that point, they are Jewish according to religious law, but not Israeli law. For that, they must have their conversions officially recognized by the Chief Rabbinate in the form of a signed conversion document. (Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, currently oversees conversions, while his Sephardi counterpart Yitzhak Yosef oversees issues relating to kashrut.) Those signed conversion documents are in turn filed with the Conversion Authority, which is in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Without a signed conversion document, a convert — though unquestionably Jewish — can run into all kinds of bureaucratic issues in Israel. For instance, a person who has converted to Judaism but has yet to receive their confirmation from the rabbinate can have a marriage ceremony but cannot register their marriage with the Interior Ministry, which can have tax implications.
Last year, Lau announced that he would not sign conversion documents — the final legal step in the process — due to then-religious services minister Matan Kahana’s decision to appoint Rabbi Benayahu Brunner as head of the government’s Conversion Authority. Brunner’s appointment was only a small step in Kahana’s overall plan to reform the country’s conversion process, which has long been mired in controversy. Under Kahana’s plan, the power to approve conversions would again be granted to municipal rabbis, moving power away from the chief rabbinate which currently has sole authority in the matter. The change would in theory allow for greater competition and better services.
Lau’s office maintained that his refusal to sign the conversion documents was due to the fact that he did not trust Brunner, who is affiliated with more liberal parts of the Orthodox world, and that he, therefore, needed to check every conversion in depth before signing. Lau did not entirely stop signing conversion documents but did slow the process significantly, resulting in a major backlog.
The precise number of converts who have yet to receive signed conversion documents is not yet known, as the rabbinate will only have to release those figures at the end of this year. However, it is believed to be in the hundreds out of the roughly 2,000 annual converts.
In 2021, after only a few months of Lau’s slowdown, the number rose to 123. This is more than five times the number held up in 2019 and nearly nine times the number held up in 2017 when there were only 14 people who had not received their signed conversion document.
According to Farber, whose organization works closely with converts and with the government offices who work with them, the chief rabbi began clearing that backlog, signing conversion documents at a noticeably faster pace, once the government fell apart in June and Kahana’s prospects for conversion reform died with it.
Farber said he did not yet have any concrete evidence of this apparent policy change but that it was “more than anecdotal.”
“We asked [the Conversion Authority] and they said, ‘Yes, they’re being signed now,'” Farber said, noting that the documents are still not being signed as quickly as they necessarily could.
“We are gratified that the issue is now beginning to be resolved, but we hope that the conversion authority will move more quickly to undo the damage that they have done,” he said.
Lau’s office confirmed that he was signing the documents more quickly but denied that this was due to a policy change or the result of the demise of Kahana’s conversion reform.
“When you start checking every single case, at first the process is slower but with time it improves. There is no connection to the reform, whether it passed or not,” his spokesperson said.
“If the claim is that we are doing our work too well, we can handle that,” he quipped.
Farber scoffed at this response from the chief rabbi’s office, calling it “cynical.”
Farber alleged that Lau’s conduct regarding conversions amounts to a violation of a biblical requirement to “love the convert” and of the biblical prohibition against “harming the convert.” (In Jewish tradition, these are technically two separate laws.)
“Jewish tradition is emphatic about the respect and love we are to give to converts. The prohibition of tormenting the convert is a touchstone of the halachic tradition,” said Farber.
“If we had a chief rabbi who violated the laws of Shabbat, he wouldn’t stay chief rabbi for a day. But when we have a chief rabbi who’s explicitly violating the Torah prohibition of harming the convert, we just continue our day-to-day [routine] and most people don’t bat an eye.”