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Chief rabbis lead rally urging religious affairs minister to scrap his reforms

Country’s top Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbis tell Matan Kahana to ‘wake up,’ say Jewish state must be under authority of Chief Rabbinate

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks to national religious yeshiva students during the 'Yeshivas March' against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks to national religious yeshiva students during the 'Yeshivas March' against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s two chief rabbis led a demonstration by thousands of Orthodox youths outside the Knesset Sunday calling on Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana to abandon major reforms of state-controlled Jewish religious services.

Kahana’s plans include easing the process of conversion to Judaism and broadening the range of organizations qualified to give kosher certification, thereby weakening the ultra-Orthodox hegemony, including the Chief Rabbinate’s control over Jewish religious life cycle events in Israel.

His plans, in particular the changes to the conversion services, have drawn sharp criticism from ultra-Orthodox figures, including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.

On Sunday Lau was joined by his counterpart, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, in leading the “Yeshiva March” protest by students from yeshiva high schools, which combine regular studies with religious learning. The march was timed to coincide with the weekly cabinet meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Addressing the crowd, Lau, who has been speaking out openly against Kahana’s plan, said that “our country is a Jewish country, with the Chief Rabbinate, with Torah — that is our essence.”

“A Jewish state is one that has a Chief Rabbinate; a Jewish state is one in which the Chief Rabbinate makes the decisions, writes [the rules], and leads,” Lau said.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, right, and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend the the ‘Yeshivas March’ against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yosef called on Kahana to “wake up and think carefully about what he is doing.”

He said Kahana has in his employ “all kinds of small rabbis who are confusing him” and urged him instead to listen to the chief rabbis and other leading rabbinic figures in the Orthodox community.

“I call on him to retract all of his plans and step into line with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and strengthen its position,” Yosef said.

He warned that “today there are all sorts of people who call themselves rabbis and ‘discover'” new aspects to the Torah that “are not based on Jewish law.”

“They are distorting the Torah,” Yosef charged. “They come and make all kinds of changes, in kashrut, in conversion, at the southern Western Wall plaza,” he said, referring to a contentious plan to establish an egalitarian prayer site adjacent to the iconic Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ahead of the march, organizers issued a statement declaring, “We call on you, Knesset members and the government, to strengthen the Jewish character of the State of Israel and strengthen the Chief Rabbinate, which is the foundation and essence of our holy state.

“We call on you to be among those acting to deepen Judaism and not, God forbid, to partner with those who would harm and blunt the Jewish character of the state,” they wrote.

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yitzhak Kelman)

Earlier this month, Kahana unveiled his proposed changes for the conversion system.

Currently, state-recognized conversions to Judaism are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. There are only several dozen rabbis and four conversion courts in the country that can legally perform conversions to Judaism.

Converts to Judaism who move to Israel but whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, as the rabbinate also controls marriages. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years, and Kahana’s plan would not change that.

The new proposal will enable rabbis in each town to carry out conversions under the auspices of a central system and steering committee that will define the rules for conversion and monitor their implementation, making the process uniform across the country but transferring sole power away from the Chief Rabbinate.

The first phase of reforms of the kosher certification system also took hold earlier in January.

Previously, the chief rabbinate and local religious councils had been the only bodies that can issue kosher certificates, which costs businesses about $2.2 million to $2.5 million a year.

New rules allow any restaurant, food store and factory to choose from among all religious councils nationwide to provide them with kashrut supervision, rather than only being able to use their local council.

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