Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana announced this week that conversions to Judaism will be headed by Rabbi Benayahu Brunner, who is affiliated with Tzohar, a group of relatively liberal Orthodox rabbis, prompting outrage from Haredi lawmakers and religious leaders.
Tzohar is a religious-Zionist organization that aims to bridge the gaps between secular and religious Israelis by finding alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate on matters like Jewish weddings, prayer services and supervision of kosher food.
The appointment of Brunner came after Kahana terminated the tenure of the acting head of the Conversion Authority, Moshe Veller, who is a close associate of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Brunner currently serves as head of conversion in the rabbinical courts of Safed and Haifa, and is considered to be an important dayan, or religious judge, in the field of conversions.
In a statement, Kahana praised Brunner for his expertise in the area of conversion, as well as management skills.
“I am happy that Rabbi Brunner has accepted my request to serve as acting head of the new conversion system,” Kahana said. “The rabbi has been involved for most of his life in Torah and academic research in everything related to conversion… The rabbi also has rich experience in management and knows how to create positive interactions with those around him. I wish him much success.”
Kahana also thanked Veller for his service and “for his great contribution to conversion in Israel and for fulfilling his role for three and a half years.”
Kahana’s decision came despite a threat from Lau, the chief rabbi, that he would not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance a plan to ease the process and dilute the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it.
Lau’s authorization is currently required for all conversions in the country. Halting the process, as he has threatened, would impact two significant segments of the population — immigrants from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. Some members of these two groups require Orthodox conversion to be recognized as Jewish in Israel.
On Tuesday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni slammed the appointment of Brunner as akin to “placing an idol in the Temple.”
Kahana responded to Gafni on Wednesday morning, defending Brunner and saying he would not be bullied on the matter.
“Good morning, MK Gafni. Here’s a news flash: We stopped working for you. Look for other children to bully. Rabbi Benayahu Brunner is a dayan and an important Torah scholar,” Kahana tweeted, with a screenshot of Gafni’s statement.
“I received the recommendations for his appointment from the greatest rabbis of religious Zionism, including Rabbi [Chaim] Druckman and Rabbi [Yaaqov] Medan. You are the last person he needs letters of consent from,” Kahana said.
Tzohar, in a statement to Israel National News, welcomed the appointment and said that Brunner’s “great expertise in this area guarantees that conversions will be in good hands.”
The appointment was also defended by Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich, who said Brunner was “an important rabbinic judge and very worthy of the position.”
Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis, was reportedly set to hold a conversation with Lau on Wednesday to address a number of issues.
According to the Makor Rishon website, the conversation is set to cover not only the conversion and kashrut reforms planned by Kahana, but also the outcry surrounding Lau’s recent visit to the family of Chaim Walder, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox author of children’s books who was recently accused by dozens of young women and men of sexual abuse, during the shiva mourning period for Walder following his death by suicide last month.
The report said that some of the American rabbis were also hoping to speak directly with Kahana to discuss his plans for reforms.
Coalition lawmakers last week postponed a vote on legislation that would reform the Jewish conversion process, after determining they lacked sufficient support to advance the bill. The bill’s supporters hope they will be able to whip up enough votes over the next two weeks to advance the bill.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Kahana said he was engaged in “an ongoing dialogue” with Lau on the matter of conversion.
Converts to Judaism who move to Israel but whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, as the rabbinate controls marriages. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years.
Kahana was recently provided additional security due to threats he has received over his plans to reform issues of state and religion. At the beginning of the month, several prominent religious Zionist rabbis called for protests against Kahana’s reforms.