Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, asserted this week that religious court judges in Israel will look favorably on potential converts.His comments, in an exclusive interview here with The Jewish Week, would seem to bolster proponents of the Neeman Commission, which sought to resolve a religious conflict on conversions by calling for multi-denominational preparatory institutes, culminating in conversions performed according to halacha, or Jewish law.An open question, even as the government plans to launch the institutes this spring, is whether the chief rabbinate will appoint lenient or stringent judges to decide the religious fate of potential converts who complete the proposed course.“Only Bet Hillel,”Rabbi Lau stressed in response to whether the judges will follow the path of Bet Hillel, the moderate Talmudic school, as opposed to the more stringent Bet Shammai.“We will approach each candidate with a smiling face,” he said.But he also emphasized that non-Orthodox branches of Judaism foster rather than stem assimilation worldwide and “we want to prevent this” in Israel.The chief rabbi’s comments during the interview — at times conciliatory, at times resolute — do little to resolve the confusion over the chief rabbinate’s role in the ongoing religious identity debate in Israel.Since attacking the Conservative and Reform movements as fraudulent in a statement on conversions two months ago, the chief rabbinate has been the focus of controversy as to whether its support is required for the proposed conversion institute to succeed.Government officials, who are going ahead with plans to open the first of several institutes under the aegis of the Jewish Agency, maintain that the chief rabbinate’s approval is not required. But several key Reform and Conservative leaders insist that the institutes are worthless without the cooperation of the chief rabbinate.Rabbi Lau said that Israeli Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman, who chaired the conversion committee, sought and secured agreement from the chief rabbinate to create new religious courts and make sure that all conversions conform to halacha. It is widely believed that, in the end, Neeman backed down from asking the chief rabbinate’s approval of the conversion institutes because it was clear that they would not do so.
The conversion issue is particularly important in Israel now because, as a result of the large emigration from the former Soviet Union, there are an estimated 200,000 Russians living in Israel who are not Jewish by any standards.“We won’t put obstacles in their path, because we know the tragedy,” Rabbi Lau said, referring to the delicate status of these Russians who, though not Jewish, wish to integrate more fully into Israeli society.“But the conversions must be according to halacha,” he emphasized.Rabbi Lau sees the conversion issue as overblown and premature, though, because he said that less than 1 percent of the non-Jewish Russians have sought to convert. “They are not interested in religion,” he said, adding that there is no financial incentive for the Russians to convert because they already receive financial assistance as citizens of Israel.“We are not seeing olim [emigrants] who want to convert,” the rabbi said. “If there is a need, we are ready for them, but now there is nothing for our new dayanim [religious court judges] to do.”Rabbi Lau said that in addition to 101 veteran court judges, another 70 “young scholars” have passed the rigorous requirements. He characterized them as highly qualified in terms of Judaic knowledge, faith and compassion.Critics of the chief rabbinate’s position argue that without an alternative to Orthodox conversion, most Russians will continue to feel that it is too difficult to become Jewish.Rabbi Lau said the call for recognition in Israel by the non-Orthodox movements has no bearing on the problem of the religious status of the Russian Israelis. “Recognition will not solve the problem of intermarriage or of non-Jews who came on aliyah,” he said.“We don’t want to import American-style assimilation to Israel,” the rabbi stressed.
“We want to prevent it.”He said that since halacha must be maintained as the only way to guarantee Jewish unity, it is in the best interests of those who seek conversion to do so according to Orthodox standards. “If you really care about the olim,” he said, referring to the Russians, “show them the way that everyone can accept.”In private conversations in recent weeks, Rabbi Lau has been more dismissive about the non-Orthodox movements, according to several people who have spoken with him. In speaking to Orthodox groups, he has also sought to counter the notion, advanced by several government officials, that the chief rabbinate would abide by the Neeman proposals, perhaps through benign neglect.Speaking to members of an Am Echad mission made up of American Orthodox Jews visiting Israel in January, he said of the non-Orthodox denominations: “You cannot take the Torah selectively, what is comfortable for you, and make whatever you understand because it’s more convenient for you. If you don’t accept Torah Sheb’al Peh [the oral tradition] … how can you demand us, the Jewish people, to accept you as rabbis? As spiritual leaders?
As religious figures? How can it be?”And a National Council of Young Israel press release summarizing a recent meeting between Rabbi Lau and leaders of the organization said he “specifically sought to dispel the impression” that the chief rabbinate “would go along” with the Neeman proposal to create joint conversion institutes.Rabbi Lau was in New York for several days to promote an autobiography written by his older brother, Naftali Lau-Lavie, the former Israeli consul general in New York.