Conversion Rebellion: Israeli Religious Zionists Challenge Chief Rabbinate

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tzohar-rabbanutby R. Gil Student

My article in last week’s Jewish Link of New Jersey

Recent news in Israel fails to shock Americans, even though it is rocking Israeli Religious Zionism to its core. A number of leading rabbis announced they would open a private conversion court. After years of trying to change the laws, attain the position of Chief Rabbi and negotiate with the Chief Rabbinate, Rav David Stav, Rav Nahum Rabinovitch and others have decided to proceed without the Chief Rabbinate. This has scandalized some of their colleagues, leading to public denouncements and confrontations. What is going on?

Ideology and Politics

Two simultaneous issues are being debated here, one ideological and the other halachic. For decades, the Chief Rabbinate has been summarily ignored by Charedi and secular Israelis, except reluctantly when required by law. The primary constituency of the Chief Rabbinate is the Religious Zionist community, which can roughly be broken into moderate (Dati Leumi) and stringent (Chardal) factions.

Recently, Charedim (appear to) have taken control of the Chief Rabbinate, including the positions of Chief Rabbi, religious judges and many bureaucratic positions. Their decisions largely do not reflect the religious sentiments of Religious Zionists. In turn, the Religious Zionist public is increasingly looking to its leading rabbis, rather than the Chief Rabbis, for spiritual and halachic guidance. In other words, the Chief Rabbinate has lost its main constituency. The cynical among us may claim this was a Charedi plot to destroy the Chief Rabbinate.

Currently, the Chief Rabbinate’s main role is kosher certification, conversion and marriage. Charedim have their own private kosher certifications, marriage registrars and conversion courts. Recently, Religious Zionists (Dati Leumi) have experimented with private kosher certification and non-Rabbinate weddings. Now, leading Dati Leumi rabbis have announced a private conversion court. Critics, particularly among leading Chardal rabbis, charge this initiative with significantly chipping away at the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. What will be left for the institution if Religious Zionists undermine its remaining authority with private initiatives?

While this is certainly a political argument, it is primarily ideological. Religious Zionists, particularly among the Chardal, see the Chief Rabbinate in messianic terms. We pray three times a day in the Amidah for the return of the centralized religious judicial system. The Chief Rabbinate is not the fulfillment of that prayer but its precursor. It represents a step in the flowering of the Redemption. Seen in those terms, undermining the Chief Rabbinate is forestalling Mashiach. The better strategy is to improve the Chief Rabbinate.

The rabbis instituting this change can counter that this, alone, will not undermine the Chief Rabbinate; the Rabbinate has already fallen, we just need to realize it; or that their well-publicized efforts to reform the Rabbinate from within have failed and this is their attempt to force reform from without. Alternatively, perhaps they reject the messianic view of the Chief Rabbinate and take a pragmatic approach. Maybe they believe that if the institution serves the entire Jewish people, it can do wonders. However, if it fails in its purpose then it should be replaced by other mechanisms to serve the public. Those are the political-ideological issues. There is an additional halachic element to the debate…

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. A very well written and balanced summary.

    A small factual point: The “Chief Rabbinate” gives very few hechsherim- most are done by local rabbinates which are part of the same system as it. The same is true of marriage.

    There has been a very limited attempt at a non-rabbinate hechsher by non-charedim in Jerusalem only (as far as I know); Jerusalem has many known issues with its kashrut system (as the new Chief Rabbi of the city has stated) which has led to this. (I believe there is a Reform and/or Conservative effort in Tel Aviv.)

    There is a tiny effort at non-rabbinate marriages here and there (as well, again, as non-Orthodox marriages, but those are ignored by the rabbinate). Mostly, the effort to reform marriage focuses on allowing couples to choose which local rabbinate they wish to use- Tzohar marriages are, in fact, marriages performed by the rabbinate of Shoham, R’ Stav’s city.

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