The Orthodox Case for Changing the Way the Israeli Rabbinate Handles Conversions

April 11 2022

Last week, a group of prominent American Orthodox rabbis wrote an open letter to Matan Kahana, Israel’s minister of religious affairs, criticizing his plan to reform the chief rabbinate’s policies toward conversions to Judaism. His proposal would devolve more authority from the offices of the chief rabbis to local religious courts. David Brofsky, himself an Orthodox rabbi, responds in defense of Kahana’s plan:

[In Israel], there are thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are children or grandchildren of Jews who, due to religious persecution, abandoned their Judaism. . . . Many [of these children and grandchildren, despite not being Jewish by dint of having a non-Jewish mother or grandmother], were raised and educated as Jews, identify as Jews, and many even observe the mitzvot so common among traditional Israeli Jews, including kashrut, Shabbat, and the festivals. The . . .  challenge is how to encourage and enable these Israelis, and their children, to return to their Judaism, which was taken from them only a few generations ago.

Instead of fighting those who wish to bring them closer to religious observance, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the rabbinate calling for Jewish families throughout Israel to host potential converts for the seder this year? Or to organize public shofar blowings and megillah readings in major cities for this population? In fact, what if the rabbinate would invest in supporting those who converted in their own courts?

Likewise, Brofsky is skeptical of his interlocutors’ case that the reforms would undermine the uniform “standards” and “transparency” that they identify in the current system:

Those familiar with the various conversion courts are well aware that each court, and each judge, maintains its own standards for accepting converts. Furthermore, historically, different courts, different judges, and different chief rabbis, held different opinions regarding this issue. While the chief rabbis do have a limited ability to affect policy, . . . there is currently no transparency and there are no set standards regarding the acceptance or rejection of a convert.

Furthermore, the claim [of the letters’ authors that Israel’s current system’s merit lies in its] transparency and set standards is not only incorrect, but also halakhically questionable. The Torah entrusts the judges with the authority to determine when to accept a convert, “based upon the assessment of the judge,” [in the words of the 16th-century sage Joseph Caro, whose code became the basis of all subsequent halakhic jurisprudence]. This is true in all areas of halakhah. Checklists and “standards” are for driving licenses and kashrut organizations, not for religious courts, which rule in accordance with the halakhah.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Conversion, Halakhah, Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Orthodoxy

Will Costco Go to Israel?

Social-media users have mocked this week new Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich for a poorly translated letter. But far more interesting than the finance minister’s use of Google Translate (or some such technology) is what the letter reveals about the Jewish state. In it, Smotrich asks none other than Costco to consider opening stores in Israel.

Why?

Israel, reports Sharon Wrobel, has one of the highest costs of living of any country in the 38-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This

has been generally attributed to a lack of competition among local importers and manufacturers. The top three local supermarket chains account for over half of the food retail market, limiting competition and putting upward pressure on prices. Meanwhile, import tariffs, value-added tax costs and kosher restrictions have been keeping out international retail chains.

Is the move likely to happen?

“We do see a recent trend of international retailers entering the Israeli market as some barriers to food imports from abroad have been eased,” Chen Herzog, chief economist at BDO Israel accounting firm, told The Times of Israel. “The purchasing power and technology used by big global retailers for logistics and in the area of online sales where Israel has been lagging behind could lead to a potential shift in the market and more competitive prices.”

Still, the same economist noted that in Israel “the cost of real estate and other costs such as the VAT on fruit and vegetables means that big retailers such as Costco may not be able to offer the same competitive prices than in other places.”

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Costco, Israel & Zionism