"The Chief Rabbinate’s policies have no precedent in Jewish law"
Our conversation with Rabbi Seth Farber, a courageous Orthodox rabbi who has taken on the Chief Rabbinate in myriad ways
According to a report issued this week by the Israeli Democracy Institute, by 2030, the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel will comprise 16% of the population. Add to that the likely continuing 20% who are Israeli Arabs, and we quickly see that more than a third of Israel’s population will be agnostic, at best, and more likely opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. How long is that sustainable?
And what about the impact of the ultra-Orthodox on the Jewish lives of the Jews who live here? The IDI report, coupled with fundamentalist changes being advocated by certain members of Israel’s new coalition have us once again turning to the question of what Judaism in the Jewish state looks like. In this week’s podcast, we hear from Rabbi Seth Farber, a historian and a social activist, and a courageous Orthodox rabbi who has taken on the Chief Rabbinate in myriad ways.
Raised in Riverdale, New York, ordained by Yeshiva University, today Rabbi Farber lives in Ra'anana with his wife and five children (three of whom are currently in the army). As the founder and director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Advocacy Center, Rabbi Farber is one of the most important people in Israel working to fashion a more inclusive religious establishment for Israeli Jews at all stages of their lives.
We discuss with Rabbi Farber the steps ITIM has taken to counter the Rabbinates repressive attitudes to conversion, how the Chief Rabbinate actually undermines both the Zionist narrative as well as the religious Zionist narrative, and why Rabbi Farber believes the Chief Rabbinate can no longer be called a Zionist institution.
Is there reason to be hopeful? Can these latest elections really spur a greater, wider conversation? Rabbi Farber shares his thoughts on all of this and more.
The link above will take you to a the full recording of our conversation; below is a transcript for those who prefer to read, available only to subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
I have the privilege of sitting today with Rabbi Seth Farber. Rabbi Farber is really one of the most important orthodox Halachic activists in Israel, trying to create a different kind of religious experience for people through all stages of life- conversion, marriage, burial, and so forth. He and his wife are the parents of five children, three of whom are now in the army, one of whom is in a mechina on their way to the army. They made Aliyah in ‘95, I believe it was. Rabbi Farber has a BA from NYU. He has rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and a PhD from Hebrew University in History but is really now mostly involved in the world of activism. He's also a congregational pulpit rabbi in the city of Ra’anana. He does a tremendous amount. He and his wife are a power couple. You may know that his wife, Michelle Farber, has what may very well be the largest Daf Yomi or daily studying of the Talmud program anywhere in the world. She does one a day in English, one a day in Hebrew. It's an incredible accomplishment. So, between the two of them, they are really shaking up the Jewish world in the best possible sense of that word. I wanted to meet with Rabbi Farber and talk to him now because Israel's under a dark cloud. There are people who are a little bit worried. There are people who are panicked. There are people in all different kinds of places. But the whole period in which the state of Israel finds itself now really raises the question of what's the direction of Judaism in the Jewish state? Are we looking at a world in which Judaism in the Jewish state is going to become a more radicalized version? Is there a possibility for some sort of moderated version of serious, committed, perhaps even Halachic Judaism for some in the Jewish state? So, we're going to come back to that issue. That's what I would call the huge elephant in the room. But we want to start really, by first of all thanking Rabbi Farber for taking the time to have this conversation.
And tell us a little bit about how your incredible history of activism began, how you founded ITIM in 2002, what it does, and then we'll get to the more specific things, specifically of conversion, and then even more specifically, where Israel finds itself Jewishly now.
Okay, so first of all, thanks so much for hosting me. I grew up in Riverdale, New York. I'm the child of immigrants from Europe, both of whom ran from the Nazis and really the youngest child of that generation and grew up in a religious Zionist household really under the influence of some interesting thinkers like Yitz Greenberg who our families were very close.
He also lived in Riverdale, right?
He also lived in Riverdale and all of his kids and us were best friends and continued to be best friends but not just in this particular personal view but in the context of a community that was very much oriented towards modern Orthodoxy, religious Zionism. Our family spent a lot of time here in Israel from the early seventies. And my parents were involved in the Federation movement in the States. Very involved in New York Federation. And I really grew up with this sense that we could accomplish a lot and that the Jewish people were at a transitional moment of which the state of Israel will play a very, very central role in the future of the Jewish people. And that this what Yitz used to call the new era of Jewish history didn't just involve the renewing of a covenant beginning with the shattering of it in the Holocaust, but also the building of a covenant that would begin with the creation of the state of Israel and its development through the Six Day War and through seminal moments in the history of the Jewish people. The 1973 Yom Kippur War and Entebbe and something that I was much more involved in personally, which was the Soviet Jewry movement. We were brought up thinking we could change the world and we should and in particular change the Jewish world. So, propelling myself forward I spent time getting, you know, my academic career, career going and stuff like that. But my real passion was forever the Jewish people. So, in 1995 I basically packed my bags from a pretty clear career path in America where I was on the rabbinic educational path having received my ordination from Yeshiva University and moved to Israel kind of to begin again. I went back to school here. But I was looking always for opportunities where I could do something for the Jewish people. And in the beginning of the 2000s there was a lot of discussion about what Jewish life was going to look like in Israel there were some initial studies that had come out from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Guten Center that talked about the disenfranchisement that Jewish Israelis felt towards Jewish life. And yet at the same time the real strong sense that people wanted to have a connection to Jewish tradition. And those catalyzed me to start thinking creatively about what I could do not just for Jews in Israel, but for Jews around the world that would make Jewish tradition something that wasn't a moment of disenfranchisement but rather a moment of connection and empowerment and annulment.
Starting in 2002, I put together a small team and put together some funding that began to think about this. And we began to do some surveys here in Israel. And slowly we began what has morphed into ITIM. We began an organization that basically would enable people to get information about Jewish life. Both people from overseas who wanted to experience Jewish life here in Israel, and Jewish Israelis.
What kind of information would they be getting?
So, Israel has a very interesting religious establishment. Unlike many Western countries here, there is definite connection between church and state, or synagogue and state, if you will. And people who want to get married or buried or divorced Jewishly have to do it through government institutions. So, people felt very much, you know, that getting married here was like getting a passport…
That rule that they have to go through the government, that’s an Ottoman rule originally.
Yes. It’s actually something we just celebrated a year and a half ago, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish law that forces you to get married here through the religious establishment.
Whether you're Jewish, Muslim, Christian, doesn’t matter.
Right. Jews can only marry Jews through the rabbinate, Muslims can only marry Muslims through the Sharia courts and Christians, etc. In other words, that's the way it works in this country. So, I say tongue in cheek because I don't mean to make light of this at all. Quite the opposite. This is one of the biggest concerns on my mind. But the intermarriage rate in Israel is zero because legally you cannot get intermarried in Israel, Jews can only marry Jews. But what it means to be a Jew in Israel, that's a whole different question. Because here the Turkish law, the Ottoman law that we inherited through the Brits and now is part of Israel that essentially empowers the rabbinate, which is fundamentally ultra-Orthodox, to determine who is a Jew that actually can get married in Israel. In 2004, I was part of a piece of legislation that enabled two people who aren't Jewish but aren't part of another religion to be able to get married here outside of all this religious system. But in the end, in order to prove that you're not Jewish, not Jewish enough to get married, you have to go to the rabbinic courts to prove that you're not Jewish, which is something that's not so easy to do. So, we began this idea of providing people with information. At that point, still, information was power. Today, information is, we're in the over information age, and it's hard to imagine that then there were no websites and there was no information, et cetera, and we began disseminating information about what does it take to get married here. We felt very strongly that people who had more information would feel empowered, they would feel connected, they would feel re-enfranchised. But slowly, over the first few years of the organization, we began to realize that we needed to change things here systemically, not just on the individual level. And because of that, we opened up a legal center in 2009, and that ended up sporting a whole different set of programs here at ITIM.
And so, before we get to those, if you want to just say what was the fundamental systemic change that you realized you had to make?
We had to make the religious establishment in Israel more respectful and more responsive to the Jewish needs of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the religious leadership in this country has grown up and developed in a vacuum with a very, very small window towards general Jewish life and the sensitivities they have to Jewish peoplehood and to the Jewish people and to their needs, their Jewish needs, the window they have is very small. Their sensitivity is very, very dull. And because of that, we're paying an enormous price in Israel today and in the Jewish world today for the myopism of the religious establishment in Israel. So, our goal was to transform that, to make Israel a society and the religious establishment a particular place that's respectful and responsive. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes people want to live Jewish lives in a way that the religious Halachic establishment and the religious establishment in Israel can't allow it. But to be respectful, to be responsive, to say no, but we still love you. No, but we still embrace you or embrace you first before we say no. That didn't exist here. And over the course of time, by both using the carrot and the stick, sometimes going to court, and we've gone to court. I think I was the first Orthodox rabbi to sue the chief rabbinate in the Israeli Supreme Court. And I'm not proud of it, but it has happened more than ten times at this point.
What kinds of things have you sued about?
We've sued about the way conversions are recognized in this country. We've sued about which rabbis in America can write letters of Jewishness that are satisfactory to the rabbinate. In that particular case, we sued just to say they should be transparent about it and tell us which rabbis are okay and which ones aren't. We might disagree with you, but before we even do that, we have to just know, have you blacklisted rabbis? And eventually they demonstrated that they actually held a blacklist of rabbis in America, who couldn't write letters, and we got them to change that…
Including Orthodox rabbis?
Yes. We've sued them about the way ritual mikvehs work in this country. You have to remember, in this country, this is not a shtetl anymore, mikvehs are run by the government. More than half a million women use the mikvehs every year in this country. There's a 300-million-shekel line item for mikvehs in this country. And because of that, if it's a public service, they should be run not like a shtetl, it should be run like, you know, a sovereign state. We've sued about proving Jewishness by virtue of using DNA testing. We don't think that's an appropriate way of proving your Jewishness by DNA testing. That's fine for another discussion, but not for today. On burial issues as well we've sued the state. But again, the reason I don't like lawsuits, even though we have a very robust legal department here, probably bigger than any other nonprofit that works in this space, we don't like it because it's very binary. And we don't think that the way, in the end, Jewish life should be determined, should be by the court saying yes or the court saying no. These are issues that determine what Jewish life is going to look like for the next thousand years, hopefully, notwithstanding what you recently wrote about 75 years, Danny. But notwithstanding that, I believe this country, you know, the way I like to say it, maybe there's a takeaway from our whole discussion for today, Danny, a lot of people say that Israel is about to become 75 years old, but the way I look at it is Israel 75 years young. And we're just beginning a discussion, a serious discussion about what Jewish life is going to look like in this country, or what Jewish life is going to look like for the Jewish people both here and in the Diaspora. I'm not a diaspora denier. I believe that Judaism will last overseas for many, many years. It will way outlast me. And because of that, I think we're now beginning to address some of the real fundamental issues about what Jewish life and the way we want Jewish life to look like for the coming millennium. Because of that, some of the issues that ITIM is dealing with are really front and center on that discussion.
So, I was going to come back to this towards the end of the conversation, but let's just pick it up a little bit now because you mentioned that you say we're beginning to have a conversation about what Judaism should look like in the Jewish state. Who's the “we”? You're having the conversation. Your 20 something colleagues at ITIM are having the conversation? My friends and colleagues and I are having the conversation. Is the state of Israel engaged in a conversation about what Judaism and the Jewish state should look like?
I'd like to talk about the three denominations in Judaism. The three denominations are not Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. The three denominations are the people who are stuck in the past, and they don't think anything's changed with the creation of Israel. They're people who are stuck in the future. All they care about is what's going to happen, and they don't want to kind of deny anything that happened in the last 2000 years. For many of them, the last 2000 years is kind of just a bump, you know, a blip in the in the history of the Jewish people. And let's pick up where we were 2000 years ago, where we have a commonwealth and then there's a third group that says Judaism that I think, by the way, Rabbi Kook, who was actually the head of this, who talked about the evolving sense of morality within the Jewish people and the world. I think that this third denomination is the one that they're not ambivalent or ignorant, they're people who want to build the future based on the past. And I think that conversation doesn't happen in all circles, but I think it's happening. I think it's happening in small circles and I think it's an ever widening circle and actually the fundamentalism that has reared its ugly head, in my humble opinion, in this election cycle, I think that only illustrates that there's something percolating under the surface that people are interested in and people are talking about. So sometimes you see it in its positive manifestations and again, because it's a conversation or a dialogue, sometimes you see it in its negative manifestations. But I think that actually indicates that something's going on here about the way Jewish life is going to work itself out.
Is that happening in secular Ashkenazi Tel Aviv?
So, it's begun happening. The fact that we can talk and just have roll off our tongue, the fact that there's a number of secular yeshivas and we take that for granted, where 20 years ago, if you had said the word secular yeshiva, people say what are you talking about? That indicates that something's going on. These are processes, in my view, not things that happen in one moment.
Or Yom Kippur davening outside in a park where there's people from all walks of life.
Exactly. In Dizengoff Center there's Yom Kippur services, there's a Kabbalat Shabbat on the beaches of Tel Aviv, which isn't Orthodox, even though there’s also an Orthodox one. That means that something's going on here that's bigger than what's going to take place in the coming weeks or months or even years of this particular government. So, there's something going on here and I think people care about it deeply. Israel is a country where Jews deeply care about their Jewishness. I meet this all the time. Yesterday I sat on a rabbinical court as a judge, and we converted five children of Israelis. And these families, the parents wouldn't call themselves Orthodox by any means.
These are probably people from the former Soviet Union?
Yes. So, in this particular case we were dealing with cases of surrogacy. At least two of the three families were not former Soviet Union immigrants, but these are people who grew up in Israel. They have very strong Jewish identities. And when you ask them, why is it important for your children to convert Orthodox if you're not practicing Orthodox, you're not fully practicing Orthodox, and you get answers like, “this is not going to end with me. It is just not this means way too much for me. It's true, I might go to work on Shabbat every once in a while, or it's true I might watch a game on Shabbat, but this is not going to end with me”. My kids, in this case, surrogacy kids, right, so who aren't Holocaust Jewish yet, and they say, you know, “damn it, this is they're going to be they're going to be Jewish no matter what happens”, and we'll talk more about it, how that happens. But I get this sense from people who are not observant or Orthodox or wouldn't call themselves Orthodox. And again, that has a very fluid definition today, right? Those definitions are simply not relevant anymore. One family yesterday said to me, we're not Orthodox. Yes, I put on tefillin every day. Yes, on Friday night, we like candles, we make kiddush, and we try not to travel on Shabbat, but Orthodox I'm not. The fact that someone can say that indicates that there's something going on here, that Orthodoxy has gotten a bad rep. I was an Orthodox rabbi and I say that. But it's not just that. I understand why Orthodox has gotten a bad rep, but there's a conversation going on here, but it's underneath the surface right now. It needs to be cultivated, and that's one of the things we're doing at ITIM.
So, you're an optimist about the Jewish conversation in the Jewish state?
Look there is reason to be pessimistic, but I don't think we need to be fatalistic, and I think there's a lot of reasons to look positively and to understand that these are growing pains.
Is it possible that the results of this election and the people, that I mean, you and I are having this conversation as the government is about to become a government, is it possible that the results of this election will spur greater conversation among the people who are not in that group and say, we really want to take this conversation back ourselves?
Look, I'm hopeful that that will happen, and some of the programs we're developing at ITIM now are trying to stimulate that conversation in one way or another. One of the things I always say about ITIM is that if we're not successful in our bigger goal, it's going to be because we weren't able to mobilize the so called secular of Israel, which I don't really think exists, but the 70% of Jewish Israelis who don't identify as Orthodox but also don't identify as anti-Orthodox, right? They just identify as Jews. If we're not able to mobilize them. I'm hoping that in some twisted way this will actually be a call to action for them. And again, some of the programs we're doing are trying to mobilize them now to speak up, to take greater responsibility and ownership. Not only responsibility for their Judaism, but ownership of their Judaism.
So, we’ll come back to the giyur Halacha (conversion) in a second, but what are some of these programs that you're doing to mobilize the typical, again, will be sort of unfair, but the typical Ashkenazi Tel Aviv quote unquote, secular Jew. What are the team doing to get them to join the fray?
So, first of all, we're very anxious if they encounter challenges in the religious establishment, they should report on them. We're putting out a call basically for people to reach out. We have a call center here that gets about 4000 calls a year here at ITIM from people who are stuck in the religious establishment. We want to increase that. We want to know more. We want people to come along and say they didn't let me get buried, get married, get divorced, get converted. We want to know why, and we want to expose that because we really feel like the best if I can quote someone who I'm sure you've quoted in the past also the best disinfectant is really sunlight. And I think that's one of the things we're trying to do. We're trying to call people to put a spotlight on areas where the religious establishment is defective or destructive even. And we want to put a spotlight on that. So, we're putting out a call in all sorts of creative, you know, PR ways for people to start taking responsibility. If someone says no to you, and they shouldn't be saying no to you, we want to know about it, we want to publicize it, we want to put a spotlight on it and we want to change.
Just before we began this conversation, I got a call from the head of the largest religious council in Israel, right? He's calling me because he just got a letter from one of our lawyers calling him to task about something. And he's calling me personally because obviously it's shaken him up seriously, in other words when he gets a letter from one of our ITIM lawyers, he knows we mean business. And he's calling to kind of like take me down a little and explain to me why they're doing what it is that they're doing. But that's the kind of thing we want to see more of. We want people, not just the professionals, but the average, the rank and file, they need to take greater responsibility. Look, they did it about cottage cheese in the 2010. They should be doing it about Jewish life now. So, we need to mobilize that.
So, we want to have the same cottage cheese revolution, the same housing price revolution which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis out into the streets to now have a conversation about Judaism, democracy, Western values, the values of the individual, rule of law and all of that.
I don't know if we'll bring them out to the streets. I think it's hard to do. When you ask and every study shows this when you ask people what they care about the most, more than housing prices, more than the price of cottage cheese and the cost of living, they care about the Jewish identity of the Jewish state. Again, immediately, they don't necessarily care about that. When you ask them, when you drill down, that's their value. That's what we're doing here. That's what we hear about. So that's our story.
So, let's get to one particular part of the story. ITIM does a lot of different kinds of things, but one of the issues of Jewish life that is most in the press, and I think that is of most interest and perhaps concern especially to the English-speaking world, some of whom are in Israel, but many of whom are abroad, is the whole issue of conversion. And so, tell us a little bit about what ITIM does about conversion and how it's trying to create a different process and experience for conversion from what happens typically in the rabbinate and what's problematic about the rabbinate experience.
So, conversion in Israel is fundamentally different than conversion overseas, and that's for one reason, because people here who convert, who convert again in a government authority for the most part, are here as citizens already. They're already Jews. They see themselves as Jewish. They made Aliyah as Jews, and they get here, and they find out, oh, you're not Jewish enough for the rabbinate. That can be because of a gap between the law of return that enables anybody to come on Aliyah with one Jewish grandparent, and it can be because they haven't to the satisfaction of the rabbinate prove their Jewishness, which you have to do before you come and get married. But they're fundamentally living here in a Jewish milieu. Right? Remember, the day of rest here is Shabbat, right? 90 plus percent of Jewish Israelis say it's important, or very important for them to have a seder, a little less than that light Hanukkah conquered candles. 100% of kids in this country dress up on Purim, right? You can't not dress up on Purim because that's what they do in the public school. Everybody does that, right?
Right and 100% of Jewish kids in this country have some Jewish content in their school.
Right. Everyone does. Exactly. There's bar and bat mitzvah programs in every public school in this country, every Jewish public school.
And they all learn a little bit Bible.
Right. How much, you know, would they be able to, you know, pass the Bible exam? I don't know. But they're exposed and they're involved, and the language is a language of, you know, of tradition. So that means that the dangers are different, right? The dangers of marrying out are very, very different than the dangers in the states, and that creates a whole different milieu. In particular, from a demographic perspective in this country, we're talking about a little under 500,000 people who made Aliyah as Jews but aren't recognized. They're listed in the population registry as no religion because they made Aliyah because their dad or one of their grandparents is Jewish, but not their mom. And for that reason, the rabbinate won't recognize their Jewishness. This is a demographic problem. My son, you mentioned my children before. So, one of my sons is a commander, an officer in a fighting unit in this country. He has 30 soldiers under his command. And statistically speaking, two or three of them are not Halachically Jewish. Right? Practically speaking, it's two, but it could be between two and three that aren't Halachically Jewish. These guys are fighting. They're risking their lives every day for the Jewish state. And yet, if they come to get married, they're being told, hey, you're not Jewish enough.
Now, over the course of time, we've played different roles. When we founded ITIM, so I wrote a manual about how to convert. We published it together with Tzipi Livni, who was then the Minister of Immigration and Absorption. I should just say as background, the army has a conversion program to help some of these soldiers through. But soldiers starting in 2009- 2010 started calling ITIM and saying, we went through the conversion program, which was signed off by the chief rabbi of Israel. But local rabbinates weren't willing to get marry these couples anyway, even though they had converted with the signature of the chief rabbi. And we actually sued the rabbinate. This sounds like a little strange on behalf of Maxim and Alina Surdikov. They made Aliyah in 1993. They went to public school number three in Ashkelon. There were a couple by the time they were 16. When they got to the army, Alina realized that she knew before, but she found out that she was never going to be able to get married because her mom isn't Jewish. Alina went through the army conversion program. She adopted a traditional lifestyle. They fought in the Second Lebanon War… Maxim and Alina and I went on television at their wedding, Channel 2 interviewed us, and Maxim said, when they dropped me on the other side of the Litani River in Lebanon, he said, no one questioned my girlfriend's conversion, but when we came to get married in Ashkelon, we were told no, we can’t get married because the local rabbi didn't accept their conversion. And we actually sued on behalf of Maxim and Alina and another 39 converts who had converted in the army we sued the rabbinate to recognize the rabbis’ own conversions. Only Kafka could make that up, right? You sue someone to recognize their own conversions and eventually we won. Over the course of time, though, we realized that the way the army was converting and the way in fact the civil authority was converting was not doing the job. They were converting 1000, maybe 2000 people a year when, forget about natural growth, immigration growth was much more than that at the time. In 2011 it was 200,000 people in this country, now it's 500,000 people in this country. And we realized we had to do something, and we tried to change the law and that had its own political machinations. In 2015, I met with very, very prominent leader of the religious Zionist community, certainly no one would question his liberal tendencies by any means and using some of his Halachic writings I pitched him on the idea of basically creating a rabbinical court that would not work with the rabbinate but compete with them. The idea was like many things in this country, if you create facts on the ground then sometimes people give you more notice. And after a number of efforts to change the law, he, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch of blessed memory, ultimately said, he agreed to take this on himself. And we sat on a rabbinical court in the end of 2015 where he said it was very important for him to be the first one to convert, to perform the conversions. And since then, that was the launching of the team program “Giyur Halacha”, which means conversion according to Halacha. It’s an Orthodox program. We now have 70 Orthodox rabbis supporting it, including rabbis who are members of the rabbinate, like myself, I'm a member of the Israeli rabbinate and I have a license to perform weddings. Except for one time when we sued the rabbinate, and they took away my license I've been able to perform weddings for the last 20 years or so. But we use city rabbis who are employed by the state, including municipal rabbis, to perform these conversions so no one can question their Orthodox monopolies of the rabbis who perform these conversions. But the rabbinate doesn't accept our conversions. They have their own myopic view of what conversion should be, it's only there 30 rabbis who can perform conversions and no one else. In the last five years or so we've taken on as I mentioned before I sit on these rabbinical courts as well, we’ve taken on particularly the issue of conversion of children and ITIM has sued the state of Israel to recognize our conversions. And today the courts have recognized as of today, the courts have recognized our conversions as well, meaning I say this somewhat tongue in cheek, but I'll say it on the record, which is that there's probably five or six people in the world who can determine who is a Jew in Israel. And the Supreme Court of Israel said that Seth Farber is one of them. Which I say with a lot of humility and as a joke, but it's true. But I don't say it because I'm proud of it. I'm saying it because we shouldn't be doing this. It shouldn't be like this. The chief rabbi once said to me, he said, don't you think it's absurd that you can decide who is a Jew in the state of Israel? You have a startup, and you can decide who's a Jew. And what I really wanted to say was if you were doing your job right, then I wouldn't be doing this. And the truth is, ultimately our goal is to create facts on the ground so that the religious establishments in Israel will adopt our system, our method. Today, after five years, we're doing something like 20% of all the conversions in Israel.
And when you say your method, how is your method of conversion different from the chief rabbi's method?
So, there's three differentiating factors. One is a judgment call. I think we're more user friendly. I think we run kind of a more personalized system. Every person who turns to us and we've had more than 20,000 people turn to us. We haven't converted them all. We've converted a few thousand. But every person gets assigned a professional who is with them throughout the entire process. They get a phone number, and that person is with them from the moment they call, their initial meetings, their coursework…and ultimately at the beit hadin (courthouse). So that's one differentiating factor. The second differentiating factor is a very nuanced Orthodox area, and that is the issue of what does it mean to accept mitzvot? We insist on the kabbalat mitzvot as part of the conversion process. That means accepting upon oneself the yoke of the commandments. But the level of detail that we drill down to is much more in line with what traditional sources say you're supposed to do. In the famous Talmudic passage about Hillel and Shamai, it talks about letting the person know some of the commandments and making sure that they're very committed to Jewish destiny and the Jewish future. So, they are required to study, and they are required to understand and observe the commandments. But we don't drill down. When you talk about some of the deficiencies of the rabbinate, we get reports here all the time at ITIM of people who were asked questions, absurd questions. I can give you examples. Are you allowed to use the water that comes out of an air conditioner if it comes out on Shabbat, are you allowed to drink that water on Shabbat, right? That's an absurd question that very few Halachic scholars would know the answer answered too. It relates to questions of things that are created on Shabbat. It may relate to the question of how you can create ice on Shabbat. Again, I won't go to the Halachic nuance but it's not something we would expect the convert to know. Those are not the kind of questions or what's the bracha (blessing) for strawberries? We don't ask that kind of question. Or what's the bracha for sugar? That's a particular question that's close to my heart because I should play this card on this podcast, I come from a very prominent rabbinic family. I don't know if you know this, but my grandfather was named Moshe. He was named after his great grandfather. Moshe Sofer who was kind of the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Chatam Sofer in our family tradition, the Chatam Sofer never ate sugar because he didn't know what the bracha to say on sugar was. So that's the kind of question you get in a state rabbinic court. You won't get that kind of question in our courts. The third differentiating factor, which is I think the main one is our attitude towards the conversion of children. The halachkics of it are very, very interesting but essentially children under Bar and Bat Mitzvah do not need to accept upon themselves the commandments in order to convert. That basically is the responsibility of the rabbinical court itself to determine that this is in the best interest of the child. So, when a family comes to us primarily the standard case would be an immigrant family where the dad is Jewish, the mom is not Halachically Jewish even though she has a very strong Jewish identity. They came in from all over, the former Soviet Union or more and more from the States or from South America or even from France and they say we weren't able to get married in the Rabbinate. Or maybe we tried to convert in the rabbinate, but it didn't work for us for whatever reason because they asked us questions about the blessing for sugar. So instead, we gave up. We got married in Cyprus and now we're coming to you because we have two or three children, and we want to convert those children and they're a very traditional family. They make kiddush on Friday night, they light candles, they have a Shabbat meal. All the holidays are holidays and we're able to convert the children even if the mom has a question hanging over her about her Judaism. We're willing to, we want to we want to encourage this family for the future of the state of Israel.
And the Chief Rabbinate won't convert them?
The Chief Rabbinate has a policy that they will not convert children unless the child is in a religious school. Unless the family is 100% observant and that both parents are Halachically married. And that has no precedent…
Which would also, by the way, rule out homosexual families.
Yeah, that also rules out automatically homosexual families. What's important for me to say is the rabbinate’s policies has no precedent, not in normative Halacha, and also not in Halacha that was practiced even here in the state of Israel up to 30 years ago. You know, you look at the former chief rabbis, Rabbi Unterman, or Rabbi Goren…None of them have these policies. And you go back a generation before Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, right? Who was writing a poem, he made it very, very clear that he accepted conversions that were taking place in Europe even though the families were not 100% observed. And certainly, certainly Rabbi Moshe Feinstein about children who were not coming from observing families, all this was normative until the last 15-20 years.
What changed? People are listening to this, and they're now understanding, okay, so you have a conversion process that is more or less parallel to the chief rabbinate’s process. It's completely Halachic. It's what people outside would call an Orthodox Halachic conversion process. It's much more user friendly. It allows for greater flexibility within the parameters of Halachha. And you're saying that there were lots of Israeli rabbis and maybe the Israeli norm until a couple of decades ago in which this would not have been so unusual. Now people have got to be asking themselves, what changed? How did it come to be that the chief rabbinate ended up being ultra-Orthodox, which, if you want to put a bit of an edge on it, the chief rabbinate might therefore not be Zionist. The children of the chief rabbis typically don't go to the army. So, you have a kind of a crazy world here in which the very best of the Zionist religious Zionist movement is now not reflected in the world of the rabbinate of the Jewish state. How did this change?
So, first, I want to make comments about whether they're Zionist or not. By virtue of the fact that they're not willing to address the conversion issue frontally, in my humble opinion, that makes them not Zionist, because I think conversion in this country today, and conversion, by the way, overseas as well, given the huge intermarriage rate, I think that's a Zionist project. I think you are failing the Zionist dream if you don't address where the Jewish people are at today. So, by definition, they're not Zionist. Whether they wear a black hat or a crochet kippah or sing Hatikvah on Yom Haatzmaut, I don't think they're part of a Zionist project at all. I think our conversion court is fundamentally a Zionist project as much as it is a religious project. What happened is a combination of a few factors. The first one is that the religious Zionist community chose to some extent to abandon their commitment to Jewish life and religious institutions in Israel. And here I'm going to use a political phrase that I don't like using so much, but they put their eggs in the basket of what is generally called I don't like this phrase, the settler movement.
You’re talking about the Gush Emunim period, right?
Right. The Gush Emunim period basically represents a watershed moment for the religious Zionists abandoning the chief rabbinate and saying this isn't so important to us, or as important as the Greater Israel is. And I'm not trying to deny yes, no greater Israel, I'm just saying that that was one factor.
And so, nature abhors a vacuum…
Exactly. The second thing was that the ultra-Orthodox, beginning in 1988, began to realize that they could wield significant power, and this was a natural place for them to begin. Right. They expanded way beyond that. And you can see in the, in the constellation of today's government where the ultra-Orthodox are very interested in, you know, the Ministry of Interior and certainly, you know, part of the government committees that relate to finances, et cetera. But correct. They filled a vacuum in that area. So, I think it was both an abandonment of, you know, where the religious Zionist community was, the previous leadership, previous generation of leadership of Yosef Burg, et cetera, those people who were very, very committed to having the religious dimensions of the state of Israel reflect part of the Zionist narrative. What I described before, the people who want to build the future based on the past, to people who just want to live in the past. So, they simply deny. And again, the past they're living in is not I think it's actually a made-up past. It's not a real past. And they say we're keeping conversion standards as they were for 2000 years. That's just a lie. It's just an outright lie. And what's worse is they know it. They know it that they're lying. They know that it's not okay. And by the way, I'm building on that. I'm building on the fact that they know ultimately, it's a lie. And I'll give you an example of it. The Chief Rabbis have both gone on record. They attack us all the time publicly, our conversion program, these people aren't Jewish, et cetera. So, I once said to one of the chief rabbi, I said, tell me something, if one of our converts from ITIM were to walk into your house on a Friday night and flip on the light, would you stay in the room? Or would you walk out of the room? Because Halachically speaking, you can't stay in the room. If a Jew flips on the light for you, you can't stay in the room. So, I sort of gave him pause obviously they recognize our converts are Jewish. So, when they get up and say publicly or in their Saturday night sermons they get up and say these people are all whatever and they used all sorts of evil words about us. I understand that we're a thorn in their side because they know we're doing something Halachic, and they know we're doing something that's totally legitimate and we're it not for political concerns they would be with us or they should be with us. So ultimately our long-term strategy in terms of ITIM and the conversion is to create facts on the ground such that it will be simply impossible. Look, whether it's 5000 converts or 10,000 converts or 20,000 converts, I can't say yet. And again, we'll need the political constellation to be in place. But I think there'll be opportunities in the future. And because of that I'm optimistic and we're going to continue, we're going to enhance and deepen our programming. Now some people are saying well what can we do now? They're throwing up their hands. I'm quite the opposite. We need to double down on what we're doing because we believe in it. We know it's the right thing to do and we know ultimately for the Zionist project and for the Jewish people project, our language and our approach is the way that has the best chance of not just survival, but growth and you know, augmenting who we are as a people.
So, you said before that you think of Israel as being 75 years young. So, let's prognosticate. 75 years from now probably neither of us are going to be around to check out whether you're right or wrong. So, it's pretty safe. But let's say we're halfway there. What is the vision that Rabbi Seth Farber and his colleagues and partners at ITIM but even beyond, the religious world that you represent, what would you like to see religion in the Jewish state look like when Israel celebrates 150 years?
So first I'll tell you as an aside. I sit on a committee that just finished two years of work at the Ministry of Religious Affairs to discuss what burial will look like starting in 2060. In other words, Israel has to do all sorts of long-term planning and we at ITIM represented the public on this committee at a certain point as they were kind of getting into the final rubric, I asked that someone else from my office who's in his 30s sit on the committee. I said by the time the committee's recommendations come into practice I'm going to be a client and I don't need to be there anymore. Look, I think part of it is about choice. I think what we've learned in the rest of the world is that monopolies are bad, and the choice ends up breeding goodness. And it weeds out corruption and it weeds out disenfranchisement. So, I'd love to see a state of Israel, particularly regarding the Jewish people, that offers people opportunities, not forces them to do something. If we could transpose coercion into choice, into opportunity, I think that would be kind of a big rubric. So, Israel at 150, even at 100, I'd like to believe and maybe you think I'm being too optimistic, provides people with channels so that they can experience Jewish life in their different ways. I'd like these to be Halachic channels, but I understand that not everybody's going to want to choose the Halachic way or that Halachic doesn't have a solution for everybody. And if some of those are non- Halachic as well, I think that's a possibility. But I believe that Halachha has many more opportunities that are being explored right now. So, I'd like to see those opportunities being provided for people, and people having opportunities to live Jewish life the way they want. I have this great dream that all conversion around the world will take place in Israel. I have a dream that Jews would choose to get married in Israel because they would want, even if they're not living here, they would want the state of Israel to be part of these grand moments in their Jewish lives. So, I think communication and transportation and mobility, are all going to play a role in this. But I think in the end, we need to set things up here so that people have those opportunities, that they don't feel limited by the Jewish choices in Israel, but quite the opposite, they feel empowered by them.
That is empowering. It's inspiring. It's actually an era like this, an incredibly I don't know, it gives new oxygen in the room for those of us who think about the Jewish state. So, for all the work that you actually do day to day in the trenches in ITIM, and no less importantly, for the vision of what Jewish life here can be, and for your optimism and belief that we can make it happen, thank you for your time and thank you for all that you do.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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