The Campaign to Destroy Giyur
So many things have happened in one week that it has been very difficult for me to decide what to write about, or even where to begin. But with all due respect to the coronavirus, the submarine scandal, and Prime Minister Bennett, I would like to begin this week’s column with a different topic: the new Conversion Law. This “reform” of the giyur system actually spells the destruction of the Chief Rabbinate’s control over giyur and thus represents a major breach in the bulwarks of Yiddishkeit. The new bill is nothing less than an attack on the barriers that are meant to prevent non-Jews from passing themselves off as Jews.
Who would be interested in breaking down those barriers? Well, first of all there is Yvette Lieberman, the political representative of the Russian immigrant population, which likely numbers more than a million citizens. Some of those immigrants are full-fledged Gentiles who are registered as Jews on account of a Jewish father or grandfather. These people are not Jewish but are regarded by the state as Jews. There are also some people among them with no Jewish blood at all, who make no effort to conceal the fact that they are not Jewish. Some of those people wish to convert to Judaism, and Lieberman insists that they must be provided with a “friendly” giyur process.
But Lieberman and his allies—including the Reform movement and certain progressive rabbonim in Israel—have a problem: The Chief Rabbinate (along with the rabbonim of the IDF) has exclusive jurisdiction over conversion in Israel, and the Rabbinate’s approach is too stringent for this crowd’s tastes. There are constant calls for the standards for giyur to be lowered. In order to make that happen, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Matan Kahana, has introduced a new law that would break the Chief Rabbinate’s control over giyur, allowing every city rov to perform conversions.
Why is Matan Kahana promoting such a destructive agenda? Why is he willing to betray the principles of his religion? For one thing, Kahana himself isn’t exactly religious; he is what the Israelis call “dati lite.” In addition, he works hand in hand with a group of rabbis who are strong believers in reaching compromises with the more liberal movements. Since he has their backing, Kahana is sympathetic to their attitudes. Finally, he also has a strong interest in ingratiating himself with Lieberman, who would be very happy to see the giyur system in Israel remade in accordance with his own specifications.
The Reform Moves Forward
This week, the Conversion Law—which is just one of several destructive reforms that Kahana is championing—received the approval of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Every law that is discussed in the Knesset during the week must first be reviewed by the committee, which meets every week on Sunday to formulate the government’s stance on upcoming bills. Since the committee discussed the giyur bill this Sunday, it is likely that it will be brought to a vote in the Knesset this week. Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect that the bill will fail to muster a majority in the Knesset, unless the chareidim succeed again in convincing the Arabs (even Mansour Abbas and his colleagues) that it is unethical and wrong for them to meddle in Jewish issues.
After the ministerial committee approved the proposal, Minister Kahana announced, “We are making history. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation has approved the outline for giyur that I am advancing. I thank my colleagues in the coalition, as well as the rabbonim and other partners with whom we wrote the bill, and the broader public that supports it. Together, we have taken another step toward preserving the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”
The committee’s vote was also applauded by the Reform rabbi who is a member of the Knesset.
On the other side of the aisle, Moshe Gafni responded as follows: “Matan Kahana, with the aid of his partners in this wicked government, is destroying the vineyard of the house of Israel, working with all his strength to cause assimilation and to harm the Jewish people. Matan Kahana, a graduate of the dati leumi educational system, is a disgrace to his origins and raises serious questions about those whom he represents. We will have no choice but to go on the defensive in the Knesset while beginning to keep records of lineage. In any coalition that we join, it will be a non-negotiable precondition for everything to be restored to the way it was. The deeds of this government must disappear like dust in the wind. We will never return to the way we conducted ourselves in previous coalitions, when we took newspaper headlines and court decisions into consideration.”
Gafni’s sentiments have also been echoed by the Likud party. Let us hope that this will come to pass soon.
Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah had the following to say after the committee approved the bill: “This law is an attempt to turn Judaism into a club that is open to anyone, where the more conversions that are performed, the better. This will lead to dangerous competition between government-appointed ‘rabbonim’ who will perform wholesale conversions of non-Jews in order to ingratiate themselves with certain politicians. The destruction of the Chief Rabbinate and the institution of state giyur will be remembered as an eternal disgrace for Minister Kahana and his cronies in the Yamina party.”
MK Avi Maoz added his own voice to the condemnations: “The Minister of Religious Affairs is continuing his efforts to destroy the Chief Rabbinate and the official institution of giyur. He will not succeed in his attempt to hide behind the claim that this process is meant to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate. Kahana is taking the keys to the Chief Rabbinate and handing them to his Reform friends. The vast majority of rabbonim in Israel are opposed to Kahana’s plans, but in his great chutzpah, he does not care about that.”
Umbrage in Ukraine
On a related note, Israel is bracing for the expected arrival of a large wave of immigrants from Ukraine. In addition to the Israelis who have been visiting Ukraine and are now returning home, the government expects many Ukrainian citizens to leave the beleaguered country and come to Israel on aliyah. I am certain of one thing: Many of these people are about as Jewish as I am a pickle jar. And that is bad news for Israel: The last thing this country needs is thousands or tens of thousands of non-Jewish Ukrainians gaining citizenship here.
Of course, this brings us to another topic: the situation in Ukraine. I won’t write about the threat of imminent war, but I will tell you about yet another blunder committed by Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who can’t seem to hold back from antagonizing every person and every country on the planet.
Over the past few days, there have been some diplomatic tensions between Israel and Ukraine. Last Thursday, the Ukrainian foreign ministry summoned Israel’s ambassador in Kyiv, Michael Brodsky, for a reprimand. This came in the wake of a telephone call between Alon Ushpiz, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, in which Israel asked the Russians for help extracting Israeli citizens from Ukraine in the event of a war. The Ukrainians were outraged by the phone call and accused Israel of implying that it would accept a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In general, the Ukrainians have been very disappointed with Israel’s refusal to condemn Russia for its aggression. According to the Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Brodsky told the Ukrainians that the phone call had a dual purpose: sending a message of de-escalation and expressing concern for the safety of Israeli diplomats and envoys in Ukraine. But in spite of his efforts to excuse the Foreign Ministry’s behavior, there is a general sense that Yair Lapid is not qualified to hold his position. If I may be permitted to remind you, Lapid has already gotten Israel in hot water in its dealings with Poland and, to a certain extent, with Jordan. And he seems to be determined to continue wreaking havoc.
Israel is somewhat at odds with America and Europe as well, thanks to the nuclear agreement that is due to be signed with Iran, which the Israeli government finds highly objectionable. The objections of Bennett and his colleagues do not seem to faze the international community, and at this point, there is great concern that we may be headed toward a major clash between Bennett and President Biden.
Demands for Shabbos Buses
The Conversion Law is a terrible scourge in its own right, but it is not the only breach of Jewish values on the agenda. Another shameful initiative is the attempt to promote public transportation on Shabbos. There is some precedent for this; in the past, various elements pressured the Transportation Ministry to make it possible for public transportation to run on Shabbos in various locales. This time, however, the situation is much worse, since the current Minister of Transportation is an ardent proponent of the measure, which sits at the top of her personal list of priorities.
Last week, the Knesset Economy Committee met to discuss the issue and seemed to be generally in favor of it. Secular Israelis do not always understand why buses and trains should not be allowed to operate on Shabbos. As far as they are concerned, it should be up to every individual to decide whether they will use the transportation if it is available. They do not grasp the notion that Israel is a Jewish state and as such Shabbos must be observed in the public sphere.
In last week’s column, I mentioned that the Reform movement has been meddling in every issue and trying to insert its opinions into every dispute. Well, this issue was no exception. Before the Economy Committee met on Sunday, the Reform movement issued a “position paper” on the subject. Here is a brief excerpt from the document: “A number of initiatives have been launched in recent years as part of the effort to address, even partially, the problem of the lack of public transportation on Shabbos. In November 2019, six local authorities in the Gush Dan region (Givatayim, Yahud-Monosson, Kiryat Ono, Ramat Hasharon, Shoham, and Tel Aviv) launched the transportation service known as Na’im Sof Shavua, which operates on weekends. At the beginning of the year 2022, Modiin-Maccabim-Reut also joined this service. This is a transportation system including seven lines, which provides transportation to the center of each city and between neighborhoods in the cities at a time when regular public transportation is not in service.”
According to the Reform movement’s paper, then, transportation services already exist on Shabbos in quite a few cities in the center of the country: Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Givatayim, Ramat Hasharon, Kfar Saba, Kiryat Ono, Shoham, and Ramat Gan, as well as in portions of Yerushalayim, Ashdod, and Modiin. The movement claims that the transportation system is “considerate” of chareidi communities and refrains from passing through their neighborhoods. Of course, this is nonsense. The buses may not pass through chareidi areas, but there is nothing “considerate” about the program. And as far as the Reform movement is concerned, the goal is to promote public transportation on Shabbos everywhere in the country.
More Sparks Fly Between the Knesset and the Supreme Court
It is impossible to ignore the fierce exchange of rhetoric between the Knesset and the Supreme Court this past week. To be more specific, the exchange took place between two individuals: MK Dudi Amsalem and Chief Justice Esther Chayut of the Supreme Court.
Amsalem has always been sharply critical of the judges of the Supreme Court, but his tone has recently become much fiercer. His hostility toward the court has grown since he filed a petition with the Supreme Court that was vigorously rejected by the judges, on the grounds that he did not have the “right of standing.” Amsalem was infuriated at being singled out in that fashion; he was the only public petitioner or member of the Knesset to receive such a response. Last week, after seeing more of his petitions thrown out by the Supreme Court, Amsalem took to the Knesset podium and unleashed a torrent of condemnation directed at Chief Justice Chayut, accusing her of ethnic discrimination against him.
In an extremely unusual step, Chayut responded to Amsalem in an open letter, in which she insisted that it is nonsense to claim that the Supreme Court is biased against Sephardim or racist in any way. Chayut’s letter sparked many reactions, and even Netanyahu was forced to dissociate himself from Amsalem. Netanyahu’s reaction, however, angered many of his partners in the Likud, whose sympathies lie with Amsalem rather than the court.
The bottom line is that a new front has been opened in the ongoing war between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.
At this time, 30 years have passed since the Knesset enacted the Basic Laws that led the Supreme Court to decide that it has the power to strike down laws passed by the Knesset. Those Basic Laws were actually passed with the support of the chareidi political leadership, due to the deceptive tactics of the Minister of Justice at the time. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to write about this story at greater length sometime.
The Next Split in the Government: Lieberman’s Economic Plan
What else has been happening here? First of all, it was reported that the coronavirus pandemic is on the decline. Let us hope that this will be true. If the pandemic is ebbing, though, it will only be in spite of the government’s response to the contagion, not because of it.
In a reaction to the decline in morbidity, the government decided this week to relax several of the corona-related restrictions that have been in force for a while. The new leniencies are relevant mainly in schools and at the airport, where the requirements for arriving and departing passengers to undergo testing have been eased. Other upcoming developments include the removal of the requirement to wear masks in public and the elimination of the Green Pass, the document issued to any citizen who was vaccinated against Covid or recovered from the disease, which was required for entry to malls, restaurants, and other such facilities. For you, my readers in America, the most important point is probably the fact that there will no longer be a requirement to be tested upon entering Israel. As a result, children will be able to enter the country as well.
Another major story this week is the new economic plan. As you probably know, the government was taken aback by the groundswell of public outrage over the rapidly rising cost of living. This week, a new plan was announced to combat the phenomenon. On Sunday, the cabinet approved a bill sponsored by the government that would anchor a so-called “package deal” in law, with the most important provision being an increase in the minimum wage. Without getting into the details of the plan, I will tell you that it was opposed during the cabinet session by ministers from the Meretz and Labor parties. That suggests that the coalition might not be able to muster a majority in the Knesset to pass the bill, which means that there is a chance that it will create a rift in the government.
The economic plan, which comes with a price tag of 4.4 billion shekels, is meant to help the country’s citizens deal with the rising cost of living. There are two details of the plan that must be passed by the Knesset in order to go into effect. The first is a tax benefit for young working parents with children between the ages of 6 and 12. (The benefit applies only if both parents in a family employed, which is yet another means of excluding the chareidim!) In addition, the bill provides for an increase in the tax refunds received by employees earning the minimum wage. These bills will be brought to a vote in the Knesset in the coming days, which means that another battle will probably be fought in the Knesset very soon.
Submarine Deal Probe Underway
Then there was another development that displeased a number of government figures: The official commission of inquiry into the purchase of submarines by the Israeli navy has been formed. Both Naftoli Bennett (who served as defense minister during part of the relevant period) and Ayelet Shaked were opposed to the establishment of this commission, but their objections were overridden by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who wanted to settle a score with Netanyahu, and by Yair Lapid, who had the same motivation.
This week, the government decided that the commission will be headed by Asher Grunis, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court. The other members of the committee will be former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Zilberthal; Dr. Karnit Flug, the former governor of the Bank of Israel; Major General (res.) Avrohom Ben-Shushan, the former commander of the Israeli navy; and Professor and Brigadier General (res.) Kobi Bortman, who previously headed the procurement division of the air force.
The cabinet has assigned the committee to investigate the purchase of submarines, Saar 6 warships, and anti-submarine ships from Germany, as well as the plans to privatize the naval shipyards and the consent given by Israel for German submarines to be sold to Egypt. All of these incidents took place during Binyomin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister of Israel. The committee has also been instructed to “arrive at findings and conclusions regarding all aspects of the behavior of the decision makers within the political echelon.” But while the committee will investigate the decision-making process, it will not investigate the conduct of the defendants who are already facing charges related to the affair. The committee was also instructed to “recommend appropriate protocols for making decisions concerning strategic purchases for the security apparatus,” which includes evaluating the propriety of the involvement of former army officials and middlemen.
House Speaker Visits Israel
You might be interested in another piece of news from last Wednesday: the visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Israel. Pelosi met with a number of Israeli officials and, of course, visited the Knesset. Knesset speaker Mickey Levi delivered a speech welcoming the visitor from abroad, in which he spoke about the riots in the Capitol last year.
“When the truth becomes only one of many alternatives,” Levi said, “we are left with brainwashed barbarians who attempt to storm the institutions of the state by force, with complete confidence that they are thereby saving their nation. We shared your revulsion at the painful sights of masses of rioters violently forcing their way into the Capitol. This is a red light for liberal democracy throughout the world; it is a warning of the tangible danger of allowing false information and conspiracy theories to spread. Because if it happened in the United States, it can happen anywhere. The Knesset of Israel stands with you to protect democracy and the liberal values that all of us hold dear.”
That should give you an idea of the “wisdom” that our Knesset speaker possesses….
Mickey Levi also thanked Pelosi for passing the Iron Dome Supplemental Appropriations Act. “On this day,” he said, “I would like to thank you on behalf of the children sitting here, on behalf of the residents of the south, and on behalf of all the citizens of the State of Israel for the aid package that was approved in the House of Representatives under your leadership, to make it possible for the State of Israel to acquire interceptors for the Iron Dome. You have chosen to support the right of the State of Israel to protect itself against terror. You have chosen to stand alongside the only democracy in the Middle East. You have chosen to help the State of Israel protect the lives of its citizens.”
Who Runs the World?
Last week, on the 18th of Adar, we marked the yahrzteit of the famed mashgiach Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. As you may know, Rav Yechezkel spent a short period of time in America and then hurried to relocate to Israel, fearing that the atmosphere in the United States would have an adverse spiritual impact on him. Many books and stories have been written about him. Here are a couple of stories that recently came to my attention and that may be new to you as well.
After the levayah of the Chazon Ish, Rav Yechezkel traveled back to Yerushalayim along with a group of talmidim. The first leg of their journey brought them to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, and since it was nearly sunset, one of the talmidim suggested that they daven Mincha in a shul in the vicinity. Rav Yechezkel felt that they were too fatigued from their trip to daven immediately, and he instructed them to purchase some fruit and to have a snack and rest for a short time before davening. One of Rav Yechezkel’s talmidim, Rav Moshe Binyomin Bernstein, later asserted that the lesson from that experience was that a person should eat in order to daven, rather than davening in order to eat.
Another lesson about food can be gleaned from the following incident: After the levayah of Rav Yosef Shlomo Horowitz, who was buried in the Shomrei Shabbos cemetery in Bnei Brak, Rav Yechezkel and his companions returned to Yerushalayim by taxi. (In honor of the levayah, Rav Yechezkel had made an exception to his usual policy of refraining from entering a cemetery on account of the Vilna Gaon’s admonition.) During the ride, the talmidim commented that Rav Yosef Shlomo had lived to a ripe old age. The taxi driver spoke up at that point and claimed that everyone from the niftar’s hometown lived to an old age because of the healthy food that grew there. The mashgiach replied, “The real reason is that there were very few people who lived there, and they did not speak loshon hora.” He felt that their avoidance of forbidden conversation was the only logical explanation for their longevity.
Here is another story, which echoes even more potently in light of the current tensions: During a shmuess, the mashgiach once asked his talmidim, “Who do you believe is truly running the world?” This took place after the famous incident in which President Khruschev of the Soviet Union became angry during a session of the United Nations General Assembly and proceeded to take off his shoe and pound on the table with it. “Do you think that madman in Russia is running the world, rather than its Creator?” the mashgiach asked his talmidim pointedly.
Here is one last fascinating anecdote: On the 21st of Iyar 5716/1956, the mashgiach assembled a chaburah for the pursuit of personal development, whose members included Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rav Chaim Friedlander, Rav Shraga Grossbard, Rav Reuven Melamed, Rav Reuven Ginsburg, and his talmid Rav Moshe Bernstein. The group met once a month to hear shmuessen from Rav Yechezkel. They undertook a series of resolutions, including focusing on the first two pesukim of Krias Shema with intense kavanah, concentrating on the meaning of the words during the entirety of the first paragraph of Krias Shema and the Shemoneh Esrei, learning for two hours with the aim of observing the halachos they learned, learning mussar, defeating their physical desires three times a day, having kavanah during the brocha of hamotzi and while bentching, and sharing the emotional burdens of others. The group decided that any member of the chaburah who failed to keep all the rules that they committed to observe would be required to pay a fine. One of the chaburah members attested that Rav Yechezkel himself was once observed putting a sum of money in the pushke for his own failure to adhere to the group’s commitments.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Marvels Over Derech Emunah
This week also marked the yahrtzeit of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who passed away on the 20th of Adar Rishon, 5755/1995. Of course, there are many stories about Rav Shlomo Zalman as well, and it is very difficult to find any information about him that hasn’t already been recorded or publicized. Nevertheless, I recently heard a new story (at least, one that I had never heard before) from his grandson, Rav Aharon Goldberg, who had served his illustrious grandfather with great devotion.
Rav Goldberg related, “My grandfather expended enormous effort on learning the halachos pertaining to Eretz Yisroel. He was originally planning to publish his chiddushim on all the halachos of Seder Zeraim, a project that he began with his sefer Maadanei Eretz on the halachos of shemittah and terumos. He also worked on a volume about the halachos of kilayim, but then he was appointed the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kol Torah and decided to give priority to teaching his talmidim. As a result, he did not have enough time to prepare the sefer on kilayim, and he was forced to discard his plan, albeit with great disappointment.
“In Nissan of the year 5744/1984, Rav Chaim Kanievsky published his sefer Derech Emunah on the halachos of kilayim and sent a copy of the sefer to my grandfather as a gift. I believe that it was delivered by his brother-in-law, Rav Ezriel Auerbach [who was married to Rav Elyashiv’s daughter, Rebbetzin Leah, the sister of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky]. As soon as my grandfather received the sefer, he sat down and pored over it from beginning to end. I was sitting near him, and I was able to watch as he perused its contents. Over and over again, I heard him murmur to himself, ‘Good, good. He quotes that as well … and that…. This is very good work. I wonder if also brings up this other topic….’ He would continue to turn the pages and then say, ‘Yes, I see that he discusses it as well….’ He was deeply impressed with the sefer and praised it effusively. At one point, he asked me to bring him some paper and a pen, and he sat down to write a comment on the sefer. That very same day, he took the letter and personally mailed it to Rav Chaim.”
Returning to the Bais Medrash
Speaking of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, allow me to share a beautiful insight that I heard last week. Rav Chaim notes that the Torah’s account of the sin of the eigel ends with the posuk, “And his servant Yehoshua bin Nun, the youth, would not budge from within the tent.” Rav Chaim raises a simple question: What is the connection between this posuk and the pesukim that precede it?
Rav Chaim answers this question as follows: “At the bar mitzvah of one of the sons of my cousin Rav Chaim Greineman, a rov explained in his drosha that after the terrible episode of the eigel, one might have expected Yehoshua to go out into the camp and make a public protest over the terrible aveirah that was committed. Nevertheless, the Torah states that he did not leave his tent; he did not bother with protests and demonstrations, since he knew that this matter was in the hands of the gedolei hador, and it wasn’t his job to deal with it.”
Simcha in Adar
Last week, I ended my column with a question: What are the halachic parameters of the mitzvah to “increase our simcha” during the month of Adar? A reader named A. Wolf submitted the following answer: “What brings happiness to a small child does not bring joy to a teenager, and the things that bring joy to a teenager do not excite an adult. Even the things that are exciting to an ordinary adult will not be nearly as meaningful to a wealthy man or to a spiritual giant. Imagine telling the gadol hador that you have bought him a brand new car with many exciting features. He is not likely to be impressed. On the other hand, if you tell him that a certain choshuv person who was ill has had a complete recovery, he will be very happy. During the month of Adar, we are meant to elevate ourselves to become bigger and better people. This is reflected in what brings us simcha. Our job is to increase the level of our simcha by changing the sources of our joy. That is why there are no specific guidelines: This is work that must be done within our hearts.”