Free-Market Judaism and Conversion Standards: A Response to Dr. Shuki Friedman

“We should seriously consider eliminating municipal police departments and increasing the issuance of gun permits to responsible and stable citizens. High-profile individuals and institutions anyway retain private security detail, and recent police shootings and allegations of misconduct demonstrate that many communities do not trust the police. We would be better off without police forces, letting people protect themselves as they see fit.”

“Medical and drug licensing boards and agencies should be scrapped. People anyway are able to see doctors who are not board-certified, many supplements are sold without FDA approval, and the bureaucracy of these boards and agencies, not to mention the politics, have diminished the public trust in them. We should seriously consider total privatization and deregulation of the medical and drug industries.”    

Although these arguments are fallacious and hugely irresponsible, as the goals they promote would massively endanger the public, and the institutions that would be dismantled provide infinitely more good than bad, despite their shortcomings, the logic behind these arguments is nearly identical to that employed by Dr. Shuki Friedman in his Haaretz article, The End of the Chief Rabbinate?

Friedman, whose Ne’emenei Torah Va’Avodah organization is governed by some of the most controversial personalities in and near the Orthodox orbit, implicitly argues for privatization of religious services and the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel:

About 90 years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook established the Chief Rabbinate. Now it has died, or at least there is another large and important nail in its coffin. This week, rabbis who are considered central to and accepted in the religious Zionist community converted six children in a private rabbinical court. In doing so they provided legitimacy and support to a growing stream of activities whose objective is to provide religious services that bypass the Chief Rabbinate.

The role of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is to offer religious and halakhic leadership (pertaining to religious law,) and it is responsible for providing religious services and deciding on halakhic policy regarding these services. On the issues of conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut and burial, it has the last word, as an institution, and occasionally by dint of law.

In both these roles, the Chief Rabbinate has failed. By its actions and its policy it has rendered itself irrelevant.

There is no community in the State of Israel that accepts the discipline and the rulings of its rabbis. The secular community has no interest in the rabbinate and it never interested the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox; they have always had and continue to have their own deciders and leaders. The religious Zionist community, which in the past sanctified the Chief Rabbinate, has abandoned it since the Haredim took over key positions.

In the area of kashrut, dozens of Haredi Badatzim (ultra-Orthodox bodies granting kashrut certificates) have been operating for years, bypassing the rabbinate with their meticulous and stringent standards. They usually operate alongside the kashrut supervisors from the rabbinate, but recently several organizations have begun to provide kashrut supervision according to Orthodox standards, without turning to the supervisors from the local religious councils. In Jerusalem, and now in Tel Aviv too, those who wish to do so can eat kosher without the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate.

When it comes to marriage, with the granting of equal status to common-law spouses and the creation of alternatives to marriage registration, the demand for marriage through the rabbinate is steadily declining. Even among those who want to marry according to halakha, many prefer to do so privately without registering with the rabbinate. And even divorce, which was an absolutely monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate, is now being granted by private rabbinical courts of rabbis who are moved by the plight of agunot, women who cannot divorce, and who understand that the solution will not be found in the rabbinate’s courts.

And now conversion. The establishment of a network of rabbinical conversion courts led by central religious Zionist rabbis, who were once proud of the official status of the Chief Rabbinate, is a dramatic change. These courts are challenging the last monopoly of the rabbinate, even though at present they are converting only children – conversion that is halakhically more complex. The meaning of this step is that those rabbis are aware of the rabbinate’s inability to provide a halakhic solution to the challenge of conversion. It is clear to everyone that this will be followed by the conversion of adults, and then by the establishment of a system that will enable those converts, whose Jewishness will not be recognized by the rabbinate, to marry.

The rabbinate, the Haredi factions and several members of Habayit Hayehudi are fighting a losing battle against this trend. Out of political interests rather than concern for the Jewish character of the state, they are trying, by means of enforcement and legislation, to change the trend. But these are vain attempts. The horses have fled the stable. Even if the law that mandates turning to the rabbinate is etched in stone, if the public doesn’t go to the rabbinate and doesn’t use its services, it won’t be relevant.

The trend towards privatization of religious services heralds not only the death of the rabbinate – it creates a de-facto separation between religion and the state. The less relevant the rabbinate and the official and established religious services it provides, the more significant the separation between religion and the state. And if that is the actual situation, in the end the legislators will have no choice but to recognize it by means of legislation as well.

If one considers Judaism to be a business or a lifestyle choice, then speaking of privatization of services makes sense. There can be competing standards of merchandise (conversions, halachic personal status), there are no absolutes, and freedom of commerce is paramount for the success and satisfaction of the industry’s players and consumers. However, if Judaism is about fulfilling objective, divinely-mandated requirements, and lapses in Halacha can be of calamitous and eternal significance, there is no room for error; halachic “safety” cannot be risked, and games cannot be played.

Those who seek to apply their own standards for conversion (and marriage and divorce), even if the standards are endorsed by some leading lights in the private rabbinate and a liberal Orthodox rabbinical organization, are placing the Israeli public in jeopardy and are performing a grave disservice to their clients, or their free-market customers, as per the mindset of Friedman. Rather than submit to a heightened standard which all rabbinic authorities recognize and accept, assuring uniformity of halachic personal status, this move will create different levels and classes of people within these ultra-sensitive areas, such that there will be new and sizable groups of Israelis whose Jewishness and halachic personal status will be subject to dispute and rejection. The stakes are way too high to unilaterally introduce new and contested standards, in violation of consensus and the larger structure of halachic authority.  (Please also see this very important article on the subject.)

The Chief Rabbinate, like all regulatory bodies, surely has its flaws, but assuring uniform and unquestionable acceptability of Jewish and halachic personal status is something immeasurably more important and vastly eclipsing of politics and bureaucratic inefficiency.

This glaring reality, which demands sensitivity to the irrevocable ramifications of introducing new, disputed practices and standards in the most delicate realms of Halacha and Jewish identity, is well-recognized by the majority of religious Zionist rabbinic leadership, which has unequivocally rejected the  autonomous establishment and implementation of alternative rabbinic conversion courts.

Creating a straw man for the purpose of undermining the Chief Rabbinate, Friedman contends that the Chief Rabbinate has no support in either the Chareidi or Religious Zionist communities (and that the Chief Rabbinate can thus be dispensed with):

There is no community in the State of Israel that accepts the discipline and the rulings of its rabbis. The secular community has no interest in the rabbinate and it never interested the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox; they have always had and continue to have their own deciders and leaders. The religious Zionist community, which in the past sanctified the Chief Rabbinate, has abandoned it since the Haredim took over key positions.

The obvious truth is that the all communities throughout the Orthodox spectrum (perhaps excepting that of Friedman) and well beyond realize the critical importance of the Chief Rabbinate as the gatekeeper for halachic standards, even if such communities opt to apply additional standards on a private level. The vastly overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders and communities in the State of Israel will immediately express their wholehearted desire for the Chief Rabbinate to endure and tenaciously safeguard; contrary to Friedman’s contentions, the need for the Chief Rabbinate is robustly affirmed by the communities he cites toward the contrary.

Retaining uniform halachic standards versus introducing free-market Judaism: for some, there may be room to debate and consider. For those who recognize the gravity of what is at stake, the question cannot even be asked.

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26 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    How does a “free market” in religion judge between truth and fiction? Right and wrong? Really, it’s about HaShem’s way vs. our way. When our lives are reviewed in living color after Age 120, do we get off the hook by singing “I did it my way?”

  2. Yehoshua D says:

    Rabbi Gordimer: For the past 1,800 years or so, we have managed without a centralized rabbinate supervising conversions for all of Israel. In fact, this is still the norm everywhere outside the state of Israel. This belies your assessment that independent conversion battei denim will be a disaster for klal yisrael.

  3. dr. bill says:

    I find it odd, that no one attacked rabbi sherman over this issue when he maligned a centralized conversion authority. i doubt many who are now worried about an unimpeachable group of rabbis creating a new giyyur authority, boycott food under the supervision of the eidah. i pray for a sanhedrin where rabbis rabinowitz, goldberg, and shternbuch can all seat; until then we will have to make due with other arrangements. With the destruction of the chief rabbinate that began by electing a potentially soon to be felon, I cannot shed a tear. de facto, the chief rabbinate has lost the support of most Israelis – left, right and center; they would not be missed.

  4. Noam stadlan says:

    I have to admit that I am impressed by how Rav Gordimer immediately tries to delegitimize those he opposes by labeling them ‘some of the most controversial’ and using the phrase ‘ in and near Orthodoxy’. Without even stating a fact or making a point, you have already started painting a compelling picture. This is propaganda that would make Soviet Russia proud. My guess is that the Master of the Universe, who commanded us to be truthful and just, and avoid lashon hara, not so proud.

    • lawrence kaplan says:

      In fairness to R. Gordimer, many of the members of the Board of, Governors of Neemanei Torah ve-Avodah are controversial figures. But this has nothing to do with the new Beit Din. Having a Beit Din in Israel headed by Rav Nahum Rabinovitz is the equivalent of having a Beit Din in the US headed by Rav Hershel Schachter.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    I guess the truth hurts.

  6. Rafael Araujoberg says:

    While Dr. Bill and others validly raise more lenient opinions about kabbolos ol hamitzvos, children of Jewish fathers and leniency towards them, I have thinking about it the past few days. The conclusion I have come to is that one can cite the Rambam, R’ Chaim Ozer, and other GedoleI HaPoskim in support of the impetus to convert Russian goyim living in Israel. However, did any of the great Gedolim contemplate mass conversions in giving their psakim. Maybe I can be enlightened, but I don’t recall any Gedolim discussing a mass conversion that could be unprecented in numbers, involving people who we can all admit have no intention to change from their secular lifestyles, who won’t magically start keeping Shabbos, kashrus, or Taharas HaMishpacha. Aren’t those like Tzohar (who were just condemned by other DL poskim and RY) going beyond what these great Gedolim ever permitted? If we are talking politics, this move to privatization could all be the result of R’ Stav losing the CR election and so he couldn’t effect the change he wanted within the institution of the CR, he is doing it by bypassing the CR. I don’t agree to this free market l’chatchila. However, the facts on the ground militate against the CR maintaining the same control it had before. However, I agree with R’ Gordimer that this will contribute to schism among those, as those who know of a conversion performed by a Tzohar rabbi will refuse to accept them.

    • lawrence kaplan says:

      The Beit Din is headed by that great gadol and leading posek R. Nahum Rabinovitz. Among its members are such leading Rashei Yeshiva as Rabbis Yaakov Medan and Reem ha-Kohen. Focusing on Rav Stav as a way of discrediting the Beit Din is illegitimate. As Dr. Bill correctly noted, the immediate impetus for the formation of the Beit Din is the new coalition agreement recentralizing the Chief Rabbinate The Haredim overreached and this is pushback..

  7. dr. bill says:

    Rafael Aroujober, thank you for your comments. One detail, before getting to the meat of the issue: No one is suggesting “mass conversion.” What is being suggested is performing individual conversions in a scaled way, which if enough people are willing to accept their requirements for conversion, could begin to put a dent in a growing problem.

    Clearly, at no point in our history, has this number of conversions been contemplated. In fact, we may see 1-2 orders of magnitude more conversions, significantly beyond what any posek could have foreseen. Those who suggested various kulot obviously did not contemplate their use so extensively. But when RMF and RSZA ztl allowed walking by a camera on Shabbat, they also did not expect it would become orders of magnitude more common.

    The issue is not the magnitude, but a judgment of the BD as to whether the case is such that kulot ought to be used. For example, assume we knew that children converted will attend dati mamlachti schools three times as often as the average Israeli and thirty times more often than a child who does not convert, should that impact a dayan’s propensity to be maikil? What about two and twenty or two and forty? I have heard Rabbis say that it is better to go to a chiloni school as opposed to one that is dati mamlachti; others may not go that far but nonetheless attach a lower level of benefit. I can give you many similar examples, where the seminal issue is not the leniency per se but whether the situation justifies the use of more lenient approaches. That is the issue from my perspective.

    Whose judgement of the situation is correct? IMHO, while the reform movement has reacted by adopting modernity, many (chareidi) poskim have gone to the other extreme to combat modernity. I think we are facing an unprecedented opportunity and challenge unlike any since Yetziat Mitzrayim, where there was a mass conversion. (Ezra’s issue was an order of magnitude smaller.) We prayed to God for the salvation of Soviet Jewry; we now pray that their freedom does not create a crisis affecting the entire Jewish nation, in either direction.

    One other factual matter. What spurred this issue, in my opinion, was not the loss by Rav Stav in the CR election,, but the coalition agreement insisted by the chareidi parties as their price of entry to undo previous legislation allowing more decentralization wrt conversion/marriage/divorce/etc.

  8. Doron Beckerman says:

    It is true that this BD is going to cause the separation of religion and state – and the Supreme Court will serve as the arbiter of conversion standards. Mass conversions by the heterodox will be recognized, and not only will it create a much bigger problem of intermarriage, it will spell the end of the Jewish state.

    It is the secular establishment that created the problem and it is they who must solve it by an aggressive, sustained campaign against intermarriage. If a Jewish State cannot find its voice in opposing intermarriage, it has no understanding of the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and perforce cannot even explain its very right to exist.

    • Moshe Dick says:

      Rabbi Beckerman: I suggest that the Almighty has other plans for Israel and it does not include “the end of the Jewish State”. If anyone may be accused of this, it is the chareidi mindset who refuses to participate in the protection and running of medinat israel,

      • Doron Beckerman says:

        I’m not even going to bother getting into the polemics. Here’s a straightforward something for you to consider. If you had three groups of people, each 1 million strong, and you could import only one to Israel, rank your order of preference:
        Reform converts, seculars, Charedim.
        What do you think Rav Kook would answer to that question?

      • Moshe Dick says:

        Rabbi Beckerman- wrong question. You have conveniently ignored the largest group of orthodox jews in Israel: the dati-leumi crowd. Methinks Ra Kook wold vote in their favor.

      • Doron Beckerman says:

        I haven’t ignored them, I don’t doubt that you would prefer them. I’m asking among the three groups I mentioned.

      • Eli Blum says:

        From Wikipedia:

        A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, false binary, black-and-white thinking, bifurcation, denying a conjunct, the either–or fallacy, fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of the false alternative, or the fallacy of the excluded middle) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.

        So Doron, from among three groups: Rapists, sexual abusers and religious Catholics, which would you prefer? I’ll even give you my response: Religious Catholics (as I believe there should be a separation between Shul and state, and am willing to go with Shittas Rabbanu Tam).

      • Doron Beckerman says:

        Eli, a false dilemma is a fallacy because not all options that actually exist are brought into the equation (e.g., presenting a two-sided chakirah when there are three options that exist). Whittling down options available for selection is no more a fallacy than the menu in your local restaurant.

      • Eli Blum says:


        But the restaurant is serving chicken as well (as the main special!), and the waiter who ignores that menu option is not being truthful.

        (end Dimyon) 🙂

      • Doron Beckerman says:

        When I pose the question, it’s my restaurant. Don’t tell me what I do or don’t serve. If you’re talking about the objective reality of groups, the definition of groups of a million people available for import is virtually infinite in theory, and probably zero in practice.

  9. Daniel Schwartz says:

    When, in the last 100 years did those who adhere to a “heightened standard” about any policy ever compromise with those who believed in a lower standard in the interest of consensus? This essay smacks of “Let’s compromise and do it my way.”

  10. yehudi says:

    People like this Friedman character are all part of the mindset of those who are out to literally dismantle Yiddishkeit as was given to us at Sinai. These are the reincarnations of those who rebelled in the Roman era against Torah (Oral & Written) m’sinai, thus bringing the greatest tragedies upon the Jewish nation over the last 2000 years. There is something radically wrong with their devotion (lack thereof) to G-D,Torah & the Jewish people. They include the OO and all those who are really reformers and are the same and/or part of the Reform movement which has devastated the Jewish people for the last 200 years. H’ save us from this enemy within.

  11. Charlie Hall says:

    The comparison to doctors isn’t really relevant, although some conservatives have attacked all government licensing of any professionals as unnecessary. What matters is halachah, and it is very clear that any three Orthodox rabbis can convert a non-Jew who believes in God and accepts the mitzvot. To reject such a conversion is to put one over the issur of oppressing a ger. In addition, there is no mesorah for centralized conversion authorities beyond the level of an individual community and every one that has been attempted (Druckman, Tropper, and Freundel) has failed. And to declare *a priori* that a beit din of respected rabbis will never have its conversions accepted violates procedural norms that require investigation of the individual case.

    Why doesn’t the Chief Rabbinate accept that the people behind this effort are distinguished talmidei chachamim who can be trusted to do the right thing? The same applies for some existing charedi batei dinim that operate in Israel independently of the Chief Rabbinate. This does not need to divide the orthodox world.

    • Moshe Dick says:

      charliehall: In spite of your very liberal opinions, you are spot on in this issue. Put plainly, the halacha has been subverted in recent generations . I know that I, and many of people who think the same, will be vilified and accused of not listening to “daas torah” but when I read that the conversion of children-absolutely and clearly halachic- is being questioned , I know that the halacha as we should know it, has been subverted. In any case, the plain reading of the Rambam (and the famous story of the gentile wanting to convert and Hillel) shows ,conclusively, that kabbolos mitzvos does not mean the actual practice of every siman in shulchan aruch but it means the general acceptance of Torah.. The rest is “zil gemor’. What has really happened is a “chumrodization’ of halacha that has no precedent in Jewish history. It will take many years for Jewry to get away from that mindset but it will happen. This new venture is another step in this normalization of halacha.

  12. Eli Blum says:

    I believe that both sides have a point:

    In regards to “Yiddishkeit”, there is certainly no license to follow the “open” opinion just because one can. Certainly Charaidim would not accept such conversions, and they don’t. But as Dr. Friedman points out, no one accepts the Chief Rabbinate as the decision makers or gatekeepers for “Yiddishkeit”, not the DL, MO, Charaidi, Chassidish, Yeshivish, Reform, Traditional, anyone. Whose fault that is can be questioned, but as Dr. Bill points out, someone decided to elect a lightweight as Chief Rabbi.

    In regards to “Judaism”, that is really only relevant in the framework of Israeli Theocracy. The poster believes it should have the “Yiddishkeit” standard. Sure it would be nice to have some sort of standard, but who says it has to be one that agrees with “Yiddishkeit”? The law of return doesn’t have “Yiddishkeit” as the standard, why should any of the other SECULAR functions of the state (including who is associated with whom)? And truthfully, wouldn’t we all be better off (DL, MO, Charaidi, Chassidish, Yeshivish, Reform, Traditional, anyone) if the state stuck to secular functions and left the religious stuff to the Rabbis, Priests and Imams?

  13. YEA says:

    The FDA definitely saves lives by preventing the release of harmful drugs. It also stops many lives from being saved by delaying the approval of life-saving drugs.

  14. Shades of Gray says:

    “even if the standards are endorsed by some leading lights in the private rabbinate…The stakes are way too high to unilaterally introduce new and contested standards, in violation of consensus and the larger structure of halachic authority”

    How does this relate to the RCA prenuptial agreement? I read that there was some objection. How much
    objection, therefore, constitutes a lack of unanimity?

  15. Benzion N. Chinn says:

    As an anarcho-capitalist, I fail to see anything fallacious about abolishing police. As I assume we are both in agreement that markets are better at providing groceries. Therefore, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that a private police force would not prove to be similarly superior over a government police force. Neither of us really has any idea what an honest free market police force would look like. That being said you have to contend with the very real life disasters of cops shooting people.
    On religious grounds, it is you who have to justify such a major innovation to Judaism as a formal government-backed rabbinic system.

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