Rabbi Seth Farber didn’t set out to replace the system.
He wanted to install a more user-friendly interface between Israel’s government rabbinate — an official body, led by the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, that often is seen as a cold and heartless bureaucracy — and the Israeli public.
That’s because the rabbinate also is necessary to Israelis for the lifecycle events for which diaspora Jews turn to their synagogues: weddings, funerals, conversions.
You can see this in the name of the organization the Yeshiva University-trained Orthodox rabbi founded 15 years ago: Itim. That means occasions.
(The occasion for this story: Rabbi Farber will speak three times this Shabbat at Teaneck’s Davar. See box.)
But the experience of working with government rabbis led Itim to take to Israeli courts, where it has successfully challenged the rabbinate. And most recently, it has set up its own beit din, a court of rabbis to oversee conversions.
Last year, Rabbi Farber says proudly, the beit din converted more than 450 people, primarily children. That’s one sixth of the Orthodox conversions in Israel in 2016. “We’re well on the way to competing significantly with the rabbinate,” he said.
The conversion court started its work a bit more than two years ago. It includes some of the biggest names of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox community, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat.
The beit din focuses on converting children. These aren’t 10-year-old Christians and Muslims who decide that Judaism is their true spiritual path. No, these are children who are being raised as Hebrew-speaking Israelis but were not born Jewish, whether because they were adopted from overseas, or because their mothers aren’t Jewish. That’s not uncommon among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, three quarters of whom were intermarried, Rabbi Farber said.
At one point, the government rabbinate had a division dedicated to converting children. It closed not long ago, because the Israeli rabbinate would only convert those children whose parents promised to raise them in Orthodox homes. That meant the children had to be enrolled in Orthodox schools, the family had to be fully observant by Orthodox rules, and the mother had to convert if she wasn’t already Jewish.
Not surprisingly, there were few takers.
Rabbi Farber and the other Orthodox rabbis on his panel insist these conditions aren’t necessary to convert a child who is growing up in Israeli society, and going to schools that teach the Bible and celebrate the Jewish holidays — as do all of Israel’s secular public schools that serve the Jewish community.
“We’re talking about tens of thousands of kids under the age of bar or bat mitzvah who are growing up in Israeli society and will ultimately go to the Israeli army,” he said. “If the family is intending to bring up the kids as Jewish — and most are — just go get a brit milah and we’ll go to the mikvah. This is our halachic modus operandi that allows us to convert them.”
Of course, the bureaucrats don’t yield power willingly. On Sunday, before speaking with the Jewish Standard, Rabbi Farber filed the latest motion in an ongoing legal battle against the Interior Ministry. Last year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Ministry must register people who convert in non-official Orthodox rabbinic courts like Itim’s as Jews. The ministry is headed by Aryeh Deri, founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and, Rabbi Farber said, it has not been obeying the court ruling. So it’s back to court.
Rabbi Farber also has been going to court to enforce another court victory. This one concerned the publicly funded mikvahs, ritual baths used by Orthodox women. Some women wanted to use the mikvah without the oversight of the attendants the local religious council employs.
“One of the women we represented in court, who wants to use the mikvah by herself, is someone who suffered from abuse and doesn’t want to be seen unclothed by anyone,” Rabbi Farber said. An attendant’s demand to oversee her immersion “would keep her out of the mikvah,” he said.
“It’s not something you can explain to a rabbinate who says if you go without anyone else watching you, you’re better off not going at all. They do not have appreciation of the complexity of today’s world, of the many women — hundreds — who are being kept out of the mikvah because of the standards of the rabbinate.”
The rabbinate decided to settle with Itim and to permit women to immerse alone because they did not want to risk a hearing before Israel’s Supreme Court, where Rabbi Farber would argue for the public’s right to use public facilities. But Rabbi Farber believes that this position also is justified by traditional Jewish law.
“It’s a question of understanding that the sources do allow immersing alone under certain circumstances, and understanding that there are ways to resolve the core issue, ensuring that all of woman’s hair goes under the water.”
This new understanding is being obstructed in Jerusalem, where the religious council is requiring women who don’t want to immerse in front of the mikvah attendant to sign a release form that asks for personal information, including the woman’s phone number and ID number. A week and a half ago, Itim filed a lawsuit to stop this.
As Rabbi Farber sees it, he is battling ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Judaism for the soul of Israel. “The rabbinate is basically an anti-Zionist entity acting under the veil of Zionism,” he said. “Zionism — the notion that Israel is a homeland to the Jewish people in all their diversity — is a threat to the charedi way of life.
“People think that the moment the charedim came into the institutional rabbinate, they basically accepted the existence of the State of Israel and its significance,” he said. “No. Now they’re fighting the battle against Zionism from within.”
Ironically, however, “the rabbinate is using modernity against the western world.”
In particular, when it comes to certifying who is Jewish, they are using tools and principles that would have shocked any Orthodox rabbi a century ago. “There are a number of issues that have come up in the past few months that are very cutting edge,” Rabbi Farber said.
Among them: “The rabbinate is discussing using DNA testing to prove Jewishness. They’re setting up an international database. They’re no longer trusting witnesses” — the Torah’s standard of evidence — “but instead, they only trust documents. So some Communist clerk from the 1930s is considered trustworthy.”
And they are doing away with a basic principle of halachic jurisprudence by asking people whom the rabbis certified as Jewish years ago to prove their Jewish bona fides once again. Itim is fighting in court on behalf of four families who had been approved as Jewish 25 or more years ago but recently received letters warning they were going to be reclassified as non-Jews because a distant relative had failed to prove their Jewishness.
“They were told: The people who checked you out 25 years ago didn’t do a good job so you have to prove that you’re Jewish or your marriage will be declared invalid,” Rabbi Farber said. “We’re asking for a temporary injunction to not declassify these people as Jews. We’re saying they don’t have the jurisdiction to do this. On what evidence are they changing the earlier court’s ruling?”
Rabbi Farber fears that if the Supreme Court doesn’t put a stop to this, the practice will become common.
“I can see a situation where this is just the beginning,” he said. “A day will come where everyone will have to submit to investigations.”
Who: Rabbi Seth Farber, director of Itim
Where: Davar, 1500 Sussex Road, Teaneck
When: Friday night, October 20, after services that start at 5:55, Rabbi Farber will talk about Itim’s lawsuit, which enabled women to use a mikvah without attendants, and he will describe how it feels to have challenged the rabbinate. On Shabbat morning, October 21, after services that start at 8:15, he will discuss “The future of ‘Who is a Jew’” and the rabbinate’s new reliance on technology. On Shabbat afternoon, after services that start at 5:20, he will give an inside look at this summer’s controversies about the conversion bill and the Kotel agreement.