Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The Chief Rabbinate and the Question of Conversion

Recently, I have clarified the position of our rabbis, that in order to prevent assimilation, it is correct to convert someone who in principle accepts the mitzvot, even though chances are he most likely will not lead a religious lifestyle. Various allegations have been made against this. One of them is that the Chief Rabbinate has authority in this matter, and our Mentor and Teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was very careful about guarding the status of the Rabbinate, and a public position that runs contrary to the Chief Rabbinates’ position should not be expressed.

In this column, I will explain via two stories the position of the Chief Rabbinate, at the time it fulfilled its role as an independent Chief Rabbinate not subject to the secular government or the position of the Haredim, but outlined its path according to Torah values for Clal Yisrael.

Amos Ben-Gurion and Mary

During World War II, Amos, the middle son of the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, enlisted in the British army that fought the Nazis, and served as an officer in the Jewish Brigade. During his service, he fell ill and was hospitalized in a hospital in Liverpool. There, he was cared for by a woman named Mary, an Irish-Anglican nurse. The two fell in love and wanted to get married. Paula, Amos’ mother, strongly opposed her son’s marriage to a non-Jew. However, Mary was already pregnant, and with the blessing of Ben-Gurion, they were married in the spring of 1946 in a civil marriage.

Ben-Gurion tried to arrange an Orthodox conversion for Mary, but to no avail. To please Paula, Mary was converted in the summer of 1956 by Reform Jews, and Paula was told that the conversion was done according to halakha, by rabbis. The couple returned to Israel and established their home in Haifa. They had three children. Amos served in the police force and advanced to the rank of Deputy Inspector General of Police, after which he served as CEO of the Ata Factory.

Registration of their Daughter’s Marriage

Years later, their daughter Galia, an officer in the medical corps, was about to marry Rafi Ron, a paratrooper officer. However, when they came to register with the rabbinate, it became clear that they could not marry kedat Moshe ve’Yisrael (in accordance with the Law of Moses and [the People of] Israel), since her mother Mary’s conversion was not according to halakha.

Amos Ben-Gurion turned to the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and asked him to convert his wife Mary and their children according to halakha. He also requested to hide this from his parents, so as not to upset them when they heard that until now the conversion of their daughter-in-law and grandchildren had not been arranged according to halakha.

Rabbi Goren turned to Rabbi Yehoshua Kaniel, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, one of the eminent rabbis in the country at the time, and one of Rabbi Kook’s most distinguished students. Rabbi Kaniel made sure that they would study the basics of Judaism, and converted the mother and her children in 1968. Rabbi Kaniel kept the conversion certificate until his death in July 1970.

Wedding of Ben-Gurion’s Granddaughter

Their wedding took place in the spring of 1968, not long after the death of her grandmother, Paula. The grieved grandfather, David Ben-Gurion, for whom the IDF uniform symbolized the Israeli statehood and all the good in the State of Israel, asked the groom, Rafi, a paratrooper officer, in honor of the State of Israel, to wear an army uniform at his wedding. The groom agreed, and thus, beside the bride who wore a customary white dress, the groom stood in an IDF uniform, donning a beret. Many dignitaries attended the wedding.

For those wishing to know which rabbinate Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda honored, I will mention the words which Rabbi Goren delivered when the canopy was held, as quoted in the press the following day: “This is a triple joy – your joy as a couple who contributed to the IDF and the nation, the joy of the parents, and the joy of the people. After all, everyone sees himself as like a son-in-law and connected to this joy because of the great-grandfather, the architect of the State of Israel. We all owe him a handful of gratification, which, unfortunately he has been missing lately, since Grandmother Paula passed away.”

The Haredi Arguments

After the wedding, Haredi rabbis complained about Rabbi Goren for converting the bride by military rabbis in violation of the law and halakha, in order to flatter those in power. About three years later, on September 7, 1971, at a rally for the sake of ‘shleimut ha’am’ (unity of the nation) against conversions by the Rabbinate, Rabbi Zolti made serious allegations against Rabbi Goren, claiming: “Where can one find such a patent, to marry a gentile with a Jew.”

Rabbi Goren was forced to publish the issue of the conversion, which had been done according to halakha by Rabbi Kaniel, who also registered the couple for marriage. In his remarks, Rabbi Goren said that the bride and her mother had learned the basics of Judaism, and the bride and groom promised that after their marriage “they would run their home as a kosher home.” Rabbi Goren knew that they would not be religious, but he acted like many of the eminent rabbis, who believed that in sha’at dachak (times of distress) and in times when many Israelis are secular, in order to prevent assimilation, it was enough for a convert to accept the mitzvot in general, and commit to “run a kosher home”, i.e., to keep the tradition, and avoid eating unclean species like pork, and not to cook meat and milk.

The Helen Seidman Affair

One of the biggest controversies in matters of religion and state was over the conversion of Helen Seidman. Helen Shannon, a doctor of biology and genetics, was born in the United States to a non-Jewish family. Out of love for the Jewish people, she immigrated to Israel with her daughter in 1964 as a tourist. After a while, she met the secretary of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, who invited her, as being an expert in genetics, to move to the kibbutz and help with new crops there. Helen asked to convert, and despite warnings from a woman from Nahal Oz, who told her there was no chance she would be converted while living in a secular kibbutz, she went to Tel Aviv and studied with a rabbi.  Acquaintances claimed that she wanted to convert in the rabbinical court in Ashdod and was denied, but the secretary of the court in Ashdod claimed that Helen had never opened a case in the court. Apparently they did not want to deal with her case because her partner was a kohen, who is forbidden to marry a convert (incidentally, there was a tradition in the rabbinate, which was passed down discreetly according to Rabbi Frank and other rabbis, that in practice, a non-Jewish woman living with a kohen can be converted, but not married; however, in Ashdod, they apparently were not aware of this). In July 1967, she married in a civil marriage in Mexico to a member of Nahal Oz, Benjamin Seidman. Shortly afterwards, their first son, Yehuda Seidman, was born. In October 1967, she converted to Judaism in a Reform court in Tel Aviv and applied to register as a Jew in the Ministry of the Interior.

The Ministry of the Interior, headed by NRP leader Haim Moshe Shapira, refused to register her, and with the help of secular organizations turned to the Supreme Court. Attorney General Meir Shamgar did not agree to represent the Minister of the Interior, because according to the Shalit ruling, registration in the Ministry of the Interior depends mainly on the “self-definition” of the citizen. It was clear that the Supreme Court would oblige the Ministry of the Interior to register her as a Jew, since there is no law stipulating that conversions should be solely in accordance with halakha. The issue of ‘who is a Jew’ rocketed to the top of the national agenda. The NRP representatives threatened that if the Supreme Court approved her registration as a Jew based on a Reform conversion, they would resign from the government.

Tensions between the religious and secular in the country increased. The secular camp awaited a Supreme Court decision that would ultimately determine that the Chief Rabbinate does not determine the question of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. Various figures in the religious community tried to influence Helen Seidman to withdraw her petition, or convert according to Orthodox conversion, and thereby, solve the problem.

Rebbetzin Dr. Naomi Cohen

A solution came from Rebbetzin Dr. Naomi Cohen, who was born in the United States, and understood Dr. Helen. The Rebbetzin was sent on a mission by Rabbi Goren, her brother-in-law, to Nahal Oz, and succeeded in convincing Helen to convert according to halakha.

The day before the Supreme Court decision was published, Helen converted to Judaism by Rabbi Goren, and canceled her petition to the Supreme Court. Most of the public and its leaders breathed a sigh of relief that a solution had been found to the big controversy. Our mentor and teacher Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda was also pleased with the solution.

It is fitting at this time to mention Rebbetzin Dr. Naomi Cohen z”l, who recently passed away, on the third of Adar I. The Rebbetzin was the youngest daughter of Rabbi Dr. Chaim Shimshon Goldstein, who was president of the Rabbinical Association of America, and granddaughter of the philanthropist, Harry Fischel. At the age of nineteen, a year after the establishment of the State of Israel, she immigrated to Israel and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and merited marrying Rabbi She’ar Yashuv, the son of Rabbi David HaKohen HaNazir, one of the greatest disciples of Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l who, on his behalf, edited “Orot Ha-Kodesh”. After Rabbi Kaniel passed away, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv served as Rabbi of Haifa for approximately thirty-six years. Rebbetzin Naomi supported the growth of Torah study for women wholeheartedly.

The Petition to the Supreme Court

For both factions the conversion was very difficult. On the one hand, the anti-religious camp had hoped the Supreme Court would finally determine that the Rabbinate does not determine who is a Jew, and Helen’s halakhic conversion sabotaged this. On the other hand, the Haredi camp resented Rabbi Goren, who claimed to have converted Helen within a day in contradiction to halakha. Representatives of these two bodies appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court against Helen’s conversion.

Rabbi Elyashiv, Rabbi Yisraeli, Rabbi Zolti and Rabbi Goldschmidt sat in the court session. The Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Nissim and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, chose not to participate. The court ruled that Rabbi Goren, as the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, had no authority to convert on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate; rather, his Beit Din was a private Beit Din, and thus, the official rabbinical court of the Rabbinate did not need to hear an appeal of the conversion, which was not on their behalf. They noted that if Helen converted in an official court, her conversion would be valid, and added that her acceptance of mitzvot should be verified.

The next day, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, convened an official Beit Din, in which Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Shalom Mizrahi participated, and together, approved Rabbi Goren’s previous conversion.

Later, in an interview with Shlomo Ishon, Rabbi Goren explained that Helen Seidman’s conversion complied with halakha because she “makes sure to light Shabbat candles, and is careful about forbidden foods, despite her membership in a secular kibbutz. In reality, it is not difficult for her to be careful in matters of kashrut, as she is a vegetarian according to her worldview.”

Once again, we find that in practice, the eminent Chief Rabbis would convert those who accepted all the mitzvot in general, but in actuality, committed to behave as masoriti (traditional Jew).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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