J.J. Goldberg

Conversion Showdown: Rav Ovadia vs. the Ashkenazim

By J.J. Goldberg

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A nasty fight is heating up between Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the mentor of Shas, and the rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazi Haredi world. The Ashkenazi rabbis have called for a mass demonstration against Ovadia this coming Wednesday, and tens of thousands are expected to attend.

In retaliation, a kashrut crackdown has been ordered by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Ovadia’s protégé, against food processors that get their kosher certification from the main Ashkenazi certifying body, according to a report in Friday’s Yediot Ahronot print edition. In the past few days, Yediot reports, inspectors from the Chief Rabbinate have raided dozens of slaughterhouses and food processing plants under the kosher supervision of the BaDaTz (Bet Din Tzedek) of the Eidah Haredit, the strictest and most widely accepted kosher certification in Israel.

The feud started in December when Ovadia gave blanket approval to conversions to Judaism performed in the army by military rabbis, mostly on Russian immigrant soldiers who are not recognized as Jews. The Ashkenazi Haredi rabbinate, led by the aging Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, successor to the late Eliezer Shach as Gadol HaDor, has ruled military conversions to be illegitimate, claiming that they’re too lenient — meaning the army rabbis are certifying conversions of people who don’t really intend to practice Orthodox Judaism.

Elyashiv succeeded the late Eliezer Shach as Gadol Hador, the popularly acclaimed supreme halachic authority of the generation, and is the mentor of the Degel Hatorah party, the misnagdic faction of United Torah Judaism. The Eidah Haredit is the ultra-ultra Haredi community that rejects the authority of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox leadership and is the prevailing authority in Meah Shearim.

The army conversions have become a serious flashpoint. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which claims to speak for Russian immigrants, is advancing a bill in Knesset that would grant the military rabbinate independent status, removing it from the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. That would create a crisis of legitimacy within the Orthodox rabbinate, which sees its authority as independent of the state. Ovadia’s blanket legitimation of the army conversions was meant to head off the Yisrael Beiteinu bill. It hasn’t done that — Lieberman says they’re moving ahead with it regardless of whether Ovadia fixed their problem or not. Meanwhile, though, the Ovadia-Amar approval has enraged Elyashiv and the rest of the Haredi yeshiva world.

Beneath the surface is a longstanding grudge feud.

Ovadia started his Shas party in 1984 because of a longstanding feeling that the Ashkey Haredi rabbis didn’t treat Sephardi Haredi rabbis as equals. Shas’s electoral strength — usually double or triple the five Knesset seats that the Ashkeys’ Torah Judaism gets—has given Ovadia a fair amount of independent clout. Lately, though, he and his followers have been feeling humiliated on a variety of fronts. The most extreme was the 2009 case of the Slonim Hasidic-run Beis Yaakov girls’ school in the Haredi West Bank town of Emmanuel that put Sephardi girls in separate classrooms from the Ashkenazi girls; parents ended up going to jail when the school was ordered integrated and they refused to let their daughters go to class. That fight has now gone national: Shas claims the anti-Sephardi classroom segregation is a nationwide phenomenon and is pushing for financial sanctions against recalcitrant schools.


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