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  • Martin van den Bergh

Riding out Rabbinic Conflicts

Even though I am no longer a Congregational Rabbi, I still take a great interest in happenings within the Rabbinic World. As in every arena, the Rabbinic World is not without its conflicts and difficulties, and this last week has especially not been without its challenges. Let me just reflect on two particular issues.


Firstly the pronouncements of the current Rishon LeZion, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Last Thursday he attended the annual conference of my Yeshiva, the Midrash Sepharadi in the Old City of Jerusalem. He made two comments which gleaned reactions beyond the confines of the conference itself, although both centred on the issue of conversion. His first comment regarded the issue of those coming from the former Soviet Union, many of whom he said could not be recognised as being Halachically Jewish. This pronouncement was not new. Already in 1991 there was a recognisition that at least 30% of them were not Jewish, but were allowed to come to Israel because Israel did not want to force the splitting of families of mixed marriages. Where there has been greater concern today, has been his accusation that many of those who are not regarded as being Jewish have actively worked to undermine the Jewish (in this meaning the Jewish religious) status of Israel.


I have always thought that if the Chief Rabbinate did not take practical steps to address this predicament, this was a time-bomb which has been waiting to explode. And indeed in terms of the political perspective of Israel this is indeed happening. Therefore, I have felt for a long time that the Chief Rabbinate needs to take a lenient and pragmatic stance in order to help to resolve this predicament. And here comes the second part of what the Rishon LeZion spoke about last Thursday. He attacked an unnamed Rabbi who has been one of the main advocated of taking a lenient attitude to conversion. Unnamed, but it was blatantly clear who he was referring to. And indeed the particular rabbi, somehow got to hear of the Rishon LeZion's attack on him, and proceeded to counter-attack the Rishon LeZion through the medium of Facebook.


It was actually the first issue which has landed the Rishon LeZion in difficulties, and because of it, there have now been calls for him to be relieved of his position.


My personal view is that while the Rishon LeZion is correct that there are elements from the former Soviet Union that cannot be recognised as being Jewish, nevertheless, I still maintain that there should have been efforts to find a way for leniency in bringing them fully within the Jewish (religiously) People. I already made this point in an article published in the Jerusalem Post a number of years ago. Additionally, I feel that there needs to be a greater effort on the part of the Chief Rabbis, to promote peace, and also to show the beauty of Judaism, rather than to ferment discord.


Another event which concerns me in the same vein is the disinviting of the United Kingdom Chief Rabbi to the Siyum of the learning of Talmud last Tuesday in the United Kingdom. This is not only an affront to the Chief Rabbi, it is an insult to the main body of Anglo-Jewry and the many communities that come under his authority. One need not always agree, but it is always to uphold respect for one another, especially within the Jewish community. I hope that those Rabbis, both within London and beyond will have upheld the dignity of the Anglo-Jewish Rabbinate, and withdrawn from attending this Siyum, but rather arranged their own Siyum. In stark contrast, I was privileged to attend the Siyum held last Shabbat in my neighbourhood, with the attendance of the local community Rabbanim. They showed by example the strength of Torah learning, and in tern the strength of the Jewish community. This is what the organisers of the Siyum in London last Tuesday should have shown, rather than promote dissension.

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What to do with the statues?

I abhor discrimination and the oppression of anyone. Indeed my parents taught me to respect any human being, this coming from their experiences as Jews in the Second World War and the Holocaust. Yet,

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