Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer
Rabbi Prof. Dov FischerCourtesy
From boyhood I was trained not just to learn Gemara, Rashi, Tosafot, Shu"tim (Rabbinic responsa), and more of the classical Judaic religious texts — not just to translate and analyze and later to teach the words — but I also was taught something more: Kavod HaTorah (to honor Torah) in the presence of Torah scholars.

Yes, in yeshivot k’tanot (Jewish elementary schools) with lower expectations, we learned at least to stop shooting spitballs and to stand like angels when the principal of religious studies walked into the classroom. In more proper yeshivot with higher standards, we learned to stand when our own rebbe (religious studies teacher) walked in. By late high school, we learned, when speaking directly to our rebbe, to address him in third person. Nothing changes a person like learning to speak to someone in third person — out of respect. It is truly humbling. You begin to realize your place, just as I was taught as an attorney to begin any oral argument with the words “May It Please the Court.”

Frankly, when some laity have spoken to me in third person, it has been both striking and embarrassing. Sometimes I have stopped them because I do not feel worthy of that level of honor. But in some other situations, where I know I have been the catalyst who played a role in changing their lives from misguided priorities to Torah values, I have let them talk to me that way, at least initially, because they have not yet encountered the next tier, the real worthies of rabbinic honor, and meantime they need that presence from me and somehow picked up the respectful terminology somewhere else. Soon enough, they will meet those more worthy.

Don’t believe for a moment that the typical non-Orthodox Jew in America cares a whit about prayer services at the Kotel (Western Wall) or about conversion rules in Israel.
There is a derekh eretz — a respect — that inheres in Torah and in the way we treat worthy rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis). That is why I will not call any of my Orthodox colleagues in the Rabbinical Council of America by the word “rabbi.” The term “rabbi” is a clergy term conferred also by non-Orthodox seminaries. I will not deny those who have earned a non-Orthodox diploma the title on the document. After all, I do not refuse to call an incompetent physician “Doctor.” Instead, I simply select someone else more competent to be my physician. In practicing law, I do not refuse to call an incompetent attorney “counselor”; instead, I quietly thank G-d that I am up against that guy instead of Clarence Darrow.

And that is why I call each of my Orthodox rabbinic colleagues by the English sobriquet “Rav.” If English can absorb Hebrew words like “Yom Kippur,” “shofar,” “matzo,” and “Mazal Tov,” it can absorb “Rav.” I distinguish between “rav” and “rabbi.”

Thus, I recently was roiled when, in reaction to Chief Rav David Lau’s refusal to certify and sign-off on certain conversions, an MK in Avigdor Liberman’s party stated that the Chief Rabbi is a paid functionary of the government, a functionary on the public payroll, and that it is she and her fellow Knesset parliamentarians who will tell the Chief Rabbi what to do. Thus, this Yulia Malinovsky stated, if the Chief Rav will not certify conversions based on the standards that Knesset members like her adopt, then she and they will just proceed to “fire” this “government functionary” and will just hire another one. A day later Avigdor Liberman, another bull forever in search of a china shop, spoke similarly.

If only they realized how, for all their anti-Sovietism, the Communists actually branded their tongues.

I stand with any Chief Rav of Israel in any conflict against an Avigdor Liberman or a Yulia Malinovsky. I stand with any rav anywhere who is told by a Malinovsky or Liberman “either you sign off on this conversion, or you are fired.” I pronounce “Shame on You!” to any Matan Kahana, Nir Orbach, Idit Sillman, Ze’ev Elkin, or such who countenances this even if the Minister of Religious Affairs' proposed version of the Conversion Law is not exactly the same as theirs.

I once encountered something like that. A very non-religious and arrogant layman with lots of money had a son marrying a non-Jewish woman. It already was a “done deal”; their wedding date had been set long before I even arrived at that congregation to take on my new rabbinic post. Now that father, who wanted Jewish grandchildren, met with me, “the new rabbi.” He knew enough to know that, for his son’s future progeny to be Jews: (i) the children’ religion would be based on the mother’s religion, and (ii) the mother’s conversion would have to be Orthodox. So the wealthy guy “read me the riot act”: either I convert her, or I am out of my new job before I am in.

I did meet with her and with her beau, not from employment fear but because it was the right thing to do. She had a lovely personality, was very respectful and courteous. So was the boyfriend. And she also was very honest: she just does not believe in G-d, has no desire to convert to any religion, has no intention to rear future children in any religion, will let them decide. It was clear she was not ready for proper conversion to Judaism. I did my best to explain it all to the rich patriarch, the prospective father-in-law who threatened my employment. I explained that the regional conversion court of the Rabbinical Council of America will not convert someone whose mantra is “I do not believe in G-d; I believe in love.” He did not accept the fact. I respectfully did not back down. No one fired me.

Today, as many as 33-50 percent of all “American Jews” are not even Jews — to the degree that no American Orthodox rav today will conduct their marriages, bar mitzvah their children in our shuls, or sell them grave plots in our cemeteries. Those are the facts on the ground in real life. I know; I am on the inside.
There is something that strikes deep in my kishkes (“innards”) when a brazen Avigdor Liberman or Yulia Malinovsky speaks that way of the Chief Rav of Israel and the Religious Affairs Minister stays silent. The idea that any Knesset member — even one who has some derekh eretz (respect) for Torah — can speak of the Chief Rav that way is appalling. That is not how someone addresses or even discusses a Chief Rav, whether it be a Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, Rav Unterman, Rav Goren, Rav Shapira, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Rav Dovid Lau, Rav Uziel, Rav Nissim, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Eliahu, Rav Bakshi-Doron, Rav Amar, or Rav Yitzchak Yosef.

The Chief Rabbinate must always have its own special independent authority on matters theological, safe from Avigdor Liberman and Yulia Malinovsky threats, safe from being overruled on Judaic religious matters by Arab Muslim political parties who may carry the tie-breaking votes in Knesset legislative sessions. If the Knesset votes to define Jews and conversions, and the vote is 61-59, and four votes come from Mansour Abbas and Ra’am, does that re-define Judaism? Jews have no business defining Islam or Christianity, and they have no business defining our religious traditions and laws.

No matter where a person stands on the Matan Kahana proposals that would blow up Jewish unity around the globe, there is a primacy on defending Kavod haTorah — the honor of Torah. If a Chief Rav takes the position amid a dispute on conversion standards that he will not certify or sign off on certain standards as a matter of conscience, I stand with him.

Sometimes it is helpful to step back and view the forest from outside the trees. Consider the central issue at play in the 1964 Richard Burton – Peter O’Toole movie “Becket,” a film “based on true historical facts” (which phrase means the movie — like the play — includes many historical factual errors). That basic drama between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket reflects the perpetual conflict between the secular state and its people’s religious values. Henry sought to be “rid of the meddlesome priest,” and I stand with the “meddlesome rav.” I would feel the same if Yeshiva University’s seminary, RIETS, tried to force HaRav Herschel Schachter or HaRav Mordechai Willig to sign off on a policy that either feels violates or even “only compromises” Torah.

Don’t believe for a moment that the typical non-Orthodox Jew in America cares a whit about prayer services at the Kotel (Western Wall) or about conversion rules in Israel. They are not flowing to make aliyah, and they care more about their version of climate change and political correctness than they care about Israel. Their money goes where it goes. The recent World Zionist Congress elections proved all.

But if the Knesset ever “fires” a Chief Rav for his having stood true on religious principle in a genteel but resolute way, a way reflecting a reasonable consensus position, it absolutely will blow up Jewish unity throughout the world. Agudah in America will not accept the kashrut of “converts” supposedly “certified” by a “replacement Chief Rabbi” selected by Mansour Abbas, Avigdor Liberman, Yulia Malinovsky, Walid Taha, Mazen Ghnaim, and Iman Khatib Yasan. Neither will the thousand rabbonim of Igud Harabbonim (Rabbinical Alliance of America). Neither will the Conference of European rabbis. Neither will the Beth Din of America, the central conversion court of the Rabbinical Council of America, nor such of its regional conversion courts like its main ones in Chicago and Los Angeles that have spoken out on record. Nor will Chief Rav Warren Goldstein of South Africa. Neither will scores upon scores of Young Israel and Orthodox Union congregational rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) like me.

Any up-ending of the Chief Rabbinate’s central conversion authority would just add one more layer of chaos to the rupture that “Reform Judaism” started in the Exile when it launched its patrilineal descent policy 40 years ago. Today, as many as 33-50 percent of all “American Jews” are not even Jews — to the degree that no American Orthodox rav today will conduct their marriages, bar mitzvah their children in our shuls, or sell them grave plots in our cemeteries. Those are the facts on the ground in real life. I know; I am on the inside.

We can preserve Judaism and Jewish unity quite fine without the Avigdor Libermans and Yulia Malinovskys who eventually pass from history as have the Yossi Sarids and Shulamit Alonis who preceded them and now are forgotten. As long as we have a Chief Rabbinate, we will stand.

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator, adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, and The Jewish Press. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .