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by Mati Wagner, Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2005

Former Chief Rabbi
Yisrael Lau
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimsk

In response to the bestowal of the Israel Prize on Rabbi Israel Meir Lau for "bridging rifts in Israeli society", the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements in Israel criticized the former Chief Rabbi for his intransigence against non-Orthodox.

"The public acknowledgement of Lau's achievements in fostering unity in Israeli society provides the perfect opportunity for him to retract unfortunate statements made against non-Orthodox conversions," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, head of the Masorti Movement in Israel.

Rabbi Uri Regev, Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, an umbrella organization for Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism in 41 countries, said Lau was undeserving of an Israel Prize for promoting peace and unity.

"If he were receiving it for eloquence and exceptional public speaking skills I would understand it," remarked Regev.

"I still remember how Lau, in an editorial in Hatzofeh, compared Reform Judaism to the Hizbullah," said Regev.

In response, a Lau spokesman said, "Rabbi Lau refuses to stoop to the level of those people. The facts speak for themselves. The committee that decided to give Rabbi Lau the prize is respected and accepted by all walks of life in Israeli society."

In a letter to the rabbi, Reuven Hammer, Head of the Conservative (Masorti) Rabbinical Court for Conversion in Israel, recalled Lau's decision to reject the Neeman Commission's suggestions.

The commission was saddled with the task of reaching a compromise with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism on the conversion issue.

In the late 1990's then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attempted to push legislation that would give Orthodoxy a monopoly on conversions.

However, the bill lost momentum in the face of strident opposition from Diaspora Jews and fear of a deterioration of Jewish unity.

The Neeman Commission hammered out a compromise in which Joint Conversion Institutes would staff Conservative and Reform teachers along side Orthodox ones. Jointly, these teachers would help prepare prospective converts for conversion. It was agreed that Orthodoxy would maintain its control over the final step of conversion - approval by a rabbinic court, immersion and circumcision. However, the Israeli Rabbinate's Rabbinical Council, headed at the time by Lau, rejected the Neeman Commission's recommendations.

In a statement issued at the time the Rabbinical Council forbid "any partnership with them and their ways. One should not even consider forming any joint enterprise with them." The council also accused non-Orthodox of "fomenting a schism among the people of Israel and trying to instill in them ways that stray from the generations old paths, thus bringing about a catastrophe leading to assimilation in Diaspora Judaism."

Rabbi Hammer, who was a member of the Neeman Committee, which was also composed of Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders, wrote in his letter to Lau that his approach to non-Orthodox conversions "does not seem to me to foster bridge-building among various groups of Jews and certainly does nothing to forge ties of brotherhood between Israel and the Diaspora, especially since the majority of Diaspora Jews are members of the very groups you condemned.

"If there can be a dialogue between Orthodox and secular, between Jews and Christians, between rabbis and priests- even the Pope – cannot there also be dialogue between Orthodox rabbis and other rabbis?"