A week ago, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman was recorded saying regarding the kashrut and conversion reforms that had been proposed by former Yamina Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (currently on Benny Gantz’s National Camp list):
“I think I’m much closer to Matan Kahana than to Bezalel Smotrich, and it could be that from a halachic point of view we are super correct …
“But when you try to impose on me––even if I agree with you––a reform of conversions or kashrut supervision, and you put a gun on the table, when on your side of the table stand Yulia Malinovsky (Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu), who doesn’t give a hoot about the Jewish identity of the country, a Reform rabbi, who’s a very nice person but sees reality differently from us, and a Muslim sheik,” you are being delusional.
The statement above, which Rothman confirmed and repeated in our interview, is typical of this Religious Zionism party’s senior member who is slated for a key post in the next government, should the November 1 election grace his party with enough votes to cast it as the third-largest in the 25th Knesset, as all the mainstream media polls are predicting.
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
Simcha Rothman, 42, was born and grew up in Bnei Brak, attended a hesder yeshiva, served in the IDF’s Corps of Engineers, and received his master’s degree in public law from Tel Aviv and Northwestern universities.
When he started his practice as a lawyer, he also co-founded the Movement for Governability and Democracy which deals with “maintaining the balance among the various elements of democracy in the State of Israel: majority rule, individual rights, governmental fairness, and transparency.”
In 2019, he published his book “Supreme Rulers,” about the excessive activism of Israel’s Supreme Court and the justice system, and their intrusion into the workings of the other two branches of government in a manner that harms the very foundations of the democratic system.
Rothman was given the fourth spot in Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party and became an MK in the 24th Knesset that was dissolved this past summer. He won third place on the party’s list in the recent primaries.
We met in Ra’anana on the last Friday before Tuesday’s election. MK Rothman – basketball tall, broad-shouldered and fit, soft-spoken, and unwaveringly serious, was all business. In many ways, he fits the old popular notion of a Mafdalnik––member of the old NRP: mainstream Israeli with a yarmulke, serves in the army, works for a living, pays his taxes – many, many miles away from the color and theatrics of, say, Itamar Ben Gvir, who shares the same election list.
I should point out, though, that his smartphone’s ringtone, which went off several times during our conversation, is a recording of Avigdor Liberman saying he never heard of Simcha Rothman. So, one may suspect some whimsy behind his all-business appearance.
THE PROBLEM WITH MATAN KAHANA’S CONVERSIONS REFORM
I cite the leaked recording about Rothman’s ideological closeness to Matan Kahana, and ask: If you get the 15 mandates the polls have been predicting, do you see yourself as Minister of Religious Services?
Rothman repeats Bezalel Smotrich’s mantra about not selling the bear’s skin before killing the bear, then says that the main issue he wishes to deal with in the next Knesset is Israel’s justice system, “That’s my forte.”
He also cautions that it’s hard to anticipate what might happen in the post-election “multilateral negotiations.” But he agrees to discuss his views on former-Minister Kahana’s reforms in conversions and kashrut supervision.
Does he agree with Kahana’s laissez-faire approach, empowering each city’s chief Orthodox rabbi to conduct his own conversions court?
“You have many approaches about what kind of conversion is possible,” Rothman says. “Everyone agrees that the convert must keep mitzvot – but how many? Must you become religious to convert, or maybe even Haredi? Must you live in a religious community?
“Most people would agree that a gentile cannot convert in order to become an atheist and a secular Jew. That’s not an option. You must observe the mitzvot. But how many and which mitzvot – that’s where the debate lies. Some rabbis would say they cannot convert a gentile unless he commits to waiting six hours between eating meat and dairy. Others say these details are less critical than a belief in Hashem and not openly desecrating Shabbat.
“It’s a halachic debate between Haredim and non-Haredim which I, as a member of the Knesset, should not pass judgment on. And my personal position on these issues is irrelevant.
“What I meant in my response to Matan Kahana’s conversions reform was that there’s a gap between the rabbis I would go to on this, and the rabbis Bezalel Smotrich would go to, and the rabbis Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) would go to, and these are all halachically legitimate. I’m not including the Reform or Conservatives; I’m only including rabbis within the Orthodox community.”
Is Rabbi David Stav (head of the Tzohar rabbinic organization) included in your list of legitimate authorities?
“Yes, Rabbi Stav, and the head of Yeshivat Maale Adumim (the late Rabbi Rabinovitz – DI), and Rabbi Yaakov Medan of the Gush Etzion yeshiva, and Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern. All of them are legitimate.
“But my argument with Matan Kahana was that the fact that you hold by this approach of this particular rabbi – is good for you. But when it comes to conversions, if half the Jewish people don’t recognize it, it doesn’t matter how legitimate your approach may be. You’ll be handing the gentile convert a certificate that’s not accepted by half the Jewish people.
“Reform and Conservative conversions are likewise out of the question because the majority of religious Jews do not recognize their validity. But even if you present an Orthodox halachic approach but most Orthodox communities will not accept it – the certificate would not have validity.
“It’s not the same as kashrut or Shabbat. There are disagreements about Shabbat-related issues: can you place food on an electric plate on Shabbat? There are many different approaches, but in your home, you follow the law as you see fit, and the story ends there. It doesn’t matter to anyone outside your home. But conversions are a national issue. The fact that you follow a particular interpretation is meaningless – there has to be a consensus among the Jewish people about it.
“Matan Kahana goes to legitimate rabbis with his halachic issues, I would go to them as well. But if their position on conversions is not acceptable to 50% of the Jewish people it has no legitimacy.
“And if you push your minority of Orthodox rabbis with the help of Yulia Malinovsky, a Reform Rabbi (MK Gilad Kariv, Labor), and a Muslim Sheikh––It’s starting to sound like a joke: Matan Kahana, Gilad Kariv, a Muslim Sheikh and Yulia Malinovsky walk into a bar––and you try to shove down our throats your halachic interpretation when you can’t win fair and square in the Orthodox world, then it’s illegitimate, even if you’re right.
“I was harsh in my response to Matan Kahana because it was not a halachic debate. In halachic debates we are pluralists. This is a national, political debate where we must have a consensus.”
I pointed out that a similar lack of consensus exists regarding the Chief Rabbinate, whose rulings are not acceptable by and large to most Haredi Jews.
Rothman responded that the Haredim accept the Chief Rabbinate’s conversions. But when I pressed him, asking if he seriously thought a guy from the Ge’ulah neighborhood in Jerusalem would marry his daughter off to a Chief Rabbinate convert, he said, “Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, but I believe most Haredi rabbis accept the Chief Rabbinate’s conversions, and, of course, the majority of the Orthodox community in Israel accepts them, including all the national religious.
“But if Matan Kahana’s approach to conversions is accepted by only 20% of the national religious sector, and not a single Haredi rabbi would endorse it, and neither would most national religious rabbis, then a gentile who was converted according to Kahana’s reform would be given a meaningless certificate and they won’t be recognized by the majority of religious Jews. It’s not about halacha, it’s about policy.”
THE LAW OF RETURN
Would he change anything about the Law of Return?
“We want to, it’s in our platform,” Rothman says. “First, we want to remove the Grandson clause. The Law of Return should bring Jews to Israel. But today, the Law of Return has an option for someone whose grandfather was a Jew. We say that the fact that the grandson of a Jewish man has the same status as a halachic Jew has created a situation whereby many who attain Israeli citizenship are not Jews, do not define themselves as Jews, and in most cases don’t even want to become Jews. That’s a mistake.”
The 1950 Law of Return gave people with one or more Jewish grandparents, and their non-Jewish spouses, the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. The law was amended in 1970, to extend the right of entry and settlement to people with at least one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not they are considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.
Religious Zionism wants to amend the law again, eliminating the level of a Jewish grandfather, and limiting it to the offspring of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father.
Incidentally, the Law of Return was tested in 2011, when a gay couple, one Jewish and one Catholic, made Aliyah. The Jewish spouse quickly received citizenship but the Interior Ministry was reluctant to accept his husband. The ministry finally gave in, and in 2014, then Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that Jews in same-sex relationships who got married abroad are welcome under the Law of Return, even with a non-Jewish spouse, and both spouses would receive Israeli citizenship.
NATIONAL RELIGIOUS CHIEF RABBI
Bezalel Smotrich announced that in 2025, should his party still be in government, he’d like to appoint at least one national religious chief rabbi.
“Of course, we want it,” Rothman responds.
But when I confront him with the sad history of the last time a national religious rabbi––Rabbi David Stav––was the candidate for Chief Rabbi, and the “Hardalim” (national religious Haredim) torpedoed his nomination, he says:
“The main problem was the fights within our own camp. We couldn’t agree on one candidate to represent the national religious community. The reason the Haredim got both chief rabbis and we got none was that they stood behind one candidate (for each ‘ethnic’ group – DI), and we couldn’t form a consensus. I hope this will change – we’re working on it.”
I propose Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, and Rothman, who says he recently spent Shabbat in Har Bracha and met with Rabbi Melamed, whom he likes a lot personally, nevertheless refuses to sell the bear’s skin before Tuesday. He did, however, confide that Rabbi Melamed, who may be the most tolerant Orthodox rabbi when it comes to accepting non-Orthodox denominations, would probably not enjoy a consensus within the national religious rabbis. A chief rabbi, Rothman stresses, must be accepted by the large majority.
“I think we have to be in the mainstream, and today everybody is pulling for the edges,” he says.
I suggest that by pushing so hard for the mainstream we’d inevitably end up with someone too parve, and he agrees, and asks: “When you say you want someone who won’t be parve, do you prefer milchig or fleishig?”
“When you elect a president, you want someone who can reach the majority of the population,” he says. “Likewise with a chief rabbi. You can’t choose an antagonist––someone half the people would not accept. The Haredim must present candidates we can swallow, and we must suggest someone the Haredim can swallow. We are not looking to fight the Haredim.”
Rothman suggests that on the level of the statements of intent, you won’t find big differences between the kashrut plan proposed by Matan Kahana and the one offered by himself with Bezalel Smotrich, or by Moshe Gafni. “The difference is in the attitude,” he explains. “Do you want to destroy the Chief Rabbinate? Do you want to work with it, against it, or without it?”
I mention that millions of Jews, many of them Orthodox, are living in America without a chief rabbi and seem to be doing very well.
Rothman’s response is unexpected:
“In America, when a couple gets married, they have to decide whether or not to keep kosher because of what’s known as the ‘kosher tax’ (the higher price kosher Jews pay for their food, their children’s education, etc. – DI).
“The decision to maintain a kosher home means something. In Israel you don’t hear very often the term ‘dairy out’ (eating in non-kosher dairy and fish restaurants – DI). We want Israel to be a place where it’s easier, not harder to keep kosher.
“And if you compare Israel to the US – what about Jews who live way out in Colorado, where the supermarkets don’t feature a kosher aisle and your access to kosher meat and hard cheeses is limited? And keep in mind that in Israel, vegetables, too, are supervised.”
I suggest that the good thing about Matan Kahana’s kashrut supervision reform is that it solved the conflict of interest created by the fact that the owner pays the supervisor’s salary. He corrects me: “Not only did it not solve it, but it also made it worse.”
“Today, when a rabbi identifies a big business in his constituency that is not adhering to the rules, and he revokes their kashrut certificate, he will not suffer, his salary the following month will remain the same.
“The Kahana system introduces for-profit kashrut organizations where the managing rabbi stands to lose money should he penalize the offending business. He created a dependency of the supervising organization on the business owner. It’s much worse.
“The only winners from the Kahana kashrut reform would be the Badatz (Haredi) kashrut services because the business would prefer to pay a little extra and get a kashrut certification that covers 100% of the consumers.
“I don’t see anything ‘holy’ in the fact that the State of Israel provides kashrut certificates, although some people do, because it’s one of the things the Jewish State should do–I have a practical take on this matter.
“I told Kahana in a meeting that included Rabbi Yitzchok Goldknopf (UTJ) – Matan, you reversed roles with the Haredim. They want a kashrut system that would include the vast majority of Israeli Jews, to guarantee at least a modicum of kashrut – and you have taken the ultra-Haredi Badatz approach, that doesn’t care about anyone who doesn’t use their supervision. They are religious Zionists and you are Neturei Karta.”
REFORMING THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
I point out that he and Smotrich may have made a mistake when they included in their presentation of “Law and Order,” a plan to reform the justice system in Israel, the removal of the “Breach of Trust” from the criminal code, because Israeli media grabbed that part, since it had to do with Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal indictments, and ignored the rest of the points they were making.
Rothman argued that had they not thrown the media this slab of red meat, they would have ignored their plan altogether.
Smotrich and Rothman argued that, unlike bribery, which can be documented in black-and-white terms, “Breach of Trust” is open to the interpretation of prosecutors and judges, and as a result has mushroomed and become a catch-all part of almost every indictment against elected officials.
Their “Law and Order” plan also deals with the serious ambiguity of the current definition of the Attorney General, whose Hebrew title is “Judicial Advisor to the Government,” and whose authority is practically unlimited – not something you want to give an unelected civil servant.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar ran on a platform that promised to split the position into two parts, but he never lived up to his promise. Smotrich and Rothman, quite sensibly, want the position to be split into three:
1. The legal advisor to the government, cautioning the PM and his ministers regarding the legality of any given move;
2. The attorney representing the government in court; and,
3. The equivalent of the US Attorney General, an independent position that supervises the justice system, with an emphasis on prosecutorial decisions.
“Chief legal advisor, chief prosecutor, and chief solicitor,” Rothman puts it, because, you know, he has a master’s in public law.
I note that Gideon Sa’ar is saying their plan is a danger to democracy when this was his key platform issue which he failed to carry out.
“The tragedy known as Gideon Sa’ar could be the subject of a whole different article,” Rothman quips. “The sad fact is that all the reforms he had promised in the justice system he pushed aside because of his obsession with Netanyahu.
“Yair Lapid said it in so many words: Yes, we want to reform the role of the AG, but we won’t do it because it would help Netanyahu in court.
“I, for one, see no reason to hold the State of Israel hostage because Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar hate Netanyahu.”
Rothman points out that he wrote his reform of the justice system well before Netanyahu’s indictments, “So, no one can blame me for setting out to defend Netanyahu. I wrote in my book in 2018 about the need to remove the Breach of Trust clause.”
Rothman suggests that if Lapid is so gung-ho on prosecuting Netanyahu, the Knesset can legislate that no matter what the Law & Order reform achieves, all things Netanyahu would be exempted. When I protest that this would be the epitome of personalized lawmaking, he agrees but reiterates that he won’t hold the country hostage because the reform may cut Netanyahu some slack. He also believes that the cases against the former PM are “bogus.”
I praise him for bringing back the right of standing to the High Court of Justice petitions. Unlike the entire Western world, Israel is the only democracy where a petition can be submitted to the High Court by individuals who do not suffer directly from the law or government action they seek to remedy.
“Some people hold that the court in Israel is moderate, it doesn’t interfere much in the business of the other two branches of government, it’s only 4% of the cases in which the court rules against the government. The majority of these petitions are thrown out,” Rothman says.
“Do you know how many cases the US Supreme Court handles each year?” he asks.
I came prepared: 60, I reply. I think he’s impressed…
“Sixty, maybe eighty, depending on the year,” he says. “There was one year, in the 1950s, when they handled 200 cases – and it was a rare thing. The US has 50 states, and 330 million people, and Israel has about 9 million, so you would think that in Israel you’d have much fewer Supreme Court cases. But we have as many as 15,000 cases some years, in most years it’s 10,000. So, you’re talking about 4% out of 10,000, or 400 cases every year.”
If those cases are based on petitions by groups or individuals who have no direct connection to them, this burgeons into 400 opportunities for people’s lives to be destroyed, and their property lost, by someone they never directly offended.
“The High Court decides cases without proof, time and time again, solely based on appeals by groups without the right of standing,” Rothman points out. “They demolish homes based on those petitions. It’s crazy, there’s no other country that allows something like that to happen.
“And it doesn’t reach only the settlements,” he continues. “Each time a municipality changes its zoning regulations, it can be stopped by individuals or groups who are not directly affected. That’s why zoning procedures in Israel take so long, which brings up the cost of constructing new housing. It affects the country in every way imaginable, and, of course, it affects the stability of the government.”
THE OVERRIDE CLAUSE
The purpose of the 1994 Override Clause which amended the Basic Law: Freedom of employment, was to balance out the enormous power that had already been amassed by the Supreme Court at the time, to help create a dialogue among the three branches of government. There have since been attempts to impose an override clause on additional basic laws, but this was met with resistance from lawmakers who said such clauses would declaw the Supreme Court.
“This might be harder for an American audience to understand,” Rothman says. “The Constitution allows the US Supreme Court to annul a law it deems unconstitutional. Why would Israel want to give its parliament the edge over the court and harm the balance of power among the branches of government?
“The reason is that we don’t have a constitution. So, we shouldn’t be compared to the US, we should be compared to the UK, where the Supreme Court cannot revoke parliamentary legislation. But we need to permit elected officials in the Knesset to legislate without constant interference from the court. Today, the court, without any constitutional grounds, can revoke whichever law they disagree with. Based on their personal values.
“No one elected them. It’s not like the US, where the makeup of the court is changed every few years by elected officials. Here the Supreme Court can cancel laws based, essentially, on their worldview, basically without a constitutional legal foundation. That’s why we want an override clause whereby the Supreme Court can revoke a law only with a unanimous vote of all 15 justices. If the new law is so bad that all the justices are against it, fine, we’ll respect their view. But if it’s a matter of a majority versus a minority of justices – we’ve already resolved that when we passed the law in the Knesset. We shouldn’t have to pass it one more time in court.
“And should the Supreme Court annul a law with less than a unanimous vote, then we in the Knesset can override them with a majority of 61, perhaps bigger if it’s a basic law – although basic laws have been passed by fewer than 60 votes,” Rothman explains.
SUPREME COURT APPOINTMENTS
Currently, the committee to elect judges in Israel, including for the Supreme Court, is comprised of nine members: the Justice Minister and another minister, picked by the government; two MKs picked by the Knesset (often one from the coalition and one from the opposition); two members of the Lawyers’ guild, picked by its national conference; the President of the Supreme Court, and two additional Supreme Court Justices.
“Our proposal calls for four coalition and two opposition members, and three judges: one from the Supreme, one from the Magistrate, and one from the District Courts. The latter two are picked by the Justice Minister.”
The proposal, for the first time, includes public hearings, probably to take place at the Knesset.
Will the Knesset then vote on the nomination?
“No, this committee will vote,” Rothman says.
Why not have the legislator ratify the vote?
“Good question,” he agrees and explains that the idea is not to revolutionize the system but to tweak it conservatively.
“We want to restore the system through evolution, not revolution,” he says, noting that enough change is being introduced by the fact that 6 committee members are politicians, and two more are appointed by the Justice Minister, who is also a politician.
“It also ends the practice whereby lawyers who will eventually appear in court before the elected judges are involved in picking them,” he points out.
RANDOMIZE THE SUPREME COURT PANELS
The Smotrich-Rothman reform also establishes that justices will be picked for panels to hear petitions by a completely randomized process. Currently, it is the Supreme Court President who picks the justices for each panel, and although she claims the process is for the most part randomized, a brief review of the cases and the justices that were appointed to hear them reveals otherwise. And as a result, the Court President can determine the outcome of a case by the justices she picks.
We conclude our conversation around 4:30 Friday afternoon. I wish MK Rothman much success and see him off to his next mission: he was spending Shabbat shul hopping in Petah Tikvah, a mission requiring both oratory and physical prowess.
For transparency’s sake, you should know I plan to vote for Rothman’s party and find his agenda to be cogent and sensible, as I do the agenda of his partner, MK Smotrich.
Vote Tet ט.