More than 100 rabbis from the national religious sector, including some of the most senior figures from the conservative wing of the community, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the weekend, calling on him to oppose proposed changes to the conversion system under consideration by the government.
The reforms, proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, have stirred considerable controversy and faced significant opposition from the Chief Rabbinate and hard-line national religious rabbis.
The regulations, originally advanced as legislation, would give municipal chief rabbis the power to establish their own conversion courts in order to make conversion more accessible, with the aim to increase conversion rates among non-Jewish Israeli citizens, including minors, from the former Soviet Union.
Due to opposition from Bayit Yehudi, Stern agreed to withdraw his bill, which had advanced to the final stages of the legislative process, in exchange for an agreement to pass a binding government decision to implement the main tenets of Stern’s proposed law.
But the rabbis who wrote to the prime minister oppose the reforms planned for implementation via government decision, and claim that it takes too much authority away from the Chief Rabbinate.
Several of the most senior rabbis gave personal explanations for the opposition to the bill.
“Conversion to Judaism today means joining the historic Jewish people, as defined by Jewish law, not a new nation,” said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“It has always been agreed that the question of who is a Jew is a matter of Jewish law. Changing this in legislation will harm Jewish law and will also harm converts and will deceive them because they will make an effort and it’ll turn out that they’re not Jewish and won’t be able to get married,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of the Shomron Regional Council, emphasized the need for the Chief Rabbinate to control the conversion process.
“Conversion must be in the complete control of the Chief Rabbinate, and not allow everyone to establish their own rabbinical court [for conversion].
This law will create anarchy and will let foreign forces enter the Jewish people, including those who aren’t really interested in being Jewish,” Levanon said, threatening that separate records of Jewish heritage would need to be opened if Stern’s proposals passed.
Stern and other proponents of the bill argue that the legislation does not address Jewish law at all, and claim that if efforts are not made to convert more members of the non-Jewish immigrant community, intermarriage in Israel will increase.
Advocates of the measures have pointed out that rabbis establishing new conversion courts will have received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, will have taken exams in the laws of conversion, and will be accompanied by another two rabbinate-ordained rabbis on the courts, including qualified rabbinical judges.