The dispute over the degree of leniency that Jewish law affords the conversion process is not one of halachic stringency, but one of nationalistic ideology, a prominent national religious educator said Monday.

“The State Conversion Authority has also annulled conversions,” said Rabbi Neria Gutel, speaking at a conference on religious educational attitudes toward Israeli non-Jews at the Rehovot campus of Orot Teachers’ College, which he heads. “The question of whether to annul a conversion is not one that divides national religious and haredi rabbis.”

Gutel focused his address on the estimated 320,000 Israelis who made aliya under the Law of Return, but are not Jewish according to Halacha. National religious rabbis and lawmakers are seeking ways to help these people – who speak Hebrew, serve in the IDF and consider themselves Israeli in every way – to undergo conversion according to Jewish law.

The conversion courses offered by the State Conversion Authority and by IDF conversion courts, both of which act under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, have come under scrutiny by Ashkenazi haredi leaders. One is Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, chairman of the International Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters, who recently said IDF conversions could not be recognized since most of these converts never intended to live a religious Jewish life. Another, Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the High Rabbinical Court, annulled conversions carried out in the courts of the State Conversion Authority, led by Rabbi Haim Druckman of the national religious camp, though his verdict was eventually overruled by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Nevertheless, Gutel said in an address to teacher trainees, one should not conclude that only haredi rabbis annul conversions, and that national religious rabbis are lax in their conversion standards. While the true intent of a convert cannot necessarily be judged by his or her future actions – which therefore cannot be irrevocable grounds for an annulment – there are cases in which the evidence regarding the convert’s intent is clear.

“The State Conversion Authority also annulled conversions,” he said, citing two cases mentioned in Ve’ohev Ger (And Loves the Convert), a book recently published by Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, head of the Tzomet Institute and founder of the State Conversion Authority in 1995. In the book, Rozen reviews the case of a woman who was in a relationship with a non-Jew prior to, throughout and after her successful conversion. The Interior Ministry found out and informed the rabbinical court, which annulled the conversion. Another annulment cited in Rozen’s book involves a man who told the rabbinical court he was an Israeli citizen without mentioning that his citizenship had been revoked, and that he was under a criminal investigation.

“The question of whether to annul a conversion is not one that divides national religious and haredi rabbis,” Gutel said. “Rabbinic courts are committed to Jewish law, and if there has been a fundamental transgression, a conversion can be canceled.”

He also cited rabbis considered beacons of national religious society who supported tighter conversion methods, such as Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, as well as prominent haredi rabbis whose teachings on certain aspects of conversion could be considered more lenient, such as the Sanz Admor, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam.

Conversion considerations, Gutel continued, need not take into account solely the “pure” Jewish law, but also broader national concerns.

“This is an ideological dispute with national motivations,” he said, referring to differences between haredi and national religious outlooks. “Both aspects have wide expanse in Jewish law.”

National religious rabbis, he explained, are trying to proceed leniently, “since our lenience is stringency.”

“Today you have 300,000 such Israelis, tomorrow – assimilation and destruction of the Jewish people,” he said. “We make leniencies where we can – but only such that are based on Halacha. Just don’t say we are not acting in accordance with Jewish law.”

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