Ovadia Yosef declares military conversions kosher

Rotem: "We need to continue with the legislative process;" Amar endorses IDF conversions, signs documents following Yosef’s directive.

January 14, 2011 11:06
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Thousands of IDF conversions that were at the heart of a heated debate received on Friday the ultimate kashrut certificate signed by senior Sephardi adjudicator and President of the Torah Sages Council Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

“Concerning my knowledge of the IDF conversion process, the instructors teaching in it, the rabbinical judges and all those involved in this holy task, and after hearing the [three-man advisory committee], which was formed at my request,” Yosef wrote in a letter, “I have reached the conclusion that by Halacha, the IDF conversions are valid, according to our holy Torah. And the good recommendations of the rabbis, members of the committee, should be implemented.”

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Yosef’s letter followed a meeting attended by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the three senior rabbis appointed by Amar. The trio advised him on whether the halachic standards of the military conversions were such that he could endorse them with his signature, as the law demands. Amar signed the necessary document on Friday afternoon following Yosef’s directive, sources said.

That “technicality” of signatures, as it was recently termed by Amar and Yosef, had been overlooked for years, and the certificates of over 4,500 soldiers who had undergone the military conversion process were lacking Amar’s name.

When it was pointed out during a High Court of Justice hearing in September that this chief rabbi and his predecessors had inadvertently not been signing the conversions for years, the immediate remedy would have been to have Amar sign the certificates. While issuing a letter endorsing the IDF conversions, Amar declared his right to consult on the issue before granting his signature.

A public uproar erupted, as Amar’s decision appeared to cast serious aspersions on the validity of thousands of conversions.

Critics said that Amar’s first advisory committee, composed of members of the Chief Rabbinical Council, was meant to provide him with some fortification in face of the harsh criticism from the Lithuanian camp, which maintains that the IDF conversions are insufficiently stringent.

But that first committee fell apart days after its inception – after which Israel Beiteinu’s MKs David Rotem and Robert Ilatov presented a bill that would grant the military process autonomy from the Chief Rabbinate by appointing the IDF chief rabbi as final signatory instead of the country’s chief rabbi.

After the bill passed its preliminary Knesset hearing in December, Amar formed a new panel to advise him on this volatile subject, in what has amounted to a race against Israel Beiteinu’s bill, which will be brought for a vote in the Knesset Law Committee on Tuesday.

Yosef’s letter, which will be Amar’s roadmap in signing the IDF certificates and pushing for modifications in the IDF system, provides the chief rabbi with the “broad shoulders” needed to take the responsibility over the halachic validity of bygone processes – a responsibility for which only figures such as Yosef possess the halachic and public standing.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post, the advisory committee had concluded that it could not rule on thousands of past conversions, noting, however, that a figure of sufficient stature could do so (referring to Yosef).

The inevitable criticism of the haredi Lithuanian camp will now have to be directed at Yosef rather than at the advisory committee or Amar, and will necessitate a different tone and approach. Such criticism was evident in recent pashkevilim (street notices) accusing Amar of heresy if he endorsed the IDF conversions. These notices are most likely the product of elements within the Eda Haredit, while the more official public reactions of the Ashkenazi haredi leadership are usually found on the pages of Yated Ne’eman.

Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, of the capital’s Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood and chairman of the International Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters, on Saturday night criticized Yosef’s decision, saying that it could cause a schism within the Jewish people, as the majority of the leading rabbis would not accept his ruling.

“The decision of Amar’s committee not to take responsibility over certifying the army conversions, [proves] what the Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters has been saying for many years: that the vast majority of the army converts never had a sincere intention to change their lifestyle to accept a religious Jewish life, something which invalidates the conversion even de facto, and according to official standards of the Chief Rabbinate,” Eisenstein told the Post.

“Therefore, there is no way that we can recognize these conversions, as any decision to recognize them will cause a tremendous split within the Jewish nation. The leading haredi rabbis will be meeting in the next few days in order to decide on how to decide on the situation. The Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters wants to point out that the civil conversions, conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, have tremendous problems too, and most of them are also invalid,” he added.

Eisenstein’s organization acts under the auspices of Senior Ashkenazi adjudicator Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv to stiffen the procedure of Orthodox conversions.

“The Rabbinical Committee for Conversion Matters calls on the Chief Rabbinate not to cause a split in the unity of the People of Israel, and not to certify any conversions that don’t have the consensus of the majority of the leading rabbis,” he said.

The recommendations of the advisory committee regarding the military conversions were not made public, but apparently call to enhance Torah and Halacha study in the process, ensure an Orthodox curriculum, and replace some of the rabbinical judges employed by the army. These recommendations – which do not represent radical demands from a system already Orthodox by definition – seem acceptable to IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, who cooperated with Amar and his advisory committee during the past months of debate on the topic.

And, indeed, Yosef used the opportunity of the Friday message to bless, at the end of the short letter, “our exalted friend” Peretz with continued success in Torah study, and with longevity. The same day that Israel Beiteinu’s bill passed its preliminary reading in mid-December, the chief IDF rabbi expressed his objection to the notion of his heading an autonomous conversion authority detached from the Chief Rabbinate.

“The IDF Rabbinate should be an extension of the Chief Rabbinate; it is better for the strength of the conversion, while also benefiting the soldiers, that the conversion [process] not be split,” he wrote to Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the State Conversion Authority and also objects to Israel Beiteinu’s proposal.

“As far as the technical amendment is concerned, it does not necessitate legislation,” Peretz had added – to the delight of Shas, which vehemently opposes the bill.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised Yosef’s ruling on Friday, calling it very important news for the soldiers who have converted, for the IDF’s status, and for the unity of the nation.

Israel Beiteinu, meanwhile, showed no intention of shelving its bill after Yosef’s letter was made public.

“The solution is not satisfactory, since the Chief Rabbinate and Amar haven’t solved the problem,” Rotem said on Friday.

“Beyond that, the committee appointed by Amar himself did not agree to approve the IDF conversions, and a special adjudication by Yosef was necessary.”

Shas reacted furiously to Rotem’s declaration, calling his party one that “seeks to trample upon the People of Israel and the IDF for political gain. Despite the IDF conversions being valid, the poison of hatred, separatism and destruction of Judaism continue to seep out of [Israel Beiteinu],” an announcement read.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, an organization which advocates and advises on the Jewish life cycle, praised Yosef’s decision, which “proves the validity of our petition to the High Court of Justice demanding sweeping approval of all the conversions. In the light of Yosef’s ruling, we expect the marriage registrars to be forced to register all converts for marriage, and the rabbis who refuse to conform to resign from their positions in the Chief Rabbinate.”

It was during a hearing on a petition filed by ITIM and others that the issue of the missing signatures became known. The petition was submitted against four marriage registrars who had refused to register the marriages of couples in cases where one or both of them had converted to Judaism in state-administered conversion courts, whether military or civilian.

In November, the state informed the High Court that the Chief Rabbinate had appointed four rabbinical judges from the state-administered conversion courts to serve as marriage registrars. These judges would have the power to register anyone who had converted to Judaism according to a ruling by the state-appointed courts, rather than firing the reluctant marriage registrars.

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