Some 275,000 fellow Israelis identify as Jews but are not Jews under Jewish law (halacha).
80,000 of these are minors (below the age of 18). These figures, of course, will only increase over time, and they will result in increasing intermarriage. The Jewish People in the Jewish homeland have embarked on the very process which is destroying the foundations and future of the Jewish Diaspora. What are we doing to avoid this disaster which looms so imminent and so clear? Nothing. Our leaders are averting their eyes so that like young children, they can imagine that the problem which is not seen is not there.
MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) has proposed a Law on Conversion which will begin tackling this problem. It will enable city and local council rabbis to convene courts and perform conversions.
Currently, all is under the direct jurisdiction of the chief rabbis.
These new conversion tribunals consist of two additional rabbis (three in total) who are either certified religious court judges or have been yeshiva heads for at least a decade.
Contrary to the opinions of most serving rabbis, the Chief Rabbinate opposes the legislation.
It seems that the Chief Rabbinate starts its analysis of innovative proposals by opposing any change of anything unless it can be convinced that nothing will really change. But something has to change – a lot has to change – because the present state of conversion is a fiasco.
As the State Comptroller found in his 2013 report on conversions, there is no consistent work plan, there is no orderly supervision, there are bureaucratic bottlenecks galore, there is a serious shortage of religious functionaries, and the judges frequently keep applicants waiting for interminable periods because they show up so late.
There is even a problem in the issuing of certificates for those who survive these many ordeals.
And the State Comptroller also found that “fees” are being demanded from applicants in violation of law. All these problems are cited in the Finkelstein Report issued this month by the Institute for Zionist Strategies.
But there is room for optimism.
Newspapers reported on June 12 that MK Stern and Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Eli Dahan are negotiating a joint proposal to be backed by the government.
The chief rabbis, of course, posit reasons why they are opposed to change. First they argue that the proposed law will allow non-halachic (i.e., non-Orthodox) conversions.
But this is not so, as can readily be understood from the composition of the tribunals.
Indeed, these same city rabbis supervise kashrut and register marriages with the approval of the chief rabbis, presumably without compromising halacha.
Next, the two chief rabbis argue that the authority for conversions must be centralized to be halachically legitimate. But this flies in the face of the past rulings and practice of former chief rabbis of eminent distinction (e.g., Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Shmuel Goren, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog).
The real concern of the religious hierarchy is that when diverse authorities apply law (here, halacha) different precedents emerge – some more tolerant and user-friendly, others more rigid.
This, no doubt, is true. But this is the nature of any efficient judicial system. The model for this reform, after all, was first introduced by Yitro when he advised Moses that the latter could not control every judicial pronouncement without hopelessly bogging down the system. The proposed law seeks to improve the halachic system; it does not seek to change halacha or to weaken it. It does not seek to lower the threshold based on the popular precedent of Ruth the Moabite or in the spirit of the massive hocus pocus conversion of the Edomites by the Maccabees in 125 BCE.
The problem we confront is huge. Many, if not most, of the 275,000 Jewish non-Jews do not want to undertake the rigors of halachic conversion. They have already undergone what Professor Asher Cohen calls sociological conversion. They already consider themselves part of the Jewish community and a good part of that Jewish community feels the same way.
Nevertheless, much can still be done to mitigate future division.
We can still convert many of the Jewish children with the consent and support of their parents. For, as the IZS report elaborates, children cannot and therefore need not declare their intention to observe Jewish ritual. The Beit Din (tribunal) acts on their behalf.
A Jewish father can sponsor the conversion on behalf of the child.
(If the mother is Jewish, the child is already a Jew and does not need to convert). There is even authority for the valid conversion of a child sponsored by a non-Jewish father or by non-Jewish parents.
Moreover, it is estimated that 10,000 of the 80,000 youngsters in question attend religious schools and thus can easily be converted. They are already familiar with Jewish tradition, and their parents obviously want them to be part of the Jewish fold.
Many of the others can also be converted, for it would not involve the laborious procedures which so discourage the parents from converting.
And many of these same parents are likely to want to ease the path of their children down the road when the present cost in inconvenience is relatively modest.
The problem of so many non-halachic Jews in Israel is a dark cloud on the Jewish People’s horizon. It must be resolved. The only question is whether it will be solved according to halacha so that all segments of society can benefit, or whether it will be solved by other means (e.g., the Edomite precedent) after it is too late for halacha because our overly timid religious leaders have missed the boat.
It now looks like the Stern bill may pass. If so, it could save the rabbis from themselves, save us from the rabbis, and save us all bitter division. It could open a brighter future for our people.
The author, an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.