“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation nor does truth become error because no one sees it” – Gandhi
In the past week, the chief rabbis of Israel and major rabbinic leaders of the Religious Zionism stream have been outspoken contesting the new conversion bill. Publishing their comments on Israeli websites, giving speeches and Torah lectures, and speaking to their students, rabbis such as Chaim Druckman, Shlomo Aviner and Yaacov Ariel have all concluded that the present law is a threat to Judaism and the future of the Jewish people.
While these rabbis have great followings, I’m concerned that their advisors and other “interested parties” have misinformed their rabbis about the bill. I’m certain that if they read the bill as it was approved in the Knesset law committee last week, they would be pleased with its content and approach. Having been involved in the writing of the bill, I would like to set the record straight.
The genesis of the bill can be found in the real threat to the Jewish people in Israel: the fact that over 330,000 immigrants (and their children) who made aliya as Jews are not Jewish in according to the halachic definition.
Practically, in Israel this means they cannot be married by the rabbinate or buried in the regular sections of Jewish cemeteries. In theory, it means that eight percent of the Jewish population of Israel is not Jewish, meaning that intermarriage rates will become rampant here in the coming years, and a situation will slowly develop that will threaten the Jewish character of the state.
The only real solution to this challenge is to open the doors of conversion as wide as possible while still maintaining the integrity of halacha.
Approximately 1,800 individuals listed in the population registry as “no religion” converted in 2013, through Israel’s conversion courts, while at least 7,000 new “no religion Jews” join the ranks of Israeli society each year. This is no zero-sum game.
At present, 33 rabbis are employed by the Religious Affairs Ministry and by government mandate, they are the only ones in the country who can perform official conversions.
And this brings me to the law. The law has one major goal: to expand significantly the number of rabbis who can perform conversions in order to create accessibility.
The above-mentioned rabbis speak of three problems with the law:
1. It is legislating halacha and the Knesset has no right to do that.
2. It will recognize non-Orthodox conversions.
3. It ignores the chief rabbi of Israel, who should be the halachic standard- bearer.
Each of these is patently false.
The law doesn’t address halachic issues. In fact, any language related to halacha was deliberately left out. It simply defines – for the first time in the law – who can perform conversions according to the “pekudat hahamara” or mandate of changing religion. Unlike today, where there is no law, this piece of legislation will for the first time enable Orthodox rabbis who meet certain thresholds to be able to perform conversions. These include municipal rabbis who will take an exam administered by the Chief Rabbinate, and heads of yeshivas who have served more than 10 years in that capacity.
The law does not “recognize” non-Orthodox conversions for the simple reason that it doesn’t address them. One of the great accomplishments of the present law is that for the first time, the non-Orthodox movements in Israel have worked together with the Orthodox to move religious legislation forward that is good for Jewish peoplehood. This may and hopefully will portend further areas of cooperation which don’t demand halachic compromise, but do demonstrate a spirit of cooperation which is so needed in today’s fractious Jewish culture.
Finally, the law does not ignore the chief rabbi of Israel. The chief rabbi will – should the bill pass in its present form – have a role determining the ethical conduct of the judges who sit on the court, he will appoint the director of the Conversion Authority, he will administer the tests to the judges and he will sign off on the conversions. It can hardly be said that the chief rabbi has been sidelined.
There is a real threat here, but the threat is not the bill passing. Rather it is that political interests and infighting torpedo legislation that has a chance to help Israeli society move forward in reclaiming its Jewish character.
To let the bill die now, or even to oppose the bill in its present form, will bring a new wave of assimilation, intermarriage, and may ultimately undermine the very nature of the Jewish state. And that’s the truth.
The author is the director of ITIM: the Jewish Advocacy Center (www.itim.org.il) and the rabbi of Kehilat Netivot in Ra’anana.