(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Conversion reform proposals made by MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua are likely to be brought to a vote and approved in a cabinet meeting on Sunday following an agreement with Bayit Yehudi on the matter.
The reforms were originally proposed by Stern as legislation, but they evinced the ire of hard-line national-religious rabbis, the haredi political establishment and the chief rabbis for what they claimed was an attempt to reduce the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
The opposition was so great Stern was forced to back down and agree to enact them by government edict instead of via the statute books.
According to the agreement ironed out this week, chief municipal rabbis will be allowed to establish their own three-man rabbinical courts for conversion, but the signature of the chief rabbis on every conversion will still be required.
That the reforms are now being carried out by governmental decision and not by legislation means that it will be easier for them to be reversed, should the political constellation change.
Haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas are vehemently opposed to the changes and could revoke the reforms if they were to enter a coalition.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote to the prime minister on Tuesday asking him to stymie the proposals.
“This proposal would make the necessary and required involvement of the Chief Rabbinate in the conversion process extraneous,” Yosef said.
“The proposal under discussion would do serious injury to the standing of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which has merited the trust of all Jewish streams.”
The purpose of Stern’s proposals is to make the conversion process more accessible and to get more of the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union, of which some 330,000 are not Jewish according to Jewish law, to convert.
The concern of Stern and other proponents of the reforms is that intermarriage between Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis will grow rapidly in the coming years because of the large number of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have integrated deeply in the country, thus dividing the Jewish people in its homeland.
However, the opposition to the bill is, in part, based on a similar concern for the unity of the Jewish people. The chief rabbis and other opponents fear that more liberally inclined rabbis will be able to open up conversion courts and be less stringent about the requirements of Jewish law for a convert, thereby leading to distrust and even divisions among the Jewish people as to who is legitimately Jewish.
Alongside Yosef, Chief Rabbi David Lau has also expressed harsh criticism of the proposal and repeated such sentiment during a conference being held by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis.
Lau also quoted senior rabbinical judges in the UK, including the president of the London Beit Din, one of the foremost rabbinical courts in the country, as saying that they may not recognize conversions done in Israel if the reforms are passed.
Lau said he met with rabbinical judge Rabbi Menachem Gelley, president of the London Beit Din, as well as Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentrau, former president of the London Beit Din, and senior rabbinical judge Rabbi Ivan Binstock, and that they expressed to him “deep concern and great worry” over the reforms.
“They [rabbis Gelley, Ehrentrau and Binstock] expressed shock at the expropriation of responsibility for conversion from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and said to me that they, global rabbis, had always believed the State of Israel in particular would be the country to most protect the important and delicate issue of conversion above any other country, and never believed that they would ever have to consider whether to recognize a conversion certificate from Israel,” Lau quoted the British rabbinical judges as saying.
Confirmation of the quote from the rabbinical judges in question could not be obtained by time of press.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious services and lobbying group, who has helped formulate the reforms, criticized the comments of the British rabbinical judges and said they should be retracted.
“The tradition in Jewish law of respecting local rabbinical courts is being compromised. Statements that unilaterally reject rabbinical courts are irresponsible and serve political interests rather than religious ones. I call upon these rabbis to retract their statements and avoid being pawns in an Israeli political battle. Right now they are doing a disservice to Jewish law and the State of Israel.”
Nachman Rosenberg, the Executive Vice-President of the Tzohar rabbinical association which has also been closely involved in advancing the reforms, was critical of Lau's opposition to the proposals.
"As we approach Rosh Hashana, the chief rabbi should be less concerned with the irrelevant opinion of anti-Zionist Diaspora rabbis and more concerned about what to answer God when asked 'What did you do to preserve halachic Jewish marriage in Israel?'," said Rosenberg.
"As assimilation and intermarriage continue to threaten the Jewish future of Israel, the focus of the Chief Rabbinate should be on implementing legitimate halachic solutions to protect the Jewish future of Israel and not on back-room political self preservation."