The Tzohar rabbinical association hit back defiantly over the weekend and on Sunday against critics of conversion reforms that are expected to be enacted in the coming days and which have been strongly promoted by the organization.
The organization took out advertisements in numerous publications defending the new law, while its senior leaders publicly defended it in the media.
The Chief Rabbinate and numerous rabbis from the conservative wing of the national- religious movement have in recent weeks publicly opposed the new proposals which would allow municipal chief rabbis across the country to establish their own conversion courts.
Currently there are just four courts for conversion countrywide.
The law was expected to be approved by government decision, instead of legislation, on Sunday, but the scheduled cabinet meeting for Sunday was canceled late last week.
In its weekend advertisement campaign, Tzohar emphasized that the law has the backing of national-religious heavyweights rabbis Haim Druckman, Tzefania Drori, Nahum Rabinowitz, Yaakov Medan and others, and painted the problem in simple terms.
“Assimilation or conversion according to Jewish law,” was how its advertisements portrayed the issue, arguing that allowing municipal rabbis to conduct conversions would help reduce intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.
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Tzohar and others are concerned that marriage between Jewish Israelis and Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law) will increase in coming years causing intermarriage and a division within the Jewish people in Israel.
Tzohar hopes that a policy encouraging conversion will reduce this phenomenon.
The organization’s chairman Rabbi David Stav noted that communal rabbis, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, have a long history of dealing with conversion applicants.
In Israel, municipal chief rabbis were able to carry out conversions until the late 1990s until the authority was centralized to the Chief Rabbinate.
“It must be said in the clearest way possible, the [proposed] law will return to municipal rabbis that which Jewish law gave them throughout the whole of Jewish history,” Stav said in his first response to the recent criticism on the Kipa national-religious website.
“There is no communal rabbi in history who has not dealt with conversion, and the idea that in the Jewish state there are municipal rabbis who have received rabbinical ordination but who have had the ability to deal with conversion taken away from them, and that just a small group of rabbis appointed by politicians and [other rabbis] can do conversions, is unrealistic historically and in terms of Jewish law.”
Stav said that a change in the law was urgent to counter growing assimilation.
“The entire Jewish people went crazy when it saw the couple get married in public,” said the rabbi in reference to the recent wedding of a woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in order to marry a Muslim, generating heated public debate.
“But people must understand that mixed marriages such as these happen not only between Jews and Arabs, but with Russian immigrants, and those from many countries in Europe, who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law even though they see themselves as Jewish.”
The rabbi also sought to refute claims that the new law will take away authority from the Chief Rabbinate, emphasizing that conversions conducted by municipal rabbis will all be subject to the final approval of the chief rabbis.
“There won’t be one convert who is not approved by the Chief Rabbinate. Halachic standards will be not lowered; we are just improving access,” he said, noting that if a municipal rabbi was found to be acting inappropriately his conversions would not be approved.
“It is unthinkable though that a chief rabbi in Israel will contravene the prohibition against oppressing a convert and would not approve legitimate converts,” said Stav.
Tzohar co-chairman Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein said the claims that authority over conversion was being taken away from the Chief Rabbinate were unfounded and that there was nothing in the proposals that suggested this, while noting that it maintains an ultimate veto because of the requirement that it sign all conversion certificates.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, he said he believed such arguments were based on a struggle for political control over religious services and criticized the chief rabbis for their opposition.
“I haven’t heard their alternative ideas. All we hear the whole time is ‘no,’ but the problem of assimilation in Israel is growing,” Feuerstein said.
The rabbi added that one of the most important population groups in which Tzohar would like to see an increase in conversion is that of women of child-bearing age from the non-Jewish immigrant community, so that when they have children they will be born Jewish.
Feuerstein estimates that there are some 15,000 such women, but insisted that the new law itself would not work without a conversion advocacy campaign.
“We need to advertise and promote conversion and we need the cooperation of the Chief Rabbinate in this as well, because somehow the influx of non-Jewish immigrants was able to happen without any plan to deal with the future problems it might cause,” he said.
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