Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that the state must recognize private conversions to Orthodox Judaism that are conducted outside the framework of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, meaning that a person of non-Jewish birth showing up at Israel’s Interior Ministry with a certificate of conversion issued by any rabbi belonging to the Orthodox stream of Judaism will henceforth be registered as a Jew.
The ruling may not sound dramatic, but coming in the wake of an earlier court ruling requiring the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions abroad for immigration purposes, it in effect means that “a conversion certified by any recognized Jewish community in the world will be recognized by Israel,” Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information for Hiddush, an Israeli NGO affiliated with the Reform movement, said in a conversation with The Media Line.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties in government, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have already announced that they will sponsor legislation to block implementation of the rule and, specifically, to block recognition of conversions performed under auspices of the Reform and Conservative movements.
The furor surrounding the rulings is likely to create an even greater rupture between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, but even more significantly, it threatens to topple the fragile government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prior to this ruling, the Israeli Rabbinate had been free to reject the Jewishness of converts in Israel or abroad who, according to often unexplained guidelines, did not meet the approval of the rabbinical authority.
Israel Democracy Institute President, Yohanan Plesner, was happy with the Supreme Court ruling, telling The Media Line that he assumes “the verdict, which enables recognition of private Orthodox conversions would likewise afford similar recognition to those converted through other streams of Judaism."
Plesner said the decision “provides an answer to what has become an absurd situation in which a small group of rabbis who define themselves as non-Zionist prevents the opening of the gates to the Zionist project for many who are interested in entering. The basis of Zionism is that Israel is a state for all Jewish people. Therefore, it is unreasonable that a small group of rabbis, with a very strict approach to Jewish law, should prevent many who are interested in in doing so from joining the state and connecting their fate with that of the Jewish people."
A 2015 survey conducted by Hiddush showed that 80% of secular Jews, the majority group in Israel, would rather not be married by the Rabbinate. In 2011, over 9,000 married couples registered by the Interior Ministry had married abroad. Since Israel is a signatory to international conventions on marriage, the state has no choice but to recognize these marriages.
The Rabbinate, a quasi-ministerial body, has jurisdiction over everything from Jewish marriage and divorce, to Jewish burial, kashrut [religious dietary laws] certification, the status of Jewish immigrants to Israel, and supervision of the rabbinical courts in Israel.
Over the past few decades, however, the Israeli Rabbinate has come in for a great deal of criticism and been subject to considerable scrutiny. Outlandish statements from figures such as the Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, who last week said that “non-Jews must not live in Israel,” are not helping to improve the Rabbinate’s standing.
The first sign that things were not going well for the Rabbinate came, as often happens, from within. In 1995, a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, concerned by the growing rate of civil marriages taking place outside the country, typically in Cyprus, formed Tzohar, a rabbinate-affiliate aimed at ensuring that secular couples can get married in a Jewish wedding in Israel.
Tzohar, which has created the first dent in the Rabbinate’s monopoly, commended the Supreme Court decision.
“We look forward to reviewing and better understanding the implications of this decision with the full confidence that it will assist many thousands of well-intentioned people on the road to Halachic conversion,” the group said in a statement.
“The fact that Orthodox Jews have joined what was until now a secular, Reform or Conservative Jewish push to erode the Rabbinate’s monopoly is what has made all the difference,” Ilan says.
A similar initiative has taken hold in the area of kashrut certification. Especially in Jerusalem, a growing number of kosher establishments are refusing to pay the onerous fees demanded by the Rabbinate inspectors for the certification, choosing instead one of an array of new, private kashrut certification bodies or nothing at all.
In Jerusalem, the movement was started by Eli Mizrahi, a venerable restauranteur, who blanched when told by an inspector that he would not receive the “kosher” certification if he did not buy parsley from a certain vendor, which vendor turned out to be a relation of the inspector.
Turf wars, petty rules, arbitrary discrimination based on ethnic origins and, on occasion, outright corruption, led desperate wannabe converts to travel from city to city in Israel seeking the most lenient (or most easily bribed) rabbi to convert them. This, in turn, provoked the Rabbinate to draw up a list of Orthodox rabbis certified to conduct conversions.
Israeli civil courts, which in cases of conflict supersede religious courts, have consistently granted the rights and responsibilities of marriage to couples who have signed civil union contracts and to a wide range of less conventional domestic arrangements, including same-sex marriages.
One of the last rulings judged discriminatory by pro-equality groups, that prohibiting surrogacy in Israel, was struck down in 2015.
In February, the government announced a groundbreaking agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the southern section of the Western Wall where Jews who do not adhere to strict Orthodoxy can hold separate prayer services.
But as opposition to the ruling among the ultra-Orthodox parties mounted, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who had originally been in favor of the agreement, withdrew his support.
The same day, Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Israel’s Channel 2, “We will not sit in a government that recognizes the Reform — not with respect to the Western Wall, not with respect to marriage, and not with respect to divorce.” A defection from his party would deprive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his one-seat majority in the parliament.
The first test may come later this month, during the Passover holiday, when Women of the Wall, a feminist multidenominational group, plans to hold the first women’s Priestly Blessing ceremony at the southern section of the Western Wall.