Immigation Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim said Thursday that overly stringent rabbinic judges presented a "worrisome obstacle" to the conversion of tens of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel.
"The conversion apparatus needs a serious revision in everything to do with the rabbinic judges," said Boim in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"I simply do not understand all the stringencies. Every day those people [potential converts] prove that they want to be a part of the Jewish people. They serve in the IDF, they raise their children, they tie their destiny to the Jewish people. The judges should adopt Hillel's approach, not Shamai's."
Boim specifically mentioned Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, the administrative head of the Conversion Authority, as one of the rabbinic personalities who is overly stringent. "I do not know the man," admitted Boim. "But I understand from people in the rabbinate that he is an obstacle to conversion."
Sources close to Maimon said in response that Boim had heard only one side of the story. "People who have a personal vendetta against Maimon are trying to enlist Boim," said one source.
For nearly two years Maimon has been at odds with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who as senior head of what is known legally as the "Jewish Congregation" [Rosh Haeda] in Israel is responsible for conversions. Amar petitioned Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander to have Maimon fired, claiming Maimon was purposely obstructing the smooth functioning of the Conversion Authority. But Hollander refused to have Maimon removed.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the Conversion Authority, and his deputy, Rabbi Moshe Klein, also have strained relations with Maimon.
"Since the Civil Service commissioner is uncooperative, we have no other choice but to set up an alternative conversion apparatus," said Boim, who supports a Jewish Agency initiative to appoint 40 "open- minded" modern Orthodox rabbis as conversion judges.
The minister said that another option being weighed was to permit rabbis of cities to perform conversions in addition to the Conversion Authority.
MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) has drafted a bill to this effect. "Local rabbis have a closer relationship with their fellow citizens," said Rotem, who is Orthodox. "I hope this will be conducive to the conversion process."
Rotem said that there were a lot of problems in the Conversion Authority. "I don't know who is to blame and I don't care," he said. "I just want to solve the problem."
Rotem's bill would give rabbis of cities jurisdiction over conversions. Until now all conversions had to be performed by the chief rabbi of Israel or one of his proxies. Rotem's bill would give the city rabbis total autonomy.
One Conversion Court judge who preferred to remain anonymous told The Jerusalem Post that from a halachic perspective it was problematic to give city rabbis total autonomy to perform conversions.
"Some of those rabbis are simply not well-versed enough in the laws of conversions," said the source. "Besides, it is dangerous to spread around authority too much."
Meanwhile, Rotem and the chairman of his party, Avigdor Lieberman, are trying to build political support for the bill. Rotem will present it next week during Likud's weekly faction meeting. Lieberman has already spoken with both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset opposition leader MK Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud).
In parallel, Rotem presented a bill last week that would allow non-Jews to form a quasi-marital bond with Jews. Known as the marital arrangement bill, the legislation would save mixed couples the trouble of traveling outside Israel - usually to Cyprus - to get married.
Both the marital arrangements bill and the conversion bill are particularly important to the constituents of Yisrael Beiteinu, many of whom are non-Jewish new immigrants to Israel from the Former Soviet Union.
There are about 290,000 gentiles who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which gives automatic citizenship to anyone who would have been considered a Jew under the Nazi regime's racial discrimination laws. This includes anyone married to a Jew, or whose father or grandparents are Jewish. In contrast, according to Jewish law only someone born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.
In Israel, a Jew is not permitted to marry a non- Jew in a state-recognized ceremony.