Orthodox leader: Conversion bill good for Jews

Tzohar head: Opposition to legislation is misguided and plays into hands of Haredi leadership.

By JONAH MANDEL
July 20, 2010 06:30
David Rotem

Rotem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))

As the debate over MK David Rotem’s conversion bill continues, the head of Tzohar, an Orthodox group that promotes religious pluralism, said Diaspora Jewry’s opposition to the legislation is misguided and plays directly into the hands of the haredi political leadership.

“[The haredi parties] made sure a clause was inserted into the bill placing final authority [for conversion] in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate as a means to incite the anger of the Reform and Conservative communities,” Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, said on Monday. “While this response of world Jewry is certainly understandable, if the law does not pass, the primary victims will be those very Jews who want to see a more moderate and open approach in how Jewish conversions are handled.”

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Tzohar is a modern Orthodox rabbinical organization set up to combat haredi monopolization of Jewish life in Israel, It is also active in promoting conversion among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Stav stressed that the proposed law would have no ramifications on conversions taking place abroad, and noted his concern, similar to that expressed by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Sunday, over the notion of a High Court of Justice ruling that accepts non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. Such a ruling, Stav said, “would lead to the disintegration of the community’s institutions.”

“There would no longer be a shared national Jewish component determining the boundaries of marriage, divorce and conversion,” he warned. ‘This would be the end of a joint Jewish ethos in Israel.”

Amar also called on Shas and United Torah Judaism to leave the coalition if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu blocked the bill, but on Monday said his words had been misconstrued and that he does not tell political parties what to do.

According to Stav, the conversion bill would “change Israeli society for the better” by removing conversions from “the hands of a centralized haredi body.”

“Hundreds of thousands of Jews, primarily of Russian origin, who are currently trapped outside by the bureaucracy will now be legally welcomed into Israel as Jews of full-standing,” he said.

Rotem’s bill seeks to grant municipal rabbis the authority to conduct conversions under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, something seen as having the potential to speed up the process. However, it is believed that many of those who would benefit most from the law – olim who are not halachically Jewish – are no longer interested in undergoing the process and have accepted their current Israeli identity as non-Jewish citizens.

“If the bill passes,” Stav said, “we will get together – city and local council rabbis who care and want to encourage conversion – and with the help of advertisements and public opinion professionals, go from city to city, from town to town, to try to restore the FSU immigrants’ faith in religion.”

A similar attitude to Stav’s can be found in one of the haredi parties that have supported the bill. As MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem (Shas) recently explained to the Post, the bill is good if only because there is finally “a clear discourse around leniencies” in conversion, “something unprecedented in the case of the Lithuanians.” Amsalem was referring to the stringent haredi Ashkenazi mode of adjudication, led by Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv.

The fact that city rabbis, “some of whom see conducting conversions as a mission,” will be bestowed with the authority to form conversion courts will surely ease the process, Amsalem said. That those very city rabbis are appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, which is leading the current stringent attitude, does not faze Amsalem.

“Even if 10 of the many dozens of city rabbis do [hold a positive attitude toward conversion], it could prove helpful in galvanizing the masses into a movement toward conversion,” he said.

Like most people who want to help ease the way into Judaism for hundreds of thousands of FSU-born Israelis, Amsalem is painfully aware that most of them are not actively seeking to convert.

“So long as the Chief Rabbinate does not issue more lenient conversion guidelines for Israelis with Jewish roots, there will be no major change,” he told the Post. “The solution is not to replace the Chief Rabbinate, rather the extreme and impractical elements within it.”

Amsalem recently published a two-volume halachic endeavor on conversion traditions in Judaism, in which he shows that attitudes toward those with Jewish ancestry who wish to convert should be warm and welcoming. “[W]e should be obliged to streamline their cases as much as possible within the confines of Halacha,” he says in the introduction.

The first volume, pertinently titled Zera Israel (Seed of Israel), contains hundreds of adjudications and debates from the Talmud and its early commentators – Maimonidies and other important Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis whose teachings support Amsalem’s halachic reasoning.

The notion of an alternative approach to conversions within mainstream Halacha has raised the ire of the Lithuanian rabbinic establishment, which slammed Amsalem in its Yated Ne’eman newspaper for being a “charlatan.” Amsalem said Diaspora Jewry need not fear a possible change of its status if the bill passes.

“The law is not to their detriment, but can help solve a problem that is troubling us on a daily basis,’ he stressed. “Preventing this law will be damaging first and foremost to the Israelis with Jewish roots from the FSU, who are part of society, serve in the military” and tie their destiny with that of the Jewish people.

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), whose party represents the halachic stringency Amsalem referred to, indeed expressed discontent with part of the bill, but explained his ultimate support.

“We didn’t initially plan on supporting the bill because it expands the conversion authority,” Maklev said, “but we saw that since the Likud was absent from the vote, the bill wouldn’t have passed due to pressure from the Reform movement.”

He said the UTJ had no objection to the Chief Rabbinate being the ultimate authority for conversions in Israel. The problem, he explained, lies with the part that expands conversion authorities to city rabbis.

“It is harder to get US citizenship,” Maklev said. “A person can convert on Thursday, and the following Friday night be eating in a non-kosher restaurant. We can’t have a situation where anyone seeking a lax conversion can go to the city rabbi who offers it. There must be more regulation. Why is it obvious that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel regulates marriage, divorce and kashrut supervision, but not conversions?”


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