'State can't force rabbis to perform conversions'

Rehovot chief rabbi says the government and the Knesset would be violating rabbis' human rights by doing so.

conversion class 88 (photo credit:)
conversion class 88
(photo credit: )
The Knesset Law Committee took advantage of a session meant to mark the 70th anniversary of the Union of Local Authorities on Monday to debate the crisis between religious Zionists and Ashkenazi haredim over the legitimacy of the special conversion courts established several years ago to facilitate conversions. The long-standing dispute reached crisis proportions several weeks ago when Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a judge on the High Rabbinical Court, ruled that all the judgments of the head of the special courts, Rabbi Haim Druckman, were null and void. Soon afterward, the 75-year-old Druckman was fired, allegedly on the grounds that he was too old to continue holding the government position. But religious Zionist leaders charged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with caving in to haredi pressure. In the meantime, Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem tried to steer the discussion toward a bill he initiated aimed at transferring the responsibility for conversion from the religious court system to the city rabbis. Rotem hoped to bring the bill to a vote during the meeting but agreed to postpone it due to a request by haredi MKs. Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook said the government and the Knesset would be violating the human rights of rabbis if they forced them to recognize conversions they did not believe in. He also referred to a rabbinical opinion that states that a convert must convert twice - once before the conversion court and a second time by immersing himself in water before becoming a Jew. Total immersion in water, he said, symbolized the acceptance of the convert of all the halachic commandments. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a senior figure in the religious Zionist movement, argued that "we must return to the point where we decide [whether or not to approve a conversion application] in accordance with the Shulkan Arukh. If we take a more exacting position beyond that, we will be beset with intermarriage. In the Shulkan Arukh it says not to be too severe or to demand too much. But the rabbinical courts are doing the exact opposite." Shas MK Haim Amsalem was critical of the special conversion courts but called for a colloquium of the most learned Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis to determine how conversions should be carried out in Israel. Although he did not say so, he appeared to be critical of the unilateral decision made by Sherman to nullify all the conversions carried out by Druckman. On the other hand, he wrote that the 10 months and 500 hours of study that every potential convert must undergo prior to appearing before the special conversion courts was a waste of time. "As though Judaism was some sort of study course," he scoffed. "The question is whether or not the convert wants wholeheartedly to be a Jew and accept the burden of the commandments. If so, why does he need to study 500 hours. If the court is convinced of his sincerity, that's everything." Rotem told The Jerusalem Post he was shocked to hear from Kook that he opposed allowing city rabbis to deal with conversions because they could be easily bribed. Rotem said he was certain of the honesty of the city rabbis.