Converting conversions

Reduce the state's direct involvement by privatizing the conversion process and opening it up to a wider range of rabbinical organizations.

December 12, 2010 06:07
4 minute read.
Conversion [illustrative]

Conversion 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The “who is a Jew?” question once again threatens to topple an Israeli government. On Sunday, the cabinet is slated to vote on a bill that would ensure state recognition of all conversions performed in the IDF. If the bill is passed, converts will no longer have to undergo the humiliating experience of having their Jewishness questioned when they register for marriage.

The bill, drafted by Israel Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem, is designed to rectify an untenable situation in which thousands of conversions performed in the IDF by rabbinical courts affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate are not recognized by rabbis of places such as Rehovot, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba even though these city rabbis were appointed by the very same Chief Rabbinate to register Jewish residents, including converts, for marriage.

Israel Beiteinu, Shas lock horns over IDF conversion bill
Yosef expresses extreme discontent over IDF conversion bill

Shas and United Torah Judaism have warned that they will quit the government if the bill is approved. They oppose a clause that would make it impossible to revoke a conversion once it is finalized, arguing that it is a transgression of Halacha to prevent a reassessment of a conversion that might have been performed without the sincerity of the convert. They also reject the notion that the proposed law would force city rabbis to recognize what are in their eyes “non-kosher” conversions.

Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman is insisting that the bill be passed. Lieberman is acutely aware that his constituency is made up of a large percentage of former Soviet Union immigrants, many of whom are not Jewish according to Halacha and are therefore adversely affected by haredi rabbis’ attacks on IDF conversions. He has, therefore, refused to tolerate a delay in the bill’s passage, and seems willing to fight. Lieberman appears to enjoy a majority both in the government and in the Knesset, since most lawmakers are unwilling to see the Jewishness of IDF converts compromised.

Meanwhile, Shas’s intransigence has been fortified by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s public declaration that he will resign if the bill is passed. In short, unless a last minute solution is reached, a major political showdown is in the offing.

WHILE WE would like to see the thousands of conversions performed by the IDF recognized, coercive legislation that would force religious leaders to act against their conscience is not the solution. Instead, the state should cease to employ city rabbis as marriage registrars and replace them with recognized rabbinical organizations.

The entire conversion should be privatized and opened up to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and the Chief Rabbinate should be significantly downsized if not dismantled.

The state’s financial and logistical support for the IDF’s conversion apparatus, known as Nativ, was launched in 2001. The project was based on the Jewish state’s commitment to fighting intermarriage and fostering full cultural and religious integration for non-Jewish IDF soldiers, primarily those who made aliya from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return. Since Nativ’s inception more than 10,000 immigrants have taken part in the program, with over 4,000 converting to Judaism.

In an ideal world, city rabbis, like their Orthodox counterparts who man the IDF rabbinical conversion courts, would understand the importance of promoting mass conversions for those interested as a means of fighting intermarriage and promoting integration into Israeli society.

However, the reality is different. Dozens of rabbis, many of whom belong to haredi streams of Judaism, choose to place the strict adherence to an Orthodox lifestyle before any other “national” considerations and refuse to rely on more lenient halachic opinions that acknowledge the new realities created by a Jewish state.

These rabbis, as citizens of a democratic state, should be free to interpret Judaism the way they wish. No law should be passed that would force the chief rabbi or any other spiritual leader to rule against his conscience. But there is no reason why these rabbis should be employed by the state.

The State of Israel should promote conversions among non-Jewish Israelis who are interested as a means of fighting intermarriage. But it should do so by authorizing a diverse group of recognized and responsible rabbinical organizations – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – to perform conversions. These organizations would also be empowered to register converts for marriage.

Critics warn that such an arrangement would split the Jewish people. But in reality the split has already happened. Thousands of conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the IDF are not recognized by Orthodox city rabbis who receive a monthly salary from the state to provide religious services. Therefore, the only logical solution is to reduce the state's direct involvement in the inherently religious question of “who is a Jew?” or “who is a rabbi?” by privatizing the conversion process and opening it up to a wider range of rabbinical organizations.

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