Jerusalem Post Editorial: Rabbis and reform

As a result, these converts live and work in Israel as full-fledged citizens but are unable to marry here because the Chief Rabbinate does not view their conversions as legitimate.

December 8, 2016 21:47
3 minute read.
Jerusalem's Old City

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)

We welcome with cautious optimism Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s announcement on Wednesday that the recognition process for non-Israeli Jewish converts is set for “serious reform.”

“The purpose is to reach a situation in which the Chief Rabbinate will decide whether or not a rabbi is recognized [to convert] in accordance with known criteria, and not to enter into the details of the conversion itself..., as opposed to the past situation in which Chief Rabbinate officials took upon themselves to examine the details of each case,” said Yosef’s office in a statement to the press.

Finally, Yosef seems willing to end the preposterous reality in Israel in which the Jewishness of Orthodox converts who arrive here from North America is rejected by the Chief Rabbinate, even when the conversion process was overseen by highly respected Orthodox rabbis.

As a result, these converts live and work in Israel as full-fledged citizens but are unable to marry here because the Chief Rabbinate does not view their conversions as legitimate.

It is not out of magnanimity that the chief rabbi declared reform in the recognition process. Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group, filed a lawsuit against the Chief Rabbinate under the Freedom of Information Law to gain access to the criteria used by the rabbinate to recognize or reject conversions performed abroad.

If Yosef indeed goes ahead with his promised reforms and publishes clear, transparent criteria, it will be an improvement to the present situation. But it will not solve the underlying problem in Israel, namely that all issues having to do with marriage and divorce are under a state-sanctioned monopoly. The group of unenlightened Orthodox rabbis who control this monopoly seems to take a special pleasure in causing aggravation to converts. They also seem to take pride in putting zealous adherence to obscure stringencies in Jewish law before basic, commonsense values, such as respecting their fellow Orthodox rabbis in America and giving them the benefit of the doubt or accepting as honest and sincere a convert’s pledge of loyalty to the Jewish people.

Don’t get us wrong. We are the first to affirm the right of any rabbi to rule as he sees fit. It is integral to his religious and intellectual freedom. And if the rabbi’s followers willingly accept his rulings that is their prerogative.

But the time has come to end the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over all matters related to religious services, whether it be marriage and divorce or kashrut supervision. This is not because we would like to see the State of Israel become less Jewish. The opposite is true. As we have argued in the past, dismantling the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly would be a boon to religious expression because it would enable more diversity and more choice.

As the only Jewish state in the world, Israel has a vested interest in encouraging the flourishing of all forms of Jewish expression, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox. And the best way to do that is to create an atmosphere of freedom of expression in which no single stream of Judaism can exploit the powers of the state to force upon Israelis one version of Judaism. Instead, a free market of Jewish ideas and spirituality must be fostered in which all streams of Judaism are accorded respect and given an even playing field on which to compete with others. In such an environment Israelis will not feel they are victims of religious coercion but rather that they are being challenged to express their Jewishness in new and more relevant ways.

Ultimately, matters of faith are intimate and private.

The state has no business lending its power to any single religious group or individual.

So while we welcome Yosef’s promise to make the recognition process for conversions performed abroad by Orthodox rabbis more transparent, the real change will come when the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Judaism ceases to exist.

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