We have now been advised that the conversion crisis will be put off for six
months, during which time, presumably, the debate will continue. Publicists will
decry the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens speak Hebrew,
serve in the army, pay taxes, bear the day to day burdens of Israeli life, yet
are not and cannot (because of halachic strictures) become “Jewish.”
American Jewish community will foresee a rift between Israel and the Diaspora.
Local prophets of doom warn of an ideological civil war.
propose solutions – relaxation of halachic standards, authorizing local Rabbis
(who are presumably more lenient or more subject to political pressures) to
carry out conversions, etc.
Floating above all of this activity will be
the question of individuals who have been converted abroad under the aegis of
the Conservative or Reform movements (and in some cases even by Orthodox
rabbis), who view themselves as Jewish and may find that Israel takes a
The Supreme Court will once again be forced to intervene
and its legitimacy will be subject to further erosion.
The ground is
fertile for futile debate and much political mud-slinging, not necessarily
IN SIX months we will be back to square one, not because the
problem is so complex, but because once again the discussion is irrelevant and
off the mark. Regardless of what the legislature decides, most Rabbinic
authorities will never accept a conversion that does not involve a bona fide
commitment to full halachic life.
Every conversion will be checked and
re-checked by the various bet din authorities. Rather than promoting unity,
conversion leniencies will perpetuate rifts.
The six-month hiatus will be
useful and productive only if the participants in this saga finally realize that
the goal should be, not to reform the conversion process, but to get the secular
State of Israel out of the business of legislating religious questions, and to
provide reasonable, practical, non-stigmatizing solutions for those individuals
who are not halachically Jewish, but nonetheless are or should be fullfledged
members of Israeli society.
All participants in the debate must come to
terms with the idea that a secular government simply cannot legislate religious
questions. In order to solve the problem, we must ask the correct question: As
the Talmud says: “lemai nafka minah ?” What is the practical difference and the
practical solution ? How can an individual who bears all of the responsibilities
of Israeli citizenship, even if not halachically Jewish, also benefit from the
attendant rights and benefits? How can such an individual achieve the same civic
status as a person born of two Jewish parents ? If the question is thus asked
correctly, and only in such case, an answer can be found. As I have suggested
previously in these pages, the solution must at the least contain two elements:
First, “Jewish” should no longer be a nationality option in the Israeli identity
card. If an individual was born in Israel or made aliya under the Law of Return,
then his secular nationality is “Israeli.”
The identity card should
simply state “Israeli” or perhaps one of the following categories: “Israeli by
birth” (one who was born in Israel), or “Israeli under the Law of
The latter appellation would apply to individuals who are
entitled to make aliya, and do so, whether born of one or two Jewish parents or
grandparents, whether or not halachically Jewish, and would be
SECOND, THE option of civil marriage should be provided for
anyone who wants it (whether or not halachically Jewish). If one wants to be
married by the Rabbinate, it would be the Rabbinate’s prerogative to examine
whether one meets the requirements for halachic marriage. The same would be true
of Christian clerics, Muslims and every other religion.
religious authority accepts the individual to be married is a religious issue,
not a legislative one.
There would be no stigma attached to a civil
marriage. It is simply a matter of choice and the rules of the
Indeed, civil marriage will avoid many mamzerut and aguna (anchored
in marriage) problems. A woman married in the civil marriage regime would not be
considered married for halachic purposes (particularly if the civil marriage
documentation recites that the individual has “opted out” of a religious
ceremony). Such an individual would not require a get (divorce) to be remarried,
but rather another form of judicial cancellation of the marriage. A child born
out of wedlock after such a marriage would not be illegitimate under halacha.
The notions of aguna and mamzer would become virtually extinct.
these steps are taken, the non-halachic immigrant would be well on his or her
way to achieving exactly the same status as every other Jewish Israeli. The
identity card would not in any way disclose personal religious background and he
or she would be able to marry in Israel without resorting to trips abroad or
clandestine activity. On the other hand, the Rabbinate would maintain its
I am aware that many groups, including particularly the
religious parties and establishment, decry any “secularization” of religious
status on the grounds that this would divide the country. I suspect that hidden
behind these arguments is a desperate attempt to maintain control of the huge
marriage and conversion bureaucracy. But even if the position of these opponents
is untainted by personal or pecuniary interests, the logic is simply
The split in Israeli society already exists. The fact that an
individual was converted by the government sanctioned special conversion court
has absolutely no weight before the Rabbinic courts or the marriage registrars,
which review each situation anew. If conversion standards are made more lenient,
then the notation “Jewish” in an identity card will be even more
If today there is a presumption that Rabbinate conversion
was proper, even that presumption will be eliminated. Not only the haredi
community, but also the more “modern” elements in the religious community will
give no credence to the acts of the local Rabbinate.
Thus, rather than
strengthening the Rabbinate, the relaxation of standards and the proposed
legislation will make the Rabbinate into the laughing stock of the religious
After the Jewish Enlightenment movement took hold in Europe,
many Jewish communities were split into two: the official community which had a
Rabbi mitaam – i.e. a Rabbi appointed by the local political authorities – and a
separatist “halachic” community. If the conversion plans and legislation go into
force, the same situation will befall the State of Israel.
hiatus brokered by the Prime Minister should be used, not to find compromise
solutions, but to ask the right questions, so the correct answers can
The writer, an ordained Orthodox Rabbi, is an international lawyer
based in Tel Aviv.