Conference of European Rabbis opposes proposed conversion legislation

Umbrella body of Orthodox European rabbis says Jewish authorities and communities on the continent will not recognize conversions done outside of permanent and ‘important’ rabbinical courts.

 The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021.  (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)
The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021.
(photo credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)

The Conference of European Rabbis has come out in opposition to legislation to decentralize control over Jewish conversions in Israel.

The organization – an umbrella body of Orthodox European rabbis and rabbinical judges – issued a statement on Monday criticizing the reforms, following a meeting of its Standing Committee in Munich. It said it would not recognize conversions performed under the new system should it come into effect.

The CER’s opposition to the reforms presents a potential challenge of legitimacy to Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s proposals, although the European rabbis’ stance may not unduly worry the minister since the purpose of the legislation is to deal with rising intermarriage in Israel.

The legislation has not yet been published and submitted to the Knesset, and CER officials have not spoken with Kahana or his office about the proposals.

Indeed, the proposals themselves are still being developed and have yet to be finalized, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

 The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021. (credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN) The Conference of European Rabbis' (CER) Standing Committee discussing a conversion bill proposed by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in Munich on November 22, 2021. (credit: COURTESY DAVID FRIEDMAN)

The CER’s statement referred to “rumors” regarding the legislation, and appeared not to understand fully what Kahana’s proposals entail, referencing the outsourcing of conversion to “private elements,” which is not something the minister has mentioned.

Kahana’s legislation will restore the ability of municipal chief rabbis in Israel, qualified to serve in such positions by the Chief Rabbinate, to establish their own conversion courts alongside the state conversion authority’s ongoing operations.

Municipal chief rabbis were able to carry out this function until the 1990s, when the state Conversion Authority was created.

The CER also claimed that authority over conversions would be taken away from the Chief Rabbinate, despite Kahana’s proposals likely preserving the operations of the state conversion authority, which is overseen by the Chief Rabbinate.

“The Conference of European Rabbis, which represents the majority of communal rabbis in Europe, expresses deep concern over the rumors that have reached us from the Holy Land, which seek to upend conversion practices in which responsibility for conversions will be taken away from the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and given to private elements who will supposedly conduct more friendly conversions,” read the statement of CER’s Standing Committee.

The organization noted that it has itself determined that conversions can only be done by a “permanent and important” rabbinical court in the jurisdiction of the conversion candidate, and that it has previously resolved to recognize only this type of conversion.

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

“Conversions not done according to these conversion arrangements and without accepting the yoke of the Torah and commandments are not recognized by the rabbinical courts and communities of Europe,” said the CER committee. “We declare that conversion not conducted in accordance with religious law and in accordance with practices used until now will not be recognized by us at all.”

Kahana’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rabbi Seth Farber, Director of the ITIM religious services organization and one of the founders of the Giyur K’Halacha, criticized the CER’s statement however for challenging the authority of other Orthodox rabbis to conduct conversions. 

"It is unprecedented in Jewish history for one rabbinical court to completely delegitimize another Orthodox rabbinical court,” said Farber in response to the CER’s declaration. 

"By dismissing people who halachically are converts, these rabbis are violating a Torah prohibition of persecuting a convert and are demonstrating a lack of sensitivity to the individuals who have converted or will convert in these rabbinical courts."

In deliberating the issue, the committee heard letters sent by the two leading non-hassidic haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, both of whom condemned any changes to the conversion system.

“Regarding conversion that touches on the holiness of the entire Jewish people, and which has a great danger for breaching the vineyard of the House of Israel, and which is also likely to influence the status of rabbis in your countries who stand watch over Jewish law and tradition, it is appropriate that your conference will make heard a voice calling not to breach through the boundaries of Jewish law by bringing non-Jews into the vineyard of the House of Israel,” wrote Edelstein.