Rabbinic courts accused of obstructing conversions

Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom accusses the courts of contributing to intermarriages for thousands of Israeli Jews.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu 8 (photo credit: )
Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu 8
(photo credit: )
Rabbinic courts handling conversions are unnecessarily obstructing the willing conversions of thousands of non-Jewish olim, thereby contributing to intermarriage for thousands of Israeli Jews, according to Institute of Jewish Studies chairman Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom. For this reason, Ish-Shalom told The Jerusalem Post this week that the institute, a government agency charged with teaching non-Jewish olim for conversion, has suspended its cooperation with the rabbinic courts and called for the appointment of 50 new conversion judges who will support, rather than hinder, the conversion process. "The heart of the problem isn't just 300,000 non-Jewish olim," Ish-Shalom said, "but some 100,000 young families, mothers of birthing age, students, youth, soldiers, children, the population that will shape the identity of the next generation. There are tens of thousands of youth born in Israel to mothers who are not Jewish. They are growing up here, going to high school, will go to the army, and will not be Jewish. "This could cause tragedy here if someone doesn't take care of this issue," he maintains. The institute, known popularly as the Joint Institute for Conversion, was founded seven years ago in the wake of the Neeman Commission, which was formed to address the question of Israel's conversion policy. It runs 10-month educational programs that allow non-Jewish olim to study Judaism from a pluralistic perspective. The studies draw on the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform streams of Judaism, and concludes with an Orthodox conversion at the state or (in the case of soldiers) IDF rabbinical courts. But "many systems who are part of this project, first and foremost the rabbinic courts, aren't working out of an understanding of an emergency that calls on us to deal with the particular needs of this population," Ish-Shalom believes. This lack of understanding is evident in decisions by courts that institute officials deem "irrelevant" to conversion, such as a demand that women agree to wear skirts, or that men agree to pray daily for the rest of their lives as a precondition for conversion. This attitude is not in keeping with the urgent situation, or with the requirements of halacha, Ish-Shalom told the Post. Furthermore, he adds, the dayanim (rabbinic judges) who issue such demands are not following the policies and decisions of leading halachic authorities Rabbi Hayim Druckman and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar." Furthermore, institute officials told the Post that there is no such problem with the IDF chief rabbinate, which has been working in cooperation with the institute on a project that has led to the conversion of some 2,000 soldiers. Last week, Ish-Shalom sent a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announcing that the institute would stop sending participants to the state rabbinical courts. In a meeting held with Amar, Institute officials said he agreed to "consider positively" the request for new conversion courts and the appointment of rabbinic judges who share the more lenient perspective on halachic conversion. For Ish-Shalom, while adherence to halacha is paramount, a lenient halachic attitude is the difference between disaster and success. "Throughout Jewish tradition, there have been opinions on halacha that were more strict or more lenient. On conversion, we know that [Talmudic sage] Shamai sent potential converts away, while [fellow sage] Hillel taught them and brought them into the fold of the Jewish people. "Hillel's position was dominant for most of Jewish history. It isn't that Shamai's view isn't a legitimate view in halacha," Ish-Shalom believes, "but at a time when the situation is so dire, halacha says there is room to be lenient." At the end of the day, he concludes, "whoever is strict on conversion is being lenient on intermarriage."