By state or community?

Can conversion to Judaism in Israel return to the simpler and more welcoming communal model?

311_state conversion panel (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
311_state conversion panel
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
THE “WHO IS A JEW?” debate in the Israel of the 1950s had constitutional ramifications but no effect on the position of conversion applicants at the time.
While the media and the Knesset wrestled with legal definitions that allow automatic citizenship to every Jew in the entire world, the rabbinical courts converted thousands of applicants to Judaism in a process that took no more than a year.
The situation of conversion applicants in today’s Israel is entirely different. The process in rabbinical courts has become much longer and many applicants are forced to wait an extended period of time, sometimes years, for authorization to even begin the process.
Indeed, changes in Jewish religious law (halakha) and rabbinical court practice since the 1970s have led to the emergence of an entirely different conversion system from the one in force during the “Who is a Jew?” debate.
An interesting meta-halakhic question related to this issue is whether conversion is primarily an acceptance of the obligation to observe the Jewish commandments or admission to the Jewish collective. The conversion process itself has three halakhic elements: circumcision, immersion in a ritual bath and being acquainted with or taking on the commandments.
The last of these stands at the center of a halakhic and exegetical debate that has raged for generations and that has intensified in the modern age, especially over the last three decades. The meta-halakhic question about the essence of conversion is linked to this dispute.
In the past, in practice, the standards for the acceptance of converts were set by each local community; some were more stringent and others more lenient. In general, though, and except for extraordinary cases, converts and their descendants have always been accepted not only in their own communities but throughout the Jewish world, even by communities that had reservations about accepting converts.
From the end of World War II through the 1970s, thousands of converts, most of them women, were accepted in Israel and in Orthodox communities throughout the world. The entire process was completed in three sessions and lasted for an average of 10 months. This was the traditional route, the one followed in Jewish communities from time immemorial. Many of the new converts came from secular communities like kibbutzim and returned there. No one imposed any conditions on them. All the judges on these courts, without exception, were ultra-Orthodox Haredim.
Starting in the mid-1970s, however, the conversion process became more complicated and protracted. Candidates were required to attend a conversion course – at first six months, later a year or two or even more. They had to persuade the rabbinical court that they were planning to live in a community where it would be possible to observe the Sabbath and other commandments.
They were also required to have an observant foster family to help them through the process.
None of this was intended to make the candidates miserable; the reasons were bureaucratic. The sharp increase in immigration to Israel, chiefly from the Soviet Union, placed a great burden on the limited number of rabbinical courts that served the entire population in all matters of personal status. To cope with the problem, Shlomo Goren, then-Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, established preparatory conversion seminars to assist in the process.
Representatives of these seminars began to appear in the rabbinical courts to testify about their graduates’ bona fides.
The courts fell into the habit of going beyond questions of principle mandated by the Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) and quizzing candidates on the material they had studied at the preparatory seminars. As a result, programs that were intended to facilitate the acceptance of converts actually made things much more difficult for them and swiftly altered the standard halakhic procedure for their acceptance.
Ironically, these seminars were institutions of National Religious Zionism, which generally favors the acceptance of converts for nationalist and ideological reasons.
The mass immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s made it necessary to add a new bureaucratic element to the conversion process. The “Conversion Administration” was set up to carry out most conversions in special courts with panels consisting of National Religious Zionist judges, because the regular rabbinical courts had collapsed under the load.
The administration coordinated between the conversion academies and the special courts.
But this system, founded with the best of intentions, turned into a depressing trap for most conversion candidates. The stipulations for the acceptance of converts, starting with their preparatory education, continuing with the topics on which they were examined by the rabbinical courts and culminating in the various added demands, created something new and totally different – a model of conversion that had never previously existed among the Jewish people.
About 10 years ago, the government shut down the original Conversion Administration and replaced it with a new version.
It endeavored to speed up the conversion process and simplify the requirements, but with no great success. The reaction was not long in coming, in the form of a challenge to the authority of the rabbis of the second Conversion Administration and a blanket rejection of their converts by a panel of the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
The secular media in Israel presented this conversion controversy as an ideological clash between the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists. The sad truth, however, is much simpler. It was not an ideological debate at all, but a battle for power and rabbinic authority, mainly within the National Religious camp. However, ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who also see themselves as defenders of the faith, took part in the public debate, expressing views that totally ignored key past rulings of their own predecessors.
WE NEED to look carefully at one significant fact: The participation of national religious rabbis in the conversion process as initiators of the preparatory seminars and as judges in the rabbinical courts did not simplify the process for the candidates but, on the contrary, complicated it. We can, of course, blame the bureaucracy described above, but that is only part of the story. To achieve a comprehensive understanding we need to look beyond bureaucracy – at national religious ideology and identity.
But first we need to insert a note on the Haredi position. The Haredi view on converts is non-ideological and very simple.
In principle, it is based on classic halakhic conversion in the rabbinical courts with no special preparations or preparatory seminars.
The Haredi communities themselves are not usually open to the converts. These two components: a simple, non-ideological and non-bureaucratic Haredi approach to conversion on the one hand, and an exclusive communal policy on the other, made the Haredi judges less demanding.
It allowed them to receive in a simple traditional process thousands of converts to Judaism after the Holocaust up until the 1970s.
Contrary to the Haredi view, the national religious spiritual leadership supports conversion in the context of religious and political ideology, and as part of their view of the modern return to Zion as a religious process. This led naturally to a transition from communal to state-run conversion.
From a Haredi point of view, this is problematic and basically unacceptable. But for national religious rabbis it is an important and even essential aspect of their Zionist ideology.
An amendment to the Conversion Law enabling some town rabbis to establish conversion courts is now on the Knesset legislation agenda. Its practical significance is that more rabbinical courts will be available. Implementation of the law, however, might exacerbate differences in standards among the various courts.
The question is will this intensify rabbinic disputes and increase the number of conversion rejections? Or will we see a process of inclusiveness, of embracing conversion candidates, and returning to the simpler and more welcoming old communal conversion model? 
Naftali Rothenberg, the rabbi of the Jerusalem suburb of Har Adar, is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.