Viepoint: A problematic compromise

The chief rabbis will once again be given veto power over the appointment of the head of the authority. And this is merely the first step in the ultra-Orthodox takeover of the new institution.

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate
THE SUBJECT of conversion has been a constant on the Israeli national agenda for the last 30 years. Ever since the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union brought to Israel some 350,000 immigrants who were not halakhically recognized as Jewish, the question of who is a Jew has riddled the state. This month saw another phase in this unending saga, as the former minister of Justice, Moshe Nissim, presented his proposals for the reform of Israel’s conversion system. These recommendations call for the establishment of an independent national Conversion Authority that would be directly subject to the Prime Minister, who would appoint the head of the Authority, rather than under the control of the Chief Rabbinate as it is today. With this model, conversion in Israel would be carried out by Orthodox rabbis solely under the aegis of this authority, and private conversions would no longer be recognized – including those carried out by ultra-Orthodox rabbis or more liberal Orthodox rabbis, as well as within non-Orthodox denominations.
Nissim’s logic is clear: conversion needs to be taken out of the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, which is controlled by ultra-Orthodox factions, while still remaining under Orthodox supervision.
But it would seem that, while you can take conversion away from the Chief Rabbinate, you can’t keep the Chief Rabbinate away from conversion, and even more so, out of ultra-Orthodox control.
The ink has barely dried on Nissim’s report, and the ultra-Orthodox have already forced the Prime Minister to make a small but significant change to his bill: rather than selecting the head of the Conversion Authority “in consultation with” the president of the Great Rabbinical Court – one of the two chief rabbis – the selection process will be done “in agreement with” the court president.
That is: the chief rabbis will once again be given veto power over the appointment of the head of the authority. And this is merely the first step in the ultra-Orthodox takeover of the new institution.
Unfortunately, only the ultra-Orthodox attach such importance to this issue, and because they are prepared to invest all of their political power in ensuring that they gain complete control over any body that is responsible for conversion, they will succeed in doing so. Be under no illusion: the moment the ultra-Orthodox parties make their demand, the Prime Minister – whether it be Netanyahu or not – will comply immediately.
Moreover, it may in fact turn out that Nissim’s proposal, despite its good intentions, risks worsening the problem of conversion altogether.
Because the conversion system is currently not anchored in legislation, the Supreme Court has ruled that Orthodox conversions must be recognized regardless of whether or not they are carried out under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The new bill will remove this loophole, and therefore allow continued ultra- Orthodox control of the conversion system with no room for any exceptions.
The issue of conversion requires far more radical solutions than the proposed bill because it reflects a much deeper problem. For the last 250 years, Jewish identity has not been congruent with keeping the biblical commandments. We can choose to mourn this reality, if we wish, but we cannot deny it. Yet, through their political power, the ultra-Orthodox are attempting to ignore this dramatic and historic change, and continue to enforce the old idea that joining the Jewish people requires a commitment to full religious observance.
This is a path that has no future. No political power can force hundreds of thousands of people to take on a Jewish identity while they don’t believe in its details. This is why only a minority have sought conversion, and why those who do so usually convert as a prerequisite to marriage rather than out of a pious drive to be Jewish. Many converts adopt the “Israbluff” approach: they tell rabbinical judges that they will keep the commandments, and if necessary, they will also send their children to religious schools.
However, once their conversion is complete, they go back to living their lives as they see fit, safe in the knowledge that most halakhic adjudicators do not support retroactive cancelation of conversions in such cases.
This is not a process that brings any honor to the religious courts, the converts, or the Torah itself. In its place, we must formulate a new definition of Jewish identity that suits a reality in which being Jewish does not necessarily mean being religiously observant. In any case, it makes sense that the criteria for joining the Jewish people should be oriented toward national identity. Jews today no longer live according to the precept laid down by Rabbi Saadia Gaon, which states that “our nation is not a nation unless [it lives by] its Torah.” At the very most, we might be able to say that “our nation is not a nation without its Torah.” That is, even as a nation, we require some element of tradition – necessarily, religious tradition – and Jewish identity cannot solely rely on national components such as territory, language, a flag, and a state. But both the traditional and religious elements of our peoplehood have shrunk, and in defining these aspects of our nation, we must look to the Jewish public and seek the minimum level of tradition that the majority of today’s Jews – rather than the Rabbinate – are comfortable with.
The Talmud states (Eruvin, 14b): “Go out and see what the people are doing.” The halakha condones public opinion as a criterion for ruling on halakhic matters. In applying this model to the modern day Jewish Israeli public, a person should be considered Jewish if they live by the annual cycle of Jewish festivals and if they mark their major life cycle events (birth, coming of age, marriage, etc.) through Jewish ceremonies – regardless of whether the format chosen for doing so is Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or secular. This, then, is the criterion that should be set for anyone to be accepted as a member of the Jewish people. 
Yair sheleg is a research fellow at the Israeli Democratic Institution.