MK Stern: Conversion issue critical to existence of Israel as Jewish, democratic state

Tempers rise during Knesset committee hearing on bill designed to increase number of rabbinical courts able to conduct conversions.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tempers frayed on Tuesday during a Knesset committee hearing on a bill designed to increase the number of rabbinical courts able to conduct conversions.
The legislation, proposed by MK Elazar Stern, has aroused concern within the Chief Rabbinate that the new law would allow rabbis who are not experts in the Jewish laws pertaining to conversion to nevertheless conduct conversions without sufficient oversight.
Proponents of the bill nevertheless point out that it stipulates that conversions will continue to be conducted by Orthodox rabbis in accordance with Jewish law.
The proposed law states that, in addition to the 18 rabbinic conversion panels currently in existence, new three-man panels could be created around the country comprised of a chief municipal rabbi, or someone with that qualification; a rabbi with qualification as a rabbinic judge; and any other person who has rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, or someone who has studied at a recognized institute of religious studies for six years.
The purpose of the bill, say its advocates, is to create a certain degree of autonomy for regional rabbis to allow them to deal with the nuances of the specific situation and needs of conversion applicants in local community.
Stern and others insist that the law would however maintain the centralized authority over conversion that the Chief Rabbinate holds and that it does not compromise Halacha in any way.
And the MK emphasized during the hearing in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice committee that his bill was principally designed to tackle the issue of inter-marriage in Israel between Jews and full Israeli citizens who nevertheless are not Jewish according to Jewish law, as well as deal with the concurrent halachic problems that this phenomenon creates for children of such partnerships.
Some 330,000 Israeli citizens are considered to be of Jewish descent but not Jewish according to Halacha, most of whom are from the former Soviet Union and who immigrated to Israel under the terms of the Law of Return.
“We’re talking about people who live with us, serve with our children in the army and who have taken it upon themselves to physically defend the Jewish people,” said Stern.
“Unfortunately, the State of Israel has deposited the keys for entry into the Jewish people in the hands of people who do not understand the size of the challenge and the importance of this issue for our ongoing existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” he continued.
Stern added that he had consulted with the two chief rabbis and had agreed to a demand from them that any rabbis authorized to conduct conversions must first pass a rabbinate exam on the Jewish laws pertaining to conversion.
The Chief Rabbinate is nevertheless not fully on board with the legislation and is backing a different version of the bill devised with the help of Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, a legal adviser to the Rabbinical Courts Network.
Deputy Minister of Religious Services MK Eli Ben-Dahan has also expressed reservations about the bill.
Ben-Dahan is understood to be in close contact with the chief rabbis and will vet the wording of the final bill before allowing it to proceed.
Despite these assurances, several members of the committee expressed opposition to the bill.
United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev claimed that the bill was designed to help conversion candidates who had been, or would be, rejected by the current system, by which he meant that the bill would allow for rabbis to be lenient in its demands for converts to adhere to Jewish law.
“You are creating class A Jews from class B,” he said.
MK Aliza Lavie responded angrily to Maklev’s comment, accusing him of being part of the problem and saying that “because of people like you, 4,000 problematic children are born every year,” in reference to the children of mixed marriages who are not recognized as Jewish by the religious establishment.