New calls for reform of rabbinic conversion courts

Head of Israel's Joint Institute for Conversion: We must establish a legally independent institution.

Haredim 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Haredim 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The debate over Israel's conversion policy escalated this week with a call for the establishment of a new non-state rabbinic court system for conversions by Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, head of Israel's Joint Institute for Conversion. "We must establish a legally independent institution run by its very own board of governors that is supported by the government of Israel," Ish-Shalom told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday about the rabbinic conversion courts. "This is necessary," he said, because "the bureaucrats in the Prime Minister's Office and elsewhere are preventing the necessary change in [conversion] policy," making the current structure of Israel's formal conversion mechanism a recipe for disaster. The Joint Institute, formally titled the Institute for Jewish Studies, offers non-Jewish olim the requisite 10-month courses in Judaism required for their conversion process. It was formed seven years ago under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office in the wake of the Neeman Commission, and allows non-Jewish olim to study Judaism from a pluralistic perspective, with their studies drawn from all three of Judaism's major streams, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Until last week, the program concluded with an Orthodox conversion at the state or - in the case of soldiers - IDF rabbinical courts. Last week, Ish-Shalom told the Post that the institute had suspended its cooperation with the rabbinic conversion courts and demanded the appointment of new conversion judges who will "support, rather than hinder" the conversion process. This demand reportedly met with a "positive" response by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. According to one source who spoke to the Post, Amar and the head of the conversion authority in the Prime Minister's Office, Rabbi Haim Druckman, have written to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warning they were considering "washing their hands" of the conversion issue due to their inability to effect a change of policy in the bureaucracy of the conversion courts system. Another break in support for the conversion courts came in the form of a letter obtained by the Post in which Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, expressed full support for efforts "to find a halachic and practical solution, that will allow to bring under the wings of the Divine Presence the masses of immigrants who are, with God's help, coming to the Land [of Israel], and especially to our city Haifa and intermarrying, and who desire to be Jewish according to Halacha." The core of the debate concerns halachic strictures that many dayanim place on potential converts, such as demands that the convert dress in attire deemed modest by Jewish law, or demanding that the convert's partner, often merely a boyfriend or girlfriend, become more observant for the conversion to be ratified. The converts risk forfeiting their conversion retroactively if they renege on these demands. As Ish-Shalom told the Post last week, the courts are effectively obstructing the willing conversions of tens of thousands of non-Jewish olim, mostly from the former Soviet Union, thereby forcing intermarriage upon hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews. There are an estimated 300,000 non-Jewish olim, about half of which are believed to be willing to convert if the procedures for doing so were relaxed. According to Ish-Shalom, the demands of the dayanim are not only irrelevant to - and not required by - Halacha itself, but important poskim [rulers in halachic issues] have ruled that it is inappropriate to make demands such as these of aspiring converts. While he lists names of modern rabbis, he takes particular care to note that this view is shared by the authoritative halachic codex Shulchan Aruch and the influential 12th century philosopher and halachic codifier Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who famously ruled that once an aspiring convert has been taught Jewish thought and practice and has agreed to bind their fate with that of the Jewish people, "we do not examine them or check after them" regarding their observance. The latest calls to revamp Israel's conversion system follow some two weeks of increasing protests against alleged inequities and mismanagement in the rabbinic courts. Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed Immigrant Absorption Ministry Dir.-Gen. Erez Halfon to head a special inter-ministerial committee to examine government conversion policy and the reforms of the rabbinic conversion courts. The committee will examine recommendations for joining conversion-related government functions - currently scattered among the Prime Minister's Office, the Chief Rabbinate, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Education Ministry and external institutions such as the Jewish Agency - into one state institution. In addition, it will look into ideas for reforming the rabbinic conversion courts. Also last week, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin called for the establishment of "an alternative court of religious-Zionist, modern Orthodox judges" following the appointment of 15 new judges to the regular rabbinic courts, 12 of whom were haredi. While this is not in direct protest of the rabbinic conversion courts, the enactment of more liberal conversion policy was a major part of Riskin's call for the new court system. While the appointments of the new dayanim are facing a High Court of Justice challenge, Riskin has started gathering a group of religious-Zionist rabbis to ask Israel's Chief Rabbinate to recognize a separate religious-Zionist court system, as was done in the past with the haredi Badatz system.