Some city rabbis registering out-of-towners for marriage to bypass haredi colleagues.
By MATTHEW WAGNER
Modern Orthodox rabbis have organized to violate the law to help converts who are unable to marry because they are not recognized by haredi chief rabbis of cities.
"I know several Orthodox Zionist rabbis of cities who agree to register converts for marriage even when neither the convert nor his or her partner live in the rabbis' cities," Rabbi David Stav said on Wednesday. He is a senior member of Tzohar Rabbis, a group of moderate Orthodox rabbis.
"I can't reveal any of the rabbis' names because they are lawbreakers," added Stav. "And I don't want them to get in trouble."
Registration for marriage includes determining whether or not both the bride and groom are Jewish according to Orthodox criteria. Only Jews are permitted to marry in the Rabbinate.
According to the Chief Rabbinate's directives, a city rabbi is allowed to register a couple for marriage only when either the bride or the groom lives in the rabbi's city or the wedding takes place there.
Otherwise, the directives do not empower a rabbi from one city to register a resident of another. Also, every couple is obligated to pay a marriage tax to their local religious council that helps fund services offered in their city.
However, for many years haredi rabbis of several localities - including Rehovot, Petah Tikva, Ashdod and Beersheba - have refused to automatically accept the Jewishness of converts converted by the Conversion Authority, which is headed by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
In a recent conference in Jerusalem organized by Eternal Jewish Family, a haredi organization pushing for a more stringent supervision of the conversion process, several haredi city rabbis declared they would not register converts converted by the Conversion Authority, which operates under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
These rabbis said they would insist on scrutinizing every convert, no matter where his or her conversion was performed.
The interrogation is meant to determine that the convert embraced an Orthodox lifestyle. Those who have not might not be recognized as Jews.
These haredi rabbis, following in the footsteps of leading haredi halachic authorities such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, have declared that anything less than a full acceptance of Orthodox strictures at the time of conversion followed by concrete proof of adherence to an Orthodox lifestyle after the conversion renders the conversion invalid. Many converts who refuse to submit to the scrutiny of haredi city rabbis are unable to marry in Israel.
In contrast, Zionist city rabbis unquestioningly recognize conversions performed by all reputable Orthodox conversion courts. They have been stepping in to help these converts.
"If we don't help them they are liable to end up living together without marrying or going abroad and marrying in a civil ceremony," said Kiryat Shmona Chief Rabbi Tzfania Drori, who acknowledged that he registered residents of other cities.
Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, a non-profit organization that helps people navigate the Chief Rabbinate's bureaucracy, said city rabbis should be compelled to register all converts converted by the Chief Rabbinate.
"These rabbis are employees of the Chief Rabbinate and they receive a salary from the State of Israel. Therefore they have a duty to recognize conversions performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate," Farber said.
"If their intellectual integrity does not allow them to recognize conversion performed by the Conversion Authority then they should resign."
Technically, city rabbis are obligated to adhere to decisions made by the Chief Rabbinate's governing body. One of these decisions, dating back to May 2000, directs them to receive without question converts converted by the Chief Rabbinate.
However, this directive has been ignored and haredi city rabbis have continued to appropriate the authority to investigate the authenticity of the conversion before registering a convert for marriage.
According to attorney Mordechai Eisenberg, head of the Movement for Fairness in Government, a watchdog group specializing in religion-state issues, said it was unrealistic and unfair to expect rabbis to compromise their halachic opinions.
"You can't expect a rabbi to register someone as a Jew when he thinks that person is not a Jew," he said.
A bill backed by Chairman of the Knesset Law Committee David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) might solve the problem by empowering every city rabbi to register converts regardless of their place of residence.
Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said that while it was true that conversion was a serious process that included the acceptance of the commandments, in Israel the reality was different from in the Diaspora.
"If someone falters after the conversion process and fails to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle [in Israel], he or she still maintains his Jewish identity in the national sense. He does not assimilate into non-Jewish society."
According to Riskin, there are two aspects to conversion. The religious aspect entail acceptance of an Orthodox lifestyle. But the second aspect of conversion, which is symbolized by immersion in the ritual bath, is national.
"A person who converts is reborn into the Jewish nation. The mikve water is symbolic of the embryonic fluid. And when a convert remains a citizen of Israel, serves in the army, [he or she] identifies with the plight of the Jewish people and ties his or her destiny to their fate."
There are about 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria but who have integrated into Israeli society.
"If we don't adopt a more open, user friendly approach to conversions that will encourage more non-Jews to convert, we will be facing rampant intermarriage within a generation," Riskin said.
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