50 liberal Orthodox rabbis back High Court’s conversion decision

Until the ruling, converts through the non-Orthodox denominations, amounting to approximately 140 people a year on average, were unable to claim Israeli citizenship as Orthodox converts are.

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020
(photo credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
A group of several dozen liberal Orthodox rabbis in the US and Israel have signed a letter expressing their support for the recent decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice to grant citizenship under the Law of Return to Reform and Masorti (Conservative) converts who converted in Israel.
The court’s decision last week was warmly received by the non-Orthodox movements because of the greater legitimacy it afforded their denominations in the Jewish state, but evinced consternation from the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties which oppose recognition of the non-Orthodox movements.
On Wednesday, a group of over 50 rabbis, including ordained men and women, who are members of the Torat Chayim association of liberal Orthodox rabbis, issued a letter saying they support the High Court’s decision out of a commitment to Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state.
The signatories – including prominent rabbinical figures such as Yitz Greenberg, Dina Najman, Asher Lopatin and Daniel Landes among others – said they were signing the letter in an individual capacity and that it was not an official statement on behalf of Torat Chayim.
“This decision does not require the established rabbinate to accept the conversions. These conversions may not be acceptable halachically. But in a democracy, there should be freedom of religion and the right of all citizens to join a denomination or religion that they choose without suffering discrimination,” wrote the rabbis.
Until the ruling, converts through the non-Orthodox denominations, amounting to approximately 140 people a year on average, were unable to claim Israeli citizenship as Orthodox converts are.
“Strengthening democracy – providing equality and justice for all its citizens – strengthens Israel as a Jewish state with which Jews of the whole world identify and are inspired,” they continued.
The rabbis said they also urged people “to turn from the way of religious coercion and suppression to accepting the spirit of democracy, extending equality and dignity for all,” which they said would bring “greater respect for God, Torah and the Jewish tradition – a cause to which we all give our love and commitment.”
They also condemned the harsh rhetoric by ultra-Orthodox opponents of the decision, including an ad by the United Torah Judaism Party comparing non-Orthodox Jews to dogs and other derogatory comments about the Reform and Conservative movements and their conversions.
The High Court decision was condemned by ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel, including chief Rrabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, while mainstream Orthodox voices were also critical.
Yosef said the decision “harms the wholeness of the Jewish people,” and Reform and Conservative conversions were “nothing but the forgery of Judaism,” adding that the decision would lead to “the entry of thousands of non-Jews into the Jewish people.”
Lau said that “Reform converts and their like are not Jews” and Israel would be flooded with “non-Jewish immigrants” as a result.
The mainstream Tzohar religious-Zionist rabbinical association also opposed the decision, describing non-Orthodox conversions as “non-halachic” but blamed the Chief Rabbinate for the development, saying its refusal to enter into dialogue with Orthodox partners had led to the High Court ruling.
“We know there are challenges with these conversions. We only hold by halachic conversions, and we know we’re dealing here with non-halachic conversions,” Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Torat Chayim and another signatory to the letter, told The Jerusalem Post.
“We’re seeing a lot of demagoguery, with opponents saying they [the non-Orthodox] are going to convert dogs, and racial undertones about claims that many black people will convert, and we wanted to make clear our opposition to that,” said Yanklowitz.
He added that he did not believe the small number of non-Orthodox converts who will be able to gain Israeli citizenship through this ruling will have a significant impact on the cohesiveness of the Jewish people, as Orthodox opponents of the ruling have argued.