Conversion in Israel: The tug of war between the state, rabbinate

How did conversion to Judaism get caught in up the midst of an Israeli political controversy over the Law of Return and identifying who is a Jew?

 A WOMAN stands before the rabbinical court. (photo credit: FLASH90)
A WOMAN stands before the rabbinical court.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Giyur (conversion to Judaism) is a right that the Torah (as interpreted by Rabbinic law) accords for a non-Jew to join the Jewish people under certain conditions. As Ruth says, “Your people are my people and your God is my God” (Ruth: 1, 16), meaning the desire to join the Jewish people and the desire to follow the Jewish faith, i.e., the precepts of the Torah. De facto in Israel today, the sincerity of the potential convert is assessed by a Rabbinical Court. If sincerity is established, this is followed by a statement of faith and the acceptance of the mitzvot, circumcision or in certain cases hatafat dam brit (drawing blood circumcision), immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), and, in biblical times, an offering in the Temple. For many halachic poskim (decisors), sincerity is the main issue, and the rest is the official ceremony.

“Your people are my people and your God is my God.”

Ruth 1:16

So how did giyur get caught in up the midst of an Israeli political controversy over the Law of Return?

The leaders of Israel in 1950, such as Ben-Gurion, did not think that it was proper for Israel to define being a Jew. They thought that anyone claiming to be Jewish should be accepted. However, it appears that all Jewish-related issues in Israel are perceived in light of Jewish tradition. Therefore, when Israel established the Law of Return, it was perceived partially from a traditionalist vantage point, since in Jewish tradition, nationhood and creed are inseparable.

This tug of war between what Jews think about Jews and Judaism on the one hand, and what Israel felt as a need to define a Jew who will live in its borders on the other hand, emphasized the already ambiguous relationship between religion and state. The Law of Return was a logical outcome of the Declaration of Independence of 1948, which refers to the State of Israel as a Jewish state; however, the Law of Return, in its updated form of 1970, defined a Jew as one who was born from a Jewish mother or converted. It did not define what conversion means and rightly so, since this would be entering the realm of religion.

How can conversion be a secular notion? So why did they decide to define what a Jew is?

This problem began in 1961 in the case of Oswald Rufheisen, known as Brother Daniel, who was born to Jewish parents and converted to Christianity, eventually becoming a Carmelite friar. His request to qualify as a Jew under the Law of Return sparked a major controversy. Is a Jew an ethnicity or a religious belief? The Supreme Court ruled that a person practicing another religion cannot be accepted as a Jew under the Law of Return. This was added to Article 4A of the law in 1970, stating that a Jew who “has voluntarily changed his religion” is not eligible for aliyah. And again, Article 4B defines a Jew as one “who is not the member of another religion.”

 ‘IMPROPER TO define being a Jew’: A bust of David Ben-Gurion stands sentry over the airport departure hall. (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90) ‘IMPROPER TO define being a Jew’: A bust of David Ben-Gurion stands sentry over the airport departure hall. (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

This, of course, created a paradox in which this secular state now had a religious definition of a Jew contrary to Jewish law, which actually regards someone like Oswald Rufheisen as Jewish, even if a Jew who had gone astray (Yehudi mumar). The Israeli Rabbinate was only peripherally involved in giyur in the first 20 years of the state, with just over 2,000 conversions during that entire period.

With a major wave of aliyah from communist Poland from 1956-1960, called the Gomulka Aliya, over 35,000 people arrived in Israel, 10% of whom were non-Jews from mixed marriages. This brought the leaders of Israel to turn to the Rabbinate requesting to convert the non-Jews. The question is why the state would turn to the Rabbinate in the first place. If the state has a Law of Return which concerns the state, why involve the Rabbinate? If these non-Jews were entitled to Israeli citizenship, then why the need for conversion?

Is the state secretly concerned with making everyone Jewish but outwardly authorizing non-Jewish aliyah?

With the first Russian aliyah of the early 1970s, Golda Meir anticipated a multitude of mixed marriages. An estimated 150,000 Soviet Jews arrived, including many of mixed marriages. Therefore, in 1970 she added a clause to the Law of Return that even “a child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew and the spouse of the child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew” are eligible to make aliyah, despite the fact that the law in Article 4B defines a Jew as one “who was born of a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism.” This brought the state to ask the Rabbinate again to pick up the gauntlet of conversion.

The late chief rabbi Shlomo Goren was the first to do so. He created rabbinical courts for conversion both in the army and for the general public. As a result, from the 1980s onward, there was a significant increase in conversion. The 1990s saw the fall of the Iron Curtain, when about one million people made aliyah from the former Soviet Union over a period of 15 years. Among them, some 35% were not Jewish, with the percentage rising towards the end of the 1990s, but all were eligible for citizenship. Again, the state turned to the Rabbinate to involve itself in conversion.

This, again, begs the question that if Israel did not want so many non-Jews, why didn’t it just change the law removing the clause that includes relatives of Jews up to the grandchildren. Conversely, if the country wanted to bring these people in, why turn to the Rabbinate? Idealistic religious Zionists accepted the challenge without even asking why no amendments were made to the Law of Return as was suggested by then minister of absorption Yitzhak Peretz.

INSTEAD, THE Neeman Commission was set up to strengthen the conversion apparatus of the Chief Rabbinate. Eight NGOs were supported by the Ministry of Absorption to work with the Rabbinate, in addition to the Machon Le’limudei Yahadut and Nativ in the army. The results were dramatic. The numbers of converts rose in the 1990s from a few hundred per year to two and three thousand per year. The annual number of converts equaled the total number converted in the entire first 20 years of the state. This apparatus has actually improved, and reaches between 3,000 and sometimes 5,000 converts a year.

In the end, the Rabbinate has converted about 50,000 people since 1990, some 30,000 of whom were from the aliyah of the FSU, in addition to a similar number among olim from Ethiopia, which is a separate issue. This is an impressive amount, but we all know it doesn’t solve any problem. For one, the number of non-Jews just from the FSU aliyah is still about 350,000. Second, new non-Jewish olim arrive annually. Third, the annual immigration to Israel includes many thousands of non-Jews having nothing to do with the Law of Return. For example, in 2020, some 20,000 people immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, and 11,000 non-Jews immigrated for other reasons (such as uniting families). In 2021, some 34,000 people immigrated to Israel, of which 58% came under the Law of Return, meaning that 14,280 were non-Jewish immigrants. Even in the best of years, there is no way to convert such a number of people in any serious fashion. Fourth, many non-Jewish immigrants have no interest in conversion, even if they have Jewish roots.

The question, therefore, can be asked: Is the notion of state-backed conversion just another empty solution that can never actually solve anything but was set up to appease the conscience of those worried about the Jewish demography of Israel? It is always easier to blame the Rabbinate, knowing very well that they can never solve the problem, than to actually do what really has to be done to protect the Jewish majority of Israel? Many have suggested that Golda Meir and her colleagues in 1970 never could have fathomed a major aliyah such as in the 1990s and therefore never pondered how the new clause would affect such a scenario. But this cannot be said of the politicians who witnessed the aliyah in the 1990s.

Another problem of the state’s involving itself in conversion is that as a democratic country, we should embrace our minorities, and no one should feel that Israel is pressuring them to convert just because they are not Jewish. Besides, the biggest fault in seeing giyur as the solution to a national problem is that it is contrary to the point of giyur. Giyur is a welcoming of the non-Jew into our fold who shares our worldview. It is an inclusive idea and not a problem solver. I am not saying it was never seen in this light in individual cases, especially concerning cases in which there was a question concerning the Jewish identity, what is referred to as giyur le’humrah, but never as an overall solution.

Is it beneficial to have the state be involved in religious affairs such as giyur?

In 1997, there was a case in Montreal, Canada, in which a man wanted to build a sukkah on the balcony of his condominium. The case went to court, and the judge consulted with two rabbis. One said that it was fine to eat in a communal sukkah, while the other argued that a private one was necessary, since it’s impractical to eat three meals a day in a communal sukkah. The court ruled that if there is a legitimate lenient view, then the defendant cannot put up a sukkah. Subsequently, the case was brought to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004, which overturned the decision, arguing that the court had no authority to rule on an internal religious controversy.

Back to Israel. Just as many people were appalled when the health minister wanted to obligate hospitals in Israel to allow chametz (leaven) on Passover in the patients’ rooms, which would render it almost impossible to follow Passover restrictions for the other patients, so too it is not prudent to allow politicians to get involved in religious issues, even if they are practicing Jews. The Rabbinate is not without its flaws. Like other public institutions, internal politics has badly affected it; however, the solution is to make improvements in the system, not set up another faulty system.

Giyur should not be a means to a political end. It is Judaism’s most inclusive institution, allowing any non-Jew who shares our beliefs and goals to share our destiny. It can be supported by the state, as are many religious institutions, but the state should not involve itself. It should not be just another cheap solution to problems created by poor leadership.

I know that there has been much discussion among Religious Zionist rabbis concerning being more lenient in conversion. If the idea refers to unique circumstances, I have seen this happening de facto already. But if we are talking in general, I fail to understand why. I ask them, “Do you think that only one who grew up in a religious home can be a sincere Jew? Don’t you realize that if you officially lower the bar, two things will happen: First, it’s a statement that all converts are not serious, which is an insult to every convert who ever entered the fold. Second, it will create an unnecessary stigma about converts in Israeli society that they cannot be trusted and are not really Jews, when often they are the most sincere of all.”

I have been blessed to teach these people who, like Ruth, have left everything to join us. Why belittle this precious gift by allowing politicians to use it for their gain and fame? 

The writer, a rabbi, is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University.