In ongoing discussions with senior figures in the diaspora rabbinate, I’ve been exposed to sincere concerns over the nature and impact of the proposed bills being advanced by the Israeli government on matters of kashrut and conversion.
These modifications to the existing kashrut and conversion systems represent a key opportunity to address critical issues in Jewish practice that demand change. It is vital for all those invested in halacha (Jewish law) and the welfare of the Jewish people, to make every effort to understand the proposed changes, in order to appreciate how they advance the Jewish world and raise the bar for halachic observance.
As noted, there are two key areas facing legislative reforms currently at different stages on the government’s agenda: Kashrut and conversion.
Regrettably, while many of the Rabbinate’s officials are God-fearing people of integrity, the institution in recent years has been riddled by inefficiency and has faced allegations of corruption. In the kashrut wing, many concerns have arisen regarding proper oversight and payment for hashgacha (Halachic supervision) services to the point where the vast majority of the Haredi community does not rely on the Rabbinate’s kashrut supervision, instead utilizing private, unregulated kashrut supervisory agencies.
In order to maximize efficiency, reliability and transparency, the new legislation legalizes the privatization of kosher supervision, in coordination with regional religious services councils. The new system, which has taken effect as of the start of 2022, will introduce competition to the kashrut market, which will raise the standards of efficiency and transparency. As well, a supervisory group appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will be responsible for determining and enforcing the halachic standards that individual agencies must adhere to in order to maintain their credentials, thereby ensuring the reliability of the kosher supervision.
For diaspora Jewry, this is a structure with which many are already familiar and has thrived for decades. Specifically, there are multiple agencies that are viewed as trustworthy and reliable when it comes to supervising halachic conformance, all of whom serve as standard bearers for normative halachic practice. The new legislation follows the same model, with the added benefit of halachic oversight from the Chief Rabbinate.
Regarding conversion, the Chief Rabbinate maintains a strict monopoly: Only those who go through the Rabbinate’s conversion courts can have their Jewish identity recognized in Israel. Yet, those who have gone through the system report an inaccessible, unwelcoming and overly bureaucratic system, and many are thus turned off from pursuing formal conversion.
This reality has far-reaching consequences. The current reality means there are a significant number of halachically non-Jewish students learning in religious schools and participating in religious youth groups throughout Israel. These children are praying and keeping Shabbat like anyone else, going on to study, serving in the IDF, working and living alongside their halachically Jewish counterparts (our children and grandchildren), and they are inevitably falling in love and marrying them. Yet, the inaccessibility of the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion system is leading those who would be willing to convert halachically to forego conversion, even as they pursue relationships with those who are halachically Jewish – thereby jeopardizing the integrity of halachic Jewish identity. In fact, it is this concern for the long-term stability of Jewish identity, coupled with the serious flaws in the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion system, which has already led to the creation of both the Giyur Kehalacha program, an Israeli-based organization offering conversions outside of the state mandated Chief Rabbinate, and other private Haredi conversion courts.
THE PROPOSED legislation will enable the chief rabbis of Israeli cities to set up conversion courts and perform conversions. These city rabbis are scholars of the highest order, who must pass no fewer than eleven rigorous exams in halacha and undergo extensive interviews with three representatives of the Chief Rabbinate before attaining certification. As well, the legislation calls for the formation of a five-person committee, appointed jointly by the Chief Rabbi and the Minister of Religious Affairs, who will determine and enforce the halachic standards the city rabbis must adhere to.
This model is similar to Geirus Protocols and Standards (GPS), the conversion system of the Rabbinical Council of America, which sets halachic standards which are subsequently implemented by recognized regional conversion courts. Furthermore, empowering city rabbis to convert citizens will enable better post-conversion follow-up support, a crucial step to help converts and their families remain engaged with Torah and mitzvot.
These changes in the conversion program are supported by many of the leading rabbinic voices in our community, including Rav Chaim Druckman (head of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva), Rav Re’em Hakohen (Yeshivat Otniel), Rav Yaakov Medan (Yeshivat Har Etzion), Rav David Stav (Chief Rabbi of Shoham, Head of Tzohar), Rav Eliezer Melamed (Yeshivat Har Bracha, author of Pninei Halacha), as well as a number of current judges in the Rabbinate’s conversion court system with whom I have spoken.
Any significant change to how we approach our most precious religious institutions requires the utmost sensitivity. Those advocating for these modifications to the kashrut and conversion systems in Israel have the deepest respect for our tradition and for the preservation of Jewish identity based on halacha. There is no attempt to water down halachic standards; on the contrary, the new systems will improve halachic observance, while encouraging institutional efficiency and transparency. Rather than undermining the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, as many have falsely charged, the legislation enhances the position of the Chief Rabbinate, shifting its focus away from bureaucratic concerns to setting and enforcing halachic standards for others to follow.
For the sake of the Torah and Am Yisrael, we should firmly embrace these reforms and do all that we can to support their implementation.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh Hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30 educational and social institutions and programs transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide.