Conversion law: The wind of change

Over the past years little has been done by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate concerning the problem of defining and possibly ratifying “who is a Jew.”

Boy at Kotel 370 (photo credit: Yoram Sela)
Boy at Kotel 370
(photo credit: Yoram Sela)
A young man who works for the police called me this week and explained to me that after having been married for a few years and unable to bear children, he and his wife opted for surrogate motherhood. Seeing as this would prove to be a rather expensive venture in Israel, the couple hired a surrogate mother from Ukraine and was blessed with twins.
Although not an observant Jew, the young man was sensitive enough to realize that he was confronted with a serious question regarding the Jewish status of his children and wanted to certify that his children would be unquestionably included as members of the Jewish nation. He approached the Chief Rabbinate, prepared to have his children undergo conversion or any process which would guarantee his newborn’s Jewish status according to the strict letter of Jewish law, yet was completely unprepared for the response he was about to receive.
After hearing the young man’s concern, the rabbi told him that he himself would have to first become religiously observant and only then would the rabbi be willing to discuss the newborn’s Jewishness.
Naturally the young man, who was taken aback by the tactless pronouncement and the insensible rabbinic figure in front of him, told the rabbi that if this was the case he too was not interested in being Jewish.
Unfortunately these experiences and encounters are becoming fairly commonplace. The bureaucratic approach to Judaism and the impervious bedside manner exhibited by rabbinic authorities today has had and continues to have detrimental effects on Israeli society.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is supposed to represent a Religious Zionist institution, which means that its approach should be embracing, its authority inclusive and its organization objective; sadly this is not the case.
I have warned many times that the more the institution of the rabbinate concerns itself with the letter of the law without showing concern for the people upon whom they wish to enforce the law, the more irrelevant it will become. I am often reminded of Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, chief rabbi of Israel 1964-1972, who lobbied for tolerance toward secular Jews and wrote mostly about religious conversion and marital law, who explained that the difference between the American and Israeli rabbinate is that “the American Rabbinate has no power and tremendous influence; while the Israeli Rabbinate has tremendous power and little influence.”
Over the past years little has been done by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate concerning the problem of defining and possibly ratifying “who is a Jew,” little has been proposed regarding conversions and there has certainly been insufficient if any response regarding the Conservative (Masorti) and Reform rabbinate and movements who have demanded some sort of credibility and who are growing increasingly appealing to the broader Israeli public. The Chief Rabbinate must uphold the proper standards of the halacha, but it should also recognize that it is a people’s institution and that the people in Israel, observant and secular alike, expect tolerance, patience, understanding and diplomacy from their religious leadership. Under such pretenses the new conversion law proposed by MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua is befitting and comforting at the same time.
Stern’s law proposes that conversions should no longer be centrally allocated and controlled by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, but rather there should be courts of law established throughout the country.
Three designated rabbis (constituting a beit din) in each city would preside over local conversions and proposed converts can proceed in the city and beit din of their choice.
This would lessen the burden of a central authority, enable the smaller courts to confront the issue with less pressure and hopefully nurture a more personable rapport between the rabbis and the residents. (I believe this concept originated by the way from Jethro, who advised his son-in-law Moses to train other scholars to perform the many duties which Moses did not have the time, patience or proper frame of mind to deal with on his own).
Stern is not proposing any compromise in halacha, as some of those who oppose the law suggest, rather he seems interested in facilitating an amicable connection between rabbis and those who must follow their directives regardless of the fact that they don’t subscribe to the same beliefs. The Chief Rabbinate claims it is opposed to the law out of concern that it can potentially nurture “freelance conversions” which can compromise the integrity of what is supposed to be a rigorous conversion process.
This may be so, but I suspect part of their concern is the fact that they may simply lose the “power” referred to above.
Since Stern introduced the law there has been a two-week hiatus which allows for all concerned parties to mull it over and entertain solutions; in my opinion the solution is fairly obvious. Smaller courts should be established to guide, rule and direct the people case by case for the reasons mentioned above, while the larger Chief Rabbinate should be responsible exclusively for supervising and overseeing the duties of the smaller courts including setting the standards of conversions and halachic guidelines for them as well.
Both of the courts will feel less pressure, the city courts will deal with their clientele more personably (in fact as a result of what will hopefully be a more understanding approach and patient process the person undergoing the conversion may develop a connection with the rabbi and perhaps continue to seek his guidance on more issues which he may face as a Jew living in Israel), while the role of the Chief Rabbinate as a halachic authority will remain intact except now they will be dealing directly with courts and rabbis as opposed to dealing with the people who may have misunderstood their reason and purpose to begin with.
This law does not solve all of the problems with the institution of the chief rabbinate but it can initiate a progressive mindset and a more supportive and responsive system.
The author serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops and infuse them with Jewish identity. In addition he is currently involved lecturing throughout Israel on the basics of Judaism for many secular kibbutzim and moshavim. He is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora.