No more illusions

Those who continue to believe that the chief rabbis will change their position on conversion are fooling themselves.

The reported negative reactions on the part of the Chief Rabbinate to the appointment of Muli Yeselson as new head of the Conversion Authority is an indication of further trouble ahead. The very fact that Yeselson has been part of the Joint Institute, which includes teachers from all streams, makes him problematic according to Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, an aid to Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar. "We have to wait and see whether he accepts Rabbi Amar as his new boss," said Peretz. In other words, the Conversion Authority must become merely a branch of the Chief Rabbinate, a rather self-defeating act since the Conversion Authority was created to circumvent the Chief Rabbinate's failure to solve the conversion crises. The time has come, therefore, for the government, the Jewish Agency and all concerned with solving this problem to admit that we have been laboring under an illusion - namely that the Chief Rabbinate would cooperate in this endeavor and be a partner in the solution rather than the chief component of the problem. Those who continue to believe that the chief rabbis, no matter who they may be, will change their position on these matters are fooling themselves. One does not continue to depend on a staff that has proven unreliable unless one wishes to fall. That illusion was an integral part of the failure of the Neeman Commission, which had relied on the fact that the Chief Rabbinate would cooperate with the plan to create a joint conversion institute. When that illusion was shattered by the Chief Rabbinate's vitriolic refusal to do so, we somehow continued to delude ourselves into thinking that nevertheless it would come around, even if only by silent acquiescence. PERHAPS IT was the knowledge that there was no sound halachic reason to prevent this, since traditional Halacha is overwhelmingly lenient in matters of conversion, as well as the remembrance that at one time, under Rabbi Benzion Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi who died in 1953, such reasonable conversions had taken place, that allowed this vain hope to continue. But it is simply foolish to continue to believe in something that has been proven wrong time and time again. The days of Uziel will not return. Rather we should admit the truth, forget about the Chief Rabbinate and search for other solutions. And there are other solutions. One solution readily available is to make recognition of conversions by other rabbinical groups meaningful not only by recognizing them but by providing for the possibility of marriage outside of the framework of the Chief Rabbinate. This could be done by the authorization of civil partnerships which could be solemnized religiously by rabbis of all denominations. ANOTHER SOLUTION would be to permit alternative Orthodox courts to perform conversions that would be recognized by the state and to permit these courts to authorize marriages as well. There are enough modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel who understand the situation and the Halacha who could do this. It requires courage for them to stand up against the current monopoly, but it can be done. These solutions are not mutually exclusive and both require the breaking of the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on marriages. The Chief Rabbinate has failed to deal adequately with one of the great social challenges of our time. Hundreds of thousands of new olim came to this country, many if not most of them anxious to be integrated here as Jews, many indeed considering themselves Jews. Instead of welcoming this opportunity and providing ready access in reasonable conversion, the Chief Rabbinate either ignored the problem and the potential or put stumbling blocks in the way. This is a failure that will be recorded as an historic blunder. It is not too late the save the situation, but it will require the government to rise above political considerations, to acknowledge the failure and to seek new solutions even at the risk of the displeasure of the rabbinical establishment. The future of the Jewish people demands no less. The writer, who served on the Neeman Commission, is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a member of the board of directors of the Joint Institute.