The Chief Rabbinate: An obstacle to conversion

For many years problems of conversion to Judaism in Israel were considered to be the concern only of non-Orthodox movements.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For many years problems of conversion to Judaism in Israel were considered to be the concern only of non-Orthodox movements. That has changed of late as the Chief Rabbinate was seen to be discriminating against conversions done in the Diaspora by recognized Orthodox rabbis as well. This became a scandal that caused the rabbinate to back down somewhat, but only somewhat.
Furthermore it is now acknowledged by more moderate Orthodox groups and individuals that the Chief Rabbinate is taking a hard stance on conversions in Israel in general and is not showing any flexibility in this matter, ignoring the true requirements of Jewish Law in favor of their own unjustified strictures. It is for this reason that some Orthodox rabbis are in favor of the law proposed by MK Elazar Stern, himself an Orthodox Jew, a law that would permit the setting up of local conversion courts.
It is hard to see any reason to oppose that law. On the other hand, it should be clear to all that this will not solve the problem. The Chief Rabbinate would remain the final authority in these matters and its position has not and will not change. This law and any others like it are similar to the placing of the proverbial band aid on someone who is suffering from a heart attack. It won’t hurt, but it won’t heal either.
The solution is much more drastic. It is the abolishment of the Chief Rabbinate as an official governmental body, as The Jerusalem Post itself has often advocated. As one who served on the Neeman Commission and is now on the board of the Joint Institute that deals with conversion of Russian olim, I can testify that the rabbinate has been the main obstacle in dealing appropriately with this major social problem. The Commission was unable to even issue a report or any recommendations because of the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate then to co-operate in any way and the efforts of the Institute to convert large numbers has met with tremendous difficulties on the part of rabbinate at every step of the way.
Conversion is not the only area in which the Chief Rabbinate is the sickness and not the cure. The perpetual problems of agunot, of divorce in Israel, and even of marriage are as vexing as conversion and no less important.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni proposes having one chief rabbi rather than two. What exactly will that do? If one is better than two, is not none better than one? The Chief Rabbinate has done nothing for Judaism in Israel accept to expose it to shame and corruption. The political shenanigans that we saw in the last election of chief rabbis and those that are now going on in Jerusalem for the election of chief rabbis here should be proof enough that there is no need for a Chief Rabbinate.
Jerusalem has done well for years without a chief rabbi. Why spoil it now? The new chief rabbis, government employees, joined in the recent haredi anti-government, anti-IDF demonstration and these men are supposed to be our supreme religious leaders? Who exactly do they represent? The ultra-Orthodox do not recognize them. They do not represent the modern Orthodox.
They are not recognized by Masorti or Reform Judaism and have nothing to do with the so-called secular community. The one thing they certainly do not represent is Judaism. Just think of the money that could be saved by eliminating this less than useless body.
The government has recently decided that the Israel Broadcast Authority is in need of drastic changes. It is time to realize that the religious establishment is no less dysfunctional than the IBA and needs to be changed as well. If the State of Israel wants to support Judaism, it can do so by offering funds to NGOs that would be set up by various religious groups in Israel and receive aid according to the size of their membership. In that way pluralistic Judaism would be able to flourish in Israel as it does elsewhere in the Jewish world and the heavy hand of the rabbinate that now dominates conversion, marriage and divorce would be eliminated. This law and that law will not solve the problem. Drastic measures are needed to solve the problems that confront Israeli society in religious matters. Only the elimination of this governmental monopoly, the Chief Rabbinate, will do.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a two-time winner of the National Book Council Award and the representative of the Masorti Movement on the Neeman Commission.