The conversion bill

The directive is now in final form, but has been held up in the Prime Minister’s Office because of the current budget debate.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The latest fray over the conversion bill has once again deteriorated to an internal battle between Orthodox rabbis of different stripes. While the moderate religious-Zionist camp (which I am a part of) has now thrown its weight behind a “hachlatat memshala” or government directive that would enable some municipal rabbis to perform conversions, the more conservative rabbis – and particularly those in the so-called haredi-nationalist camp, such as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, have expressed outright disdain for the expansion of the number of rabbis who can perform conversions.
The directive is now in final form, but has been held up in the Prime Minister’s Office ostensibly because of the current budget debate. In the meantime, however, Orthodox rabbis are slinging mud at each other regarding the possibility of the directive being approved.
To some extent, the battle lines have been drawn along the first line of the text of the directive, which declares that all the new rabbis who will be able to perform conversions will have halachic independence.
While the moderates are celebrating the opportunity to have independence from the chief rabbinate, the conservatives argue that this undermines the very authority of the rabbinate. They, and together with them the chief rabbis, have stated explicitly that they will not accept the conversions performed by municipal rabbis, something that ironically is in their power to enforce, according to the continuation of the proposed text of the decision. While the text enables municipal rabbis to effect conversions, it empowers, at least implicitly, the chief rabbis to issue conversion certificates (teudot hamara), thus essentially giving the chief rabbis some form of veto power over the conversion process.
Now it is no secret that while I believe that the cabinet decision – should it be passed in the coming weeks – is a step forward, I think that the compromises made along the way to appease the chief rabbis and those who seek to empower them have significantly diminished the bill’s luster. Unlike the original bill, which granted autonomy and independence to the municipal rabbis, the present bill has specific criteria for who can perform a conversion (even if he is a municipal rabbi) and where he can perform it. Furthermore, it empowers a group of senior rabbis to institute restrictions on the municipal rabbis and possibly even censure them.
In this context, I believe that the multiple attempts over the past six months to placate the right wing of the religious-Zionist community were misplaced at best and probably undermined much of the original effort. MK Elazar Stern and his partners (including me) continued to believe that the chief rabbinate would “come around” if only a nuance here and a comma there were changed. Regions of conversion were created to placate the chief rabbis, as were exams for every municipal rabbi. And yet, they never really came around. Perhaps it is time to learn that the religious-Zionist moderates no longer share a fundamental set of values with their nationalist-haredi counterparts, even if they wear the same color kippa.
But the infighting (if it may be called that) which prevented the bill from being passed and is now holding up the cabinet decision is reflective of something much more catastrophic within the Israeli Jewish world. Theoretically, the issues of conversion for more than 300,000 immigrants, assimilation and intermarriage, and the creation of group within the IDF of people fighting for the Jews even though they are not recognized as Jews, should be issues that hit a raw nerve in most Jewish Israelis, religious or not. The “conversion” problem is not a religious problem, but a challenge for all those who believe in a Jewish state.
And yet, only the religious are engaged in the debate.
Self-interest and politics have taken the place of vision and substance. Rather than focus on the truly difficult challenges of our generation, the non-Orthodox political entities have deferred to the Orthodox, allowing them to set the future agenda based on their monolithic view.
And this is the great tragedy of what has happened with the conversion bill. It is possible that in another month or two, municipal rabbis will be able to effect conversions. And it is even possible (and perhaps likely) that the chief rabbinate will not follow through on its promise to reject these conversions (after all, my team is already preparing a lawsuit against them should they dare). But even if the government agrees that municipal rabbis can perform conversions, we have squandered an opportunity to enable everyone to once and for all stand behind converts in Israel. And this is an opportunity that might not present itself again in the near future.
The author is founder and director of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center, an organization that aims to assist Israelis with the legal intricacies of personal status.