IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz (Ilan Assayag)
IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz Photo by Ilan Assayag
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This should have been a great week for IDF Chief Rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz. By an 80 percent majority, the Knesset granted him powers no other rabbi has. Any conversion to Judaism performed under his auspices in the army is irrevocable, and not even the Chief Rabbi of Israel can cancel it. Just like that, mild-mannered and clean-shaven Rabbi Peretz has been given the keys to the gateway into the Jewish People.

But he doesn't want them.

In a letter to Rabbi Haim Druckman, the head of the national Conversion Authority, Peretz wrote this week that there was no need for the Military Conversion Law and the "military rabbinate should be the long arm of the Chief Rabbinate. For the soldiers' own good, the conversion [process] should not be split."

Why is he giving up on the chance to allow thousands of IDF soldiers to convert without undue hassle and interference of the Chief Rabbinate? A rabbinate which many of its members lack any experience of army service and are indifferent to the plight of immigrants who came to Israel in good faith, only to discover that the Jewish State sees them as second-class citizens who can't even get married or buried along with the rest of us.

If another rabbi had signed the letter, I might have thought that his real concern was the pressure he will undoubtedly come under from the radical ultra-Orthodox sages who are experts at making life a misery for rabbis who dare to assert their independence - but Peretz has a record of bravery, whether as a combat helicopter pilot in over three decades of regular and reserve service in the Air Force, and as one of the few rabbis who spoke out against the calls to religious soldiers to disobey orders during the disengagement from Gaza.

In his case, we can take the letter at face value. Peretz has full faith in the validity of the conversions performed by his rabbis and the military giyur courts, but he is also aware that if the military conversion certificates lack the imprimatur of the Chief Rabbinate, they will be regarded as second-rate by nearly the entire rabbinical establishment and their holders as non-Jews. He might be one of the few rabbis who respect the Knesset's decisions, but he knows full well that a vote in the parliament cuts no ice in the world of halakha.

Which leads us to the question: Why were the Haredi politicians so worked up this week about the Military Conversion Law? No law can ever force them to change their beliefs or practices, even if all 120 MKs vote for it. Their stranglehold on the rabbinical courts, the appointment of dayanim and the stringent requirements from prospective converts are not at risk.

Maxim Olanovsky, a former soldier in the air force who converted during his army service said to me on Wednesday, after the vote, "I'm not optimistic. In these matters, it is the rabbis who decide and not the Knesset."

Jeopardizing a mononopoly

It's about economics just as much as religion. The claims by Haredi politicians that giving the IDF Rabbinate powers to perform conversions splits the giyur process into two separate tracks is disingenuous at best. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis carry out "private" conversions for money, in Israel and around the world, for a hefty sum to them and their go-betweens. These conversions are retroactively ratified by the Chief Rabbinate - and wedding registrars in local religious councils know better than to question conversion certificates signed by powerful and well-connected rabbis.

It is this lucrative business that is being preserved when the Haredi establishment tries to undermine the validity of state conversion courts headed by national-religious rabbis with a more friendly attitude toward candidates for Judaism and against the military conversion program.

In recent years, the Haredi leadership has almost completed its takeover of the national rabbinate, once a bastion of the more open-minded Zionist camp. Through it they control the majority of the rabbinical courts and religious councils, which rule on matters of matrimony and burial. An alternative channel of gerim-friendly conversion in the IDF jeopardizes their monopoly.

But it is not just the private giyur industry which is afraid to lose out here. A much more fundamental issue is at stake. In recent decades, the Haredi-controlled batei din (rabbinical courts ) have totally redefined the meaning of conversion, reducing acceptance into the Jewish People to conformity of a long checklist of halakhic demands. This has reached the absurdity where a candidate can be refused if he still occasionally lives with parents who do not keep Shabbat, while a woman who is seen wearing trousers or kissing her boyfriend may have her conversion revoked. (Since many foreigners convert overseas as a preparation for emigrating to Israel, this version has become predominate also in most Orthodox courts around the world. )

But it was not always so.

In the early years of the state, many rabbis believed that the main requirement was a true will to belong to the nation and share in its fate. Chief Rabbis Ben Zion Uziel and Shlomo Goren argued against nitpicking of converts' private lives, in the interest of returning to the fold children of mixed marriages and those who had married Jews. This attitude has its roots both in the Talmud and Maimonides, which stressed the national and personal aspect of conversion while downplaying the requirement to fulfill all the commandments of the Torah.

The Haredi insistence on a total religious lifestyle as a prerequisite for giyur and increasingly, as grounds for voiding a conversion - once an unheard-of procedure - is based in the reactionary ultra-Orthodox ideology, which has it roots in the 19th century, that saw strict observance of halakha as the central mainstay of Judaism. It is also a result of the political maneuvering in which the Haredi parties have tried to enshrine all aspects of the "Who is a Jew" debate as part of the "status quo" arrangement granting them a veto on any and every aspect of state and religion.

Little wonder that they have fought recently, tooth and claw, against Druckman, who dared to say that immigrants with Jewish fathers and grandparents should be given an easier time by the conversion courts as they are basically part of the Jewish People already. And just last month, Rabbi Chaim Amsellem was kicked out of Shas, for among other things, arguing that soldiers who risk their lives in the IDF have already paid their membership dues and that giyur should be a formality for them. Proposals such as these threaten to bring the halakha-centric edifice toppling down.

The Military Conversion Law could well turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge. A sign that the public in general, including much of the religious community, is willing to recognize as Jews those who have joined up and made sacrifices in their personal lives - even if they are not prepared to allow the rabbis to come sniffing around their kitchens and bedrooms.