rabbinate - Archive: Ouria Tadmor / Jini - October 22 2010
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, center, at a conference in 2008. Photo by Archive: Ouria Tadmor / Jini
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The Chief Rabbinate has steered clear from making a decision on the validity of thousands of conversions carried out in an IDF-sponsored program, setting up a committee to look into all conversions in Israel.

The rabbinate has given the panel four months to put together a policy on a key issue for many rabbis here.

The decision not to decide is no coincidence. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has told Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky that he cannot guarantee the validity of conversions carried out in the Israel Defense Forces as long as the Knesset does not pass the conversion bill put forth by Yisrael Beiteinu, which Amar helped prepare.

In the bill sponsored by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), local rabbis will have a greater say in conversions than before, but the Chief Rabbinate has the final word.

The proposal was heavily criticized by Diaspora Jews and was put on hold by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"He is very upset," an aide to Amar said yesterday. "He was very determined and dissatisfied. He is not willing to do anything until the conversion bill is passed."

According to an announcement by the Chief Rabbinate yesterday, the committee "will evaluate the conversion process and both the state-sponsored and IDF-sponsored conversion systems."

Based on the committee's recommendations, the rabbinate is expected to set policy on the converts, particularly on their status as married or divorce.

The issue of IDF-sponsored conversions was raised recently during court deliberations on the registration of Israelis converted through the state system.

The state argued during the deliberations that doubts exist on the validity of conversions carried out in the IDF program, not only in the state-sponsored conversion programs.

This claim led to heated public debate.

Amar clarified his position in an announcement published in the newspapers.

The chief rabbi, who is responsible for the state-sponsored conversion programs, said the IDF chief rabbis have historically been involved in conversions and "worked in full cooperation with the chief rabbis."

Amar wrote that soldiers who converted while in the army "were married in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel for many years." This was interpreted by many as removing any doubts on whether these soldiers should be classified as Jews.

This drew the ire of a powerful ultra-Orthodox Rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, putting pressure on Amar. In response, Amar's aides were quick to stress that he had no intention of confirming the conversions.

Politicians from much of the political spectrum have weighed in.

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) charged that Yisrael Beiteinu "is trying to give non-Zionist rabbis a monopoly on conversions in Israel."

Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative movement, said "the hostile takeover by the ultra-Orthodox on the Chief Rabbinate suggests that the historical function of the Chief Rabbinate has come to an end."

Dr. Arye Carmon and Prof. Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute wrote to President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu, calling on them "to clearly and loudly state that conversions in the IDF are unequivocally valid."