Ovadia Yosef
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The state-sponsored conversion program received a boost over the weekend of the sort that it has not had in years from a recognized halakhic expert: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Will this suffice to extricate the program from its current crisis? Highly unlikely.

The state-sponsored conversion program is failing, while the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox establishment that has been tough on the Chief Rabbinate continues to gain strength. In all likelihood, it will continue making life miserable for converts when they try to register their marriages and divorces. The only thing that may change matters is a decisive rule by the prime minister and chief rabbi, who are now armed with an important halakhic document.

Yosef has no formal authority over state-sponsored conversions, and his ruling lies more in the halakhic-moral realm. His move was meant to provide his disciple, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, with the sort of political backing necessary on a disputed issue.

Amar is the man who was supposed to have signed and ratified thousands of conversion documents, but he never received them. That's because the conversion committee he appointed decided to withhold a recommendation that he approve conversions undertaken in the past. For this reason, Ovadia decided to take action.

The situation could be described as this: Amar hides under the robes of Yosef, hoping the breadth of those robes will keep the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox at bay and prevent them from taking up the stones that are somehow always within arm's reach.

Clearly, the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox will not accept the ruling of Yosef on conversions, regularly described in their pamphlets as "fake." The only question is how intense will their assault be, who will stand at the forefront, and will Yosef will be targeted, or will it be more convenient for them to humiliate Amar?

Meanwhile, Shas leadership should consider sending a delegation to the home of MK Chaim Amsellem, who is leaving the party, and beg his forgiveness. Amsellem began his revolt against Shas because of his moderate halakhic views in favor of state- and IDF-sponsored conversions. In various forums, Amsellem had noted that he was simply reiterating views Yosef had espoused years ago.

Amsellem disseminated protocols from a 1976 meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee in which Yosef, then chief rabbi, assailed the Haredim for ridiculing state-sponsored conversions. He also referred to the military rabbis and religious court judges involved in conversions as "worthy men who can be relied upon."

The courageous halakhic ruling he signed Friday recalls the rabbi of the 1970s much more than the rabbi of the 2000s, who, together with the movement he founded, seemed to be willing to forfeit the centrality of the state every time they felt threatened by the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox establishment.

In the background looms a serious identity crisis within Shas, prompted by the blows it suffered after Amsellem deserted the party, revealing embarrassing details about the conduct of Yosef's inner court, and after the disastrous Carmel blaze, which drew fire to the party chairman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Between now and the election, it seems clear, Shas will seek to present itself as a party concerned with social issues and will try to leave the conversion swamp far behind it.