The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill Sunday that would transfer to local rabbis the right to supervise and authorize conversions to Judaism, in an effort to ease the process for conversion candidates. Conversions are currently supervised by the Chief Rabbinate.
This means that the bill, the initiative of Hatnuah MK Elazar Stern, will go to the Knesset with government backing. The ministers from Habayit Hayehudi, who had opposed the bill at first, voted for it, even though both chief rabbis object to it. Both Education Minister Shay Piron and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen also signed on the bill.
According to the proposal, “A city rabbi is authorized to establish a rabbinical court for conversion within the jurisdiction of the local authority or community, as relevant. The approval of a city rabbi saying that a person has been accepted into the Jewish people and has converted will be considered a certificate of authorization for these purposes, without the need for any additional approval.”
A similar bill submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem during the last Knesset passed its first reading but got no further.
The Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, said last week that they oppose Stern’s bill because it is not sufficiently stringent on some issues of conversion. In the bill’s explanatory notes, the sponsors make clear the intent to involve non-Orthodox denominations in the fine-tuning of the legislation.
“We should integrate the various denominations of Judaism during the process of drafting the legislation in committee, in the spirit of the recommendations made by the Neeman Committee,” states the proposal, referring to the 1998 government-appointed body charged with resolving the conflict over conversions.
Habayit Hayehudi said that although the party supports the bill in principle, it required substantial changes. Faction chairman Ayelet Shaked said that her faction had asked Stern to delay the ministerial vote on the bill by two weeks so that a government version with input from the chief rabbis could be formulated.
Stern strongly implied that he had reached some kind of agreement with the chief rabbis on the bill, saying, “For the sake of the chief rabbis’ honor, I will not mention how many times I met with them or the agreements we reached.”
However, both chief rabbis denied that they had offered the bill any support. In a statement, the Chief Rabbinate said, “Everything that can be done to improve the service provided to converts should be done, but there can be no compromise on the demands of Jewish law on the issue of conversion.” This proposal, the chief rabbis said, “puts the halakhic validity of conversions in Israel at risk.”
Hatnuah chairman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, welcomed the ministerial panel’s approval of the bill. “Today we’ve taken another important step toward restoring Judaism to its natural place: accessible, accepting and embracing,” she said. “Our bill will launch the necessary revolution, by removing obstacles and returning Judaism to us, the people.”