Shas Spiritual Leader Approves Disputed IDF Conversions

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef steps in with religious ruling after special panel fails to reach agreement as to the status of more than 4,000 controversial cases.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef issued a ruling Friday approving conversions officiated by the Israel Defense Forces, following the inability of a specially appointed rabbinic panel to reach an agreement concerning the 4,000 or so controversial conversions.

Ovadia Yosef
Tomer Appelbaum

Under mounting pressure from the conservative wing of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, a rabbinical council was appointed to resolve the issue by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar to broker a compromise over the issue of army conversions.

The committee, however, leaned toward rejecting the retroactive approval of the IDF conversions, most of which were granted to Russian immigrants serving in the army.

In a meeting on Friday morning, council members reiterated their hesitance to take responsibility for the disputed conversions, instead providing a series of recommendations that would apply to future cases only.

In response to the council's inability to resolve the issue, Rabbi Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader who also attended the meeting, issued a religious ruling which effectively approves the IDF conversions.

Yosef, a former chief military rabbi himself, said following his ruling that his decision  was informed by his own knowledge and experience with the military rabbinate.

Habayit Hayehudi chairman Daniel Hershkowitz, speaking of the need to approve the more than 4,000 disputed conversions, said that he was confident that the "thousands of conversions officiated by the IDF are in accordance with Jewish law and are a fact that no one can deny."

On Thursday, a top proponent of the Conversion Law said that the Chief Rabbinate's aversion to approving the conversions officiated by the Israel Defense Forces strengthens the necessity for reform.

"Members of the conversion council under Rabbi [Shlomo] Amar will not reject the conversions, but they will also not approve them," said MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), chairman of the Knesset Law and Justice Committee.

"This solution does not put the matter to rest. The Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Amar have not solved the problem," Rotem explained. "In fact, the committee appointed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself did not approve IDF conversions, necessitating Rabbi Ovadia's special ruling."

"They will put in place other terms and demands and in the end they will decide that there are class A conversions, and Class B and Class C," he added. "What they are doing is proof that the law must be legislated as soon as possible and I mean to do so only so the soldiers won't be placed in the middle between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic polemics," he said.

The soldiers affected by this must not be taken hostage, he declared.

"If the conversions are kosher – they should announce they are kosher and stop talking bullshit. It is misuse of power and I am going to put an end to it," Rotem said.

Due to a technical snag, the IDF conversion certificates were not shown to the chief rabbi, whose signature is required by law to confirm the conversions. The snafu resulted in legal difficulties surrounding the issue.

Yisrael Beiteinu, the party whose constituency is largely comprised of Russian-speaking Israelis, sponsored legislation which would legalize conversions performed in the IDF.

"Yisrael Beytenu is a party that gorges itself on infuriating headlines and is intent on destroying Israel and the IDF for its own political gain," a Shas official stated. "Although conversions done through the IDF are valid, the venom of hatred persists, with separatism and the destruction of Judaism dripping from it."

The bill was approved by a wide majority in its preliminary reading, with Netanyahu voting in favor.

Two weeks ago, the government sent the bill to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where Shas hopes it will remain stuck in bureaucratic processes while Yisrael Beiteinu, whose representative chairs the committee, hopes to fast-track the legislation.