Bill Granting Rabbinate Monopoly on Conversions Sparks Fiery Debate

Reform and Conservative leaders lash out, calling proposed law 'unfair'.

Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren

The author of a controversial bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over the conversion process in Israel said this week that he has little regard for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. He also said that he won't be intimidated by threats that world Jewry would withdraw its support for Israel if his legislation passed, provoking hefty protests from opponents of the bill.

"I am in favor of one Judaism. In my opinion, there's only one Judaism. There are no three Judaisms," MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) said during a fierce debate Monday at the Jewish Agency's board of governors meeting in Jerusalem. Addressing the agency's "Unity of the Jewish People Committee," Rotem, an Orthodox Jew, traded harshly worded accusations with leaders of the American Jewish community and non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

Credit: Tess Scheflan

"I want you to know one thing: I am an Orthodox Jew. I was born Orthodox and I believe that I will die Orthodox. Don't be confused, that's a fact," the Yisrael Beitenu politician said, eliciting loud complaints from the 50-odd listeners.

Rotem, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said his bill is intended to ease the bottleneck of conversions in the country by allowing municipal rabbis to perform conversions, which currently very few courts are authorized to do. Rotem asserts the bill would help 350,000 mainly Russian-speaking non-Jews living in Israel. Opponents argue it discriminates against non-Orthodox streams as it gives sole oversight in the conversion process to the Rabbinate, which is Orthodox.

This summer, Rotem traveled to the U.S. to promote his bill, but enormous opposition by Jewish leaders there led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold off the Knesset vote on it. In recent weeks, the fight over conversions was opened on another front as well, when Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar asked a committee to determine whether he should endorse conversions performed in the army, which Haredi leaders reject as too lenient.

During Monday's Jewish Agency session, which was moderated by its chairman, Natan Sharansky, Rotem tried again to convince Diaspora leaders of the value of his bill.

"The only way we can [improve the current conversion system] is if conversion is done according to Orthodox halakha and not according to Reform or Conservative halakha, if there is such a thing," Rotem said, speaking in English. "If you are telling somebody that he can convert in a Reform or Conservative way and then to come to Israel and be a part of the Jewish nation you are cheating him," he added, referring to the fact that the Rabbinate will not serve those converts in the areas of weddings and divorce, and might not recognize a convert's children as Jewish. Conversions conducted by non-Orthodox movements are recognized by Israel's secular authorities but not by the Rabbinate, which is in charge of life cycle events in Israel.

"Don't calls us cheaters. It's not fair and it's not nice," interjected Rabbi Meir Azari, former director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and currently the senior rabbi at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, Israel's largest Reform community.

"I think it was quite clear that [Rotem's] presentation offended many, including Modern Orthodox representatives that were there," Azari told Anglo File after the meeting. "I got so many remarks from North American people sitting in the committee that feel bad about his attitude toward Reform rabbis. This meeting instilled more hate, and the only benefit that I can see is that more Jewish leaders from around the world saw the real face of Rotem's intention."

Harvey Blitz, a former president of the Orthodox Union, told Rotem in the meeting, "What bothers me about your position is that instead of it being about how we can best maximize the opportunity of conversion, it has become a judgmental discussion of whose conversion is better and whose is worse. I have no interest in that. That's not what we're sitting here trying to do."

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, questioned whether the committee members understood Rotem's true intentions. "I think it was very unnerving and very uncomfortable for people to hear that from somebody who leads such an important committee in the Knesset," he told Anglo File. "It created a sense of disappointment. It's really the first time that many of those people had a live exposure to this issue, and to MK Rotem, so it's a first time they were able to release their emotions and passions, which also were very aggressive."

Rabbi Stanley Davids, former president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said many American Jews consider Rotem "an enemy of the future of the Jewish state." His bill "has turned significant numbers of people away from the state of Israel," added Davids, who immigrated to Israel in 2004. Rotem fought back that the hostile reactions to his proposal by the Reform and Conservative movements have caused that about-face. "I was held at gunpoint in the United States when I met with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, and [one person] told me: 'If you go on with this law, we will not support the state of Israel,'" Rotem said. "Don't threaten me with 'We are not going to support the state of Israel if you are going on with this law.' I am not afraid."



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