Compromise Paves Way for Reform in Conversion to Judaism

Cabinet to decide that municipal rabbis can oversee the process - but one of Israel’s two chief rabbis must grant the final approval

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Israel's two chief rabbis: Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Israel's two chief rabbis: Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi and Uriel Koby / Wikicommons
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Four and a half years after work began on reforming the process of converting to Judaism in Israel, a compromise Wednesday finally paved the way for its approval. At a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hatnuah chairwoman Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, it was decided that the reform, which would allow municipal rabbis to establish rabbinic conversion tribunals, would not be established by means of legislation, but by a cabinet decision to be approved at Sunday’s meeting. The compromise will transform a bill proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) into a cabinet decision to be implemented immediately.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians oppose the compromise because it weakens the power of the Chief Rabbinate, which leans toward an ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish conversion laws. Involvement of the Reform and Conservative movements could neutralize Haredi opposition. Religious Zionist figures, some of whom will have a major part in implementing the decision, have announced their support for it over the past few days.

The conversion bill, Hatnuah’s flagship legislation, has been an ongoing political hot potato in the current coalition. Dispute over the issue has divided the Orthodox community in Israel and attracted the attention of non-Orthodox Jewry abroad.

According to Stern’s bill (which is based on a bill presented in 2010 to the previous Knesset by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu), municipal chief rabbis would be able to establish and head conversion tribunals. The rational was that the establishment of such tribunals alongside the special courts already in operation in the Conversion Department of the Religious Services Ministry would remove obstacles and encourage citizens defined as having “no religion” to convert under the aegis of liberal Orthodox rabbis, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat.

Some people, however, believe that such an assumption is mistaken, because hundreds of thousands of citizens defined as having no religion are not really interested in converting in any case.

The Orthodox organization Tzohar, which has been working behind the scenes to promote the bill, believes that it will allow liberal Orthodox rabbis to move ahead on the conversion of many minors in particular, through a fairly simple procedure in Jewish law that conversion courts do not currently make use of. Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav and Stern have often said that the reform is needed to “prevent assimilation.”

To promote the reform, key senior rabbis in the religious Zionist movement, although not necessarily liberal, have been called to serve as a steering committee to direct municipal rabbis on the conversion process. They are: Rabbis Haim Druckman, Zephaniah Drori, Nahum Rabinovitch and Yaaqov Medan. According to Habayit Hayehudi, Ramat Gan’s municipal rabbi, Ya’akov Ariel, has seen and approved the compromise.

However, it is already clear that the Haredi camp will not recognize the approval of the compromise by these figures.

Another contentious issue is the status of Reform and Conservative Judaism. The compromised text notes that the reform applies to the Orthodox sphere only, and is not intended to detract from achievements of non-Orthodox movements in Israel with regard to conversion. In particular, this refers to the Supreme Court ruling from 2002 whereby non-Orthodox conversions are recognized in Israel for purposes of registration in the Population Registry.

As opposed to Rotem’s 2010 proposal, which was strongly opposed by non-Orthodox movements in the United States because it called for all conversions to be “according to halakha (Jewish religious law),” the clause in Stern’s bill actually brought Reform and Conservative Jews to support it. Nevertheless, it does not seem that dropping the clause to reach the compromise will lead non-Orthodox movements to oppose it.

Stern, as has been expected for quite some time, had to give in on other wording in his bill that called for almost complete autonomy for municipal rabbis to conduct conversions. The compromise states that any conversion, including those carried out by municipal rabbis, will have to be signed by one of Israel’s two chief rabbis. The compromise also states that the entire administrative process – registration for conversion and referrals to conversion institutes – will be done in the Conversion Department in the Religious Services Ministry.

The Conservative Movement told Haaretz it had “no comment” on this report.

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