Chief Rabbis Vow to 'Bury' New Plans to Reform Conversion System in Israel

Submitting proposals to PM Netanyahu, Moshe Nissim warns that more lenient rules are needed in order to avert a ‘spiritual holocaust’; Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers reject recommendations, while Reform movement is more positive but still has reservations

Moshe Nissim meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hand over his recommendations for the conversion system in Israel, June 3, 2018.
קובי גדעון / לע"מ

A former senior Likud minister presented his committee’s proposals for a shake-up of the conversion system in Israel on Sunday, warning they were needed in order to avoid a “spiritual holocaust.”

Moshe Nissim and his committee presented the recommendations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they have already been rejected by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and the country’s chief rabbis, who vowed to “bury” them.

The committee’s report recommends establishing a new state-run Orthodox authority – not under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, which currently has a monopoly on conversions – in order to speed up the rate of conversions for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

The proposed legislation is the latest in a series of attempts in recent decades to reach a compromise on the thorny issue of conversion that would be acceptable to the majority of Jews around the world. Based on initial responses, however, it appears that, like its predecessors, this initiative is doomed to failure.

Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem, Nissim called the conversion issue nothing less than “the future existence of the Jewish people. This is the foundation stone of the Jewish people. The secret of the existence of the Jewish people is the ban on mixed marriage, which is a deadly drug for the Jewish people,” he said.

Nissim said the goal of the new law is to stop the growing levels of assimilation in Israel.

“There are some 400,000 people without a religion in Israel today,” he said, referring to immigrants who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and whose Judaism is not recognized by the Rabbinate.

“Every year, fewer than 2,000 people convert [to Judaism in Israel], while some 10,000 people without a religion are added. Today, there is 10 percent assimilation in Israel – and if we do not act now, this figure will only increase. There is no other possibility but to describe it as no less than a spiritual holocaust,” he added.

The present conversion system operates according to strictly Orthodox rules, but Nissim said more inclusive and lenient rules are needed to increase the number of converts.

He said his committee has recommended only recognizing conversions according to traditional Jewish law (halakha). But conversions performed abroad by Reform and Conservative rabbis would be officially recognized.

Although Jews who converted through the Reform or Conservative movements abroad are eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship, they are not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate. As a result, they cannot marry in the country.

Nissim also spoke about the number of Orthodox rabbis who have withdrawn their support for the committee’s recommendations in recent days. He said they had not studied the committee report and was convinced that if they did so, they would support the recommendations.

Nissim is a former deputy prime minister and finance and justice minister, and the son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim.

Despite his efforts, it seems the proposed amendments will run into fierce opposition from all denominations. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have rejected Nissim’s plan because it strips the Rabbinate of its control over conversions in Israel. In more progressive Orthodox circles, the initiative has drawn fire because it would rule out any conversions performed by private rabbinical courts.

Interior Minister Arye Dery, also head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, made clear he does not intend to promote the committee’s recommendations. “I unequivocally oppose these recommendations and will make sure they are not even brought up for discussion,” he said.

“The only person authorized to submit a bill on the matter of conversion is the interior minister, according to government regulations, and it is clear I will not submit this proposal,” he said.

“I demand an immediate return to the bill on the matter that I circulated and was approved by the cabinet – which is that, in principal, only official conversion by the Rabbinate will be recognized in Israel. I will raise this demand today in the meeting of [governing coalition] party leaders.”

Earlier Sunday, Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, convened an emergency meeting of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis, promising to do everything possible to scupper the committee’s recommendations.

“I want to ask all the rabbis of Israel, from all circles, to be on guard,” Yosef said at the meeting. “This is recognition of conversions not according to halakha. It includes the recognition of Reform conversions; it has a very serious flaw. I am asking all the rabbis to sign and join the protest, and this law will be buried. This law is inappropriate,” he said.

The rabbis signed a statement calling the proposed law “a danger to the unity of the Jewish people” because it remove control over conversion from the Rabbinate, and its recognition of conservative and Reform conversions.

“We call on [Netanyahu] to reject the report of the Nissim committee out of hand and to immediately advance amendments to the law that will stop the attempts of the High Court of Justice to recognize private and Reform conversions,” stated the rabbis. “We ask all Knesset members and all ministers to do everything they can to prevent the conversion reforms that could case assimilation, disintegration and a split within the Jewish people – similar to what is happening, to our great regret, in many Reform and Conservative communities outside of Israel.”

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel did not respond as negatively, but neither did they welcome the recommendations wholeheartedly. On the one hand, they noted that Nissim’s proposal would weaken the ultra-Orthodox-controlled Rabbinate – which as far as they are concerned, is a positive step. On the other hand, they noted that under Nissim’s proposal, non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel would still not be recognized.

“The recommendations have some worthy elements and some disturbing elements, and on the face of things it would seem that they deserve to be addressed,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism: “But it is already clear that the ultra-Orthodox parties and the rabbinical establishment are determined to bury them deep in the ground.”

Precisely for that reason, he said, “We cannot allow these people exclusive control over the gates of entrance to the Jewish people – which belong to the entire people, in Israel and abroad, and not to an extremist minority.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, described the recommendations as “quite revolutionary” in that they stripped the Rabbinate of its monopoly on conversions. He also welcomed Nissim’s proposal that representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements sit on the steering committee of the independent conversion authority that would be established. 

He said the decision to grant recognition by law to conversions performed outside of Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements (such recognition already exists today, albeit not by law) was a positive step. 

“At the same time, or perhaps because of this, I don’t think these recommendations are politically viable,” Hess said. “The ultra-Orthodox oppose them for obvious reasons, but even for Diaspora Jews there is no real news here. Any legislation that perpetuates the Orthodox monopoly, even if it contains some concessions to liberals, means further humiliation to millions of non-Orthodox Jews. Have we not had enough of that over the past two years?”

About two years ago, a group of modern Orthodox rabbis launched a private initiative known as “Giyur K’Halakha,” which has performed more than 600 conversions in the country (about 18 percent of the total each year). Within the Orthodox movement, these rabbis are known to be relatively liberal and their conversion requirements are considered less stringent. If passed, the legislation proposed by Nissim would outlaw this private initiative.

Rabbi David Stav, a judge on the Giyur K’Halakha religious conversion court, responded to Nissim’s proposal negatively. “Political involvement in the world of halakha is a disaster for halakha and bad for the country. ... Politicians must not be allowed to determine what is conversion and what is halakha.”

Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, said that when both ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews oppose something, then “the place for the proposal is the garbage can.

“The choice of Moshe Nissim to head the committee to formulate the solution to the conversion battles, which have got worse over the past year, has made clear to us in Hiddush that this is the perpetuation of the Orthodox monopoly on conversion in Israel – and we were not disappointed,” he said.

“But the encouraging news, which guarantees that this proposed law will not develop beyond the fetal stage, is that for the Haredim, recognition of liberal Orthodoxy is also an indecent act that must be uprooted,” added Regev. “We can only hope that the non-Orthodox movements around the world will make clear that adoption of the bill is a red line that will exacerbate the split between Israel and the Diaspora.”