Israeli religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Unite Against New Conversion Bill

At rare Jerusalem gathering, members of disparate streams agree on one thing: The Chief Rabbinate must not lose its monopoly over conversions

Rabbis attending a conference on conversion in Jerusalem, July 18, 2018.
Emil Salman

Dozens of prominent religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox rabbis gathered in a rare joint event in Jerusalem Tuesday, aimed to thwart the conversion bill recently proposed by former senior Likud cabinet minister Moshe Nissim.

They called on the government to preserve the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel and warned that Nissim’s proposal would divide the nation, sever the Rabbinate from the state and constitute a “sellout” of Judaism and Jewish religious law, or halakha.

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Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau, Reuven Elbaz and members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Council joined leading rabbis from the religious Zionist movement, including Shmuel Eliyahu, Shlomo Aviner, Zvi Tau and Dov Lior.

“Nissim’s recommendations must be buried, and we must forget they were submitted to the cabinet at all,” stated the organizers of the event, called “One Conversion for One People.”

Nissim headed a committee that recommended 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 facilitate and expedite conversions for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

“The Rabbinate is the only body authorized to perform conversion,” Yosef said at the event. “We cannot have a person who has nothing to do with conversion matters dictate to us on the matter, without consulting with any rabbi. At first I refused to accept Moshe Nissim. I didn’t know what consultants he surrounded himself with. Unbelievable, everything I told him, he did exactly the opposite.”

>> Orthodox-run authority would get total control over conversions in Israel under new bill ■ Jewish leaders reject bill that would grant Orthodox movement monopoly over conversions ■ 'The Orthodox conversaion was purely bureaucratic, with nothing behind it' << 

He said Interior Minister Arye Dery intends to submit a bill under which no private, Orthodox or Reform conversion would be recognized and urged all the rabbis to back this move.

The rabbis also blasted the idea to allow city rabbis to perform conversions, noting that in the past some rabbis took bribery for conversions. Yosef, who listed in a letter several failures he found in Nissim’s proposal, said “already today most of the conversion judges are religious Zionists, who are more lenient.”

He said the fact that a man who wasn’t appointed for this by the Chief Rabbinate had been tasked to outline the conversion process was “completely erroneous.”

Other failures of the proposal, according to the rabbis, were having Reform and Conservative representatives on the conversion judges’ appointments committee and taking the conversion out of the Rabbinate’s hands.

Two former Sephardi chief rabbis, Shlomo Moshe Amar and Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, also objected to the proposal. Amar sent the rabbis a letter saying Nissim “recommends detaching conversion from the Rabbinate and halakha, and setting up a body to perform a social state conversion in the spirit of halakha deniers.”

He wrote he was sure Nissim, the son of a former chief rabbi, hadn’t written “this report, and if he did, he must have been greatly misled.” He feared the recommended move would “not only uproot conversion from the rabbinate, but sever the rabbinate from the state.”

In conclusion, Amar called on the rabbis who had initially approved the proposal to write urgently that their signature was a mistake and revoke it. Bakshi Doron also signed Amar’s letter and added: “It’s a sell-out of halakha, of Judaism.”

Lior said the bill would divide the nation, “because it will be necessary to set up a separate marriage system. It will ruin the basic structure in Israel. ... Those who care about the nation’s dignity and safety will understand that for the people’s unity they must give it up. The issues of marriage and joining the people of Israel cannot be taken out of the rabbinate’s hands,” he said.

The organizers issued a statement saying “we hope the gathering’s resolute statement will convey to the public the rabbis’ concern for the state’s Jewish character and the great responsibility of preserving the integrity and Judaism of the Jewish people.”

Nissim said when he submitted his recommendations that 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.

The organizers of the gathering — Liba Center and the Hotam organization — belong to the religious-Zionist-Haredi stream, which has been playing a major role in state-religion struggles in recent years.

These organizations spearheaded the struggle on the Western Wall mixed prayer plaza, the grocery stores’ legislation and others. Their rabbis present a hawkish position and drag the ultra-Orthodox public to a more radical position, and to a clash with the general public.