Rabbis Warn of Impending Disaster as Conversion Bill Passes Knesset Committee

'Israel is holding a bargain sale of its Jewish characteristics,' says Shas' Eli Yishai.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday  approved a bill that would enable municipal rabbis to oversee the process of converting to Judaism. The draft law, which was submitted by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), was passed by a vote of seven to four. Although the bill was approved by the Knesset in a first reading last month, it became the subject of coalition infighting, pitting Habayit Hayehudi against Stern, as well as committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, said on Wednesday that anyone who converts through the process stipulated in the bill, if it is passed, would not be recognized as Jews, and that “Stern’s law” will not be recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Meeting with a group of Zionist rabbis Wednesday morning, Yosef said, “We represent the opinion of Judaism loyal to the Torah, religious, traditional and ultra-Orthodox [Jews], according to which conversion shall only be determined by Jewish law, and in Israel Jewish law is determined solely by the Chief Rabbinate.”

Wednesday’s “emergency meeting” was attended by prominent rabbis from the religious Zionist community, including Yisrael Rozen, a founder of the current conversion court system, Shlomo Aviner of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim and Mordechi Sternberg of Yeshivat Har Hamor.

“The fact that the Labor Party voted for the conversion bill is a travesty no less severe than the travesty perpetrated by the parties that voted for the conscription law,” MK Eli Yishai (Shas) said after the vote, adding, “Israel is holding a bargain sale of its Jewish characteristics.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, welcomed the new law as well as “any move aimed at making the conversion process easier,” adding that his movement will “stand its ground to ensure that the law remains unchanged during the next reading.”

Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri warned that the bill would alienate Haredim from the government rabbinate and spur the establishment of an alternative rabbinate. Speaking in the Knesset, Deri said: “Believe me that the Haredi community will not be hurt by this one bit. What keeps us connected here? We’re still held here by the status quo, that we live under one rabbinate, under one beit din [religious court], and believe me, prime minister, that our rabbis will take every effort to allow for conversions in the army … how will you see that? As creating an alternative rabbinate?”

Earlier, a Shas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, spelled out the message more clearly, saying that if the erosion of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority continues, Haredim will end their cooperation with the agency. “If the conversion law passes in its current form, an alternative rabbinate will be founded, and Haredi rabbis and judges will not be able to serve. We will start a new rabbinate. As soon as this law passes and the marriage registry is forced to recognize all converts – it will no longer be possible to rely on the marriage registry, which is the heart of our communal life here.”

The coalition parties reached an agreement Tuesday night to pass the bill in committee, as was done Wednesday morning, but to postpone the second and third readings in the Knesset plenum until the Knesset’s next session. Habayit Hayehudi believes the Knesset would not pass the bill in its current format.

In a letter sent to Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett on Tuesday, Yosef and his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi David Lau, urged the prime minister and the religious services minister, respectively, to block the bill’s passage.

“The bill in its current format threatens the entire conversion system,” the rabbis wrote. “It’s a law that could lead many in the State of Israel to lose faith in the state conversion process.”

According to Lau and Yosef, “It is inconceivable that a bill on an issue that is at the very heart of the existence of the Jewish people and its spiritual survival is being promoted without first undergoing a halakhic evaluation by the Chief Rabbinate and the chief rabbis, who are responsible for this issue by virtue of their position. A new precedent is being set under which MKs are irresponsibly dealing with issues they do not understand, when such a momentous matter hangs in the balance.

Emil Salman