Keep the Israeli Government Out of Jewish Conversions

It's a step in the right direction, but recent government efforts to reform Israel's conversion policies show the state still doesn't get it.

Two different stories about conversion to Judaism caught my eye in the past few days. One, which incurred some anger in my circles, related to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize a conversion performed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and prominent figure in American Judaism. The second story discussed a bill put forth which would reform the conversion process within Israel, transferring authority from the centralized Chief Rabbinate to the local municipal and regional rabbis.

These stories reflect the two major elements of the conversion controversy in Israel. The first is that the Chief Rabbinate is the only authorized body through which a Jew may marry in Israel. As a result, if a Jew-by-choice wishes to marry, the Chief Rabbinate must accept the conversion. A self-identifying Jew, converted by any number of rabbis not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, cannot legally marry in Israel at all, and must wed abroad in order to legally register as married

Thankfully, this problem has a simple solution, though its implementation has proven complicated. The country must replace religiously sanctioned weddings with civil unions for all, allowing each wedding officiant to decide for himself or herself whether to officiate at a specific couple’s wedding. I do not question the Chief Rabbinate’s right to make its own decisions regarding conversions; instead, I call for civil marriage so that any couple can choose the religious (or non-religious) ceremony they want to mark their new relationship, without government interference. I also have no doubt that many Orthodox rabbis would accept conversions by Weiss and his blacklisted colleagues, broadening options for those who seek an Orthodox wedding as well.

The story about conversion within Israel highlights a second, deeper problem to which there is no simple solution. In addition to issues of marriage, the question of the validity of a conversion touches on the Law of Return, the law that allows Jews around the world to claim citizenship in Israel. Today, the law defines a Jew as someone with a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism (while extending the right to claim citizenship to the spouses, children, and grandchildren of Jews under that definition), and the Supreme Court clarified that non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad are included in the law. Conversions done in Israel, on the other hand, must be Orthodox, and under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, with few exceptions.

The very fact that someone who adopts the Jewish faith becomes a part of the Jewish people is one of the more beautiful aspects of our tradition, dating to the Biblical Book of Ruth. The problem in Israel, of course, is that as long as citizenship is dependent on either birth or faith, faith must have an objective measurement the way that birth does. The current decision that within Israel only the Chief Rabbinate can welcome someone into the faith may answer the need of citizenship, but it prevents those who wish to a join a community not served by the Chief Rabbinate of becoming citizens and, in many cases, of becoming Jews at all. In effect, the democratic government of Israel is dictating its’ individuals religious choices.

As long as the Israeli government needs to answer the question “Who is a Jew,” it is incumbent upon them to recognize conversions performed outside of the Chief Rabbinate. After all, even if some Orthodox authorities do not recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions for religious purposes, that has no impact on the ability of an individual to be a model citizen of Israel. The state already acknowledged that fact by welcoming the aliyah of non-halakhic Jews since 1970, and reinforced it by welcoming non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad. The time has come to take the next step and leave one more question of halakha to the religious world and not to the government.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Daniel Bar-On / Baubau