Independent Conversion Courts Are a Political Blow to the Chief Rabbinate

The courts created by moderate Israeli rabbis reflect the serious rupture developing within the Zionist religious/Modern Orthodox world in Israel and abroad.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Rabbinate courtroom in Jerusalem.
A rabbinate courtroom in Jerusalem.Credit: Tali Mayer
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The conversion rebellion that has erupted in recent days is not a conversion revolution. The Orthodox rabbis who've set up an Israeli conversion court that operates independently of the Chief Rabbinate are indeed convinced that it has the power to solve a problem: of the thousands of children who want to be – or whose parents, who immigrated under the Law of Return, want them to be – recognized as Jews under halakha (traditional religious law), and not just as Israeli citizens.

These rabbis have started to use halakhic procedures that the Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize to convert minors under the age of 13, even if their parents do not convert. But this does not yet constitute a social revolution. The new court will only convert children who are studying in religious schools, which automatically makes it irrelevant to most of the more than 330,000 million individuals here who are not recognized as Jews.

It’s doubtful that this large population of immigrants, their children and grandchildren are waiting for religious-Zionist rabbis – regardless of the exact stream they are affiliated with – to do what they didn’t do during the long years in which the state conversion apparatus dominated.

The dramatic importance of this new development is more political, relating to the weakening status of the country's Chief Rabbinate and symbolizing the fact that different camps are emerging within the Orthodox community, both in Israel and abroad. The very body that so many Jews have disavowed and become alienated from is now under attack by a core group that was meant to do everything to protect it: religious-Zionist, state-affiliated rabbis, who were educated to revere the Chief Rabbinate as holy.

Two local ultra-Orthodox dailies, Hamevaser and Yated Ne’eman, devoted their top headlines to a comprehensive attack on the independent conversion court (“Destroying the barriers of conversion,” as Yated put it). Meanwhile, Avi Mimran, a broadcaster at the religious Radio Kol Hai, insulted Rabbi David Stav of the moderate Tzohar rabbinic organization, who is involved in the initiative, on the air.

At some point we will have to delve into the fascinating role reversal between the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, and the Zionist-religious sector vis-a-vis the state in general, and the Chief Rabbinate in particular. However, for now, we must focus on the rupture developing within the Zionist religious/Modern Orthodox world, between those who prefer to see conversion as a “barrier,” and those who seek halakhic means to open the gates to others. The broad coalition that has emerged over this issue is indicative of an deep and open rift.

The rabbis involved in creating the new court reject the term “rebellion” and even object to referring to it as “alternative.” They would prefer to have the public talking about its “concern for the Jewish people,” or the fact that everything is being done by means of meticulous observation of halakha.

But the establishment of this court has practical, legal and especially political ramifications.

Private conversion is not a criminal offense, but what will happen when a person undergoes such a process by means of the new court will want to get married under the auspices of the rabbinate? After all, the latter will not recognize his Jewishness or agree to register him for marriage.

Well, as one of the rabbis involved in the new effort put it, if such a process does not occur through legal means (meaning, via a petition to the High Court of Justice, or with the participation of one of the municipal rabbis recognized as marriage registrars, like Stav or Rabbi Shlomo Riskin) – it will happen illegally: i.e., through private, unofficial marriages.

Even if this is not an official response representing that of the new conversion court, it’s quite sensational that there are Zionist-religious rabbis who are prepared to disengage from the rabbinate, possibly endanger themselves by violating the law and the process of compilation of family trees and marriage "blacklists," something Haredi rabbis have been threatening to advance for years.

This is where the political significance lies, because this development intensifies the intra-Orthodox rift. The moment that prominent rabbis, representing numerous streams, several of whom have never been “suspected” of liberalism, form a coalition whose aim is to circumvent the rabbinic establishment and its special conversion courts, the Chief Rabbinate suffers a serious blow to its authority, credibility and the holiness that religious Zionists unanimously ascribed to it.

The consensus around the rabbinate has apparently died, and it happened on its home court. But it must be said: These rabbis did not lead the rebellion, rather they joined a grass-roots one that had already begun, involving both those choosing not to marry via the rabbinate, and religious persons who prefer to observe mitzvahs without its intervention.

Even if some of these rabbis come to understandings with the Chief Rabbinate, or drop out of the initiative for fear of a conservative backlash, it’s clear that the train of rebellion against the rabbinate has already left the station.

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