Alternative Conversion Courts More Lenient Than State’s on 'Jewish Lifestyle'

Some rabbis in the controversial alternative system don't see an Orthodox lifestyle as a necessary condition for becoming a member of the Jewish people.

Tali Meyer

Some judges in the new, alternative conversion court, which went into action publicly last week amid a storm of political controversy, have been more lenient than the state conversion courts in requiring the convert to commit himself to a strictly Orthodox lifestyle, Haaretz has learned.

In the alternative system, each panel of judges has a certain amount of autonomy, and at least one panel, dealing with the conversion of adults, did not require an explicit pledge from the convert to live an Orthodox lifestyle, but instead just asked the convert to state a general commitment.

Rabbis involved in the alternative court say Jewish law requires from converts only a declaration that they accept Judaism, noting that Judaism “requires a system of commandments.”

Behind what may seem to be a mere nuance is a significant gap in the understanding of the question of who is a Jew. Some rabbis, such as Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, who heads one of the new courts, recognize a “traditional” lifestyle, in contrast to the usual Orthodox approach that regards an Orthodox lifestyle as a necessary condition for becoming a member of the Jewish people.

Those involved in the new conversion courts say this is dramatic halakhic (Jewish law) recognition of the lifestyle of Israelis who define themselves as traditional rather than Orthodox. These rabbis said that also with regard to the conversion of minors (an issue that is simpler in terms of Jewish law), no severe demands will be made of the parents or the children.

Haaretz has learned that the new courts, headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, have been acting secretly for several months now, converting some 45 minors and adults. Because these conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, some of the converts have married in wedding ceremonies at which the same rabbis from the conversion courts officiated. Two of the rabbis involved in the courts, Riskin and Rabbi David Stav, are marriage registrars authorized by the Chief Rabbinate.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis generally require a convert to pledge to maintain a fully Jewish lifestyle and demand to be able to ascertain whether the convert is actually doing so. The most prominent case in recent years in this respect was that of Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who as a rabbi of the High Rabbinic Court nullified thousands of conversions because the converts did not keep a strictly Orthodox way of life.

Rabbi Israel Weiss, a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, debated the issue with the breakaway rabbis in the daily Yisrael Hayom. “How terrible if we, who are considered the most strict, do not turn out even one Sabbath observer. Where will your converts end up?”

Weiss and his colleagues in the state rabbinic courts, both national religious and ultra-Orthodox, convert people whom they know will not keep the Sabbath, basing themselves on a former chief rabbi, Meir Hai Uziel, who stated, “A convert who takes upon himself the commandments and their burden, even if it is known he will not perform them, is accepted.” Uziel also stated that performance of the commandments was not a condition for conversion. Nevertheless, the policy of the rabbinic courts is to demand of converts – even those who clearly will not perform the commandments – to declare aloud: “I take upon myself to maintain and perform all the commandments.”

Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Brandes, head of the Beit Morasha religious school and one of those involved in the establishment of the alternative conversion courts, wrote in 2008 in the journal “Akdamot”: “The converts understand that to become part of Judaism they must be part of a process of lying and self-deception, invited and dictated by the rabbis and rabbinic judges, a whole group that has come together for trickery and deceit that is without honesty or fairness.”

Brandes called on the rabbis who belong to the religious Zionist stream to accept Jewish law that recognizes a traditional lifestyle rather than loyalty to “imprisoned frameworks,” that is, the rabbinate.

Riskin’s court required converts to make the following declaration: “I take upon myself to enter the covenant of the Holy One Blessed Be He, together with the assembly of historic Israel, and be added under the wings of the Shekhinah [the spirit of God] and take upon myself the Torah of Judaism that requires a system of commandments and continue to grow within this system that leads to the repair of the world.”

Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former MK who is considered an expert on conversion, and Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa, have taken part in conversions already performed by Riskin’s court.

The declaration that converts make in Riskin’s court, he told Haaretz, is based on Maimonides and experts in Jewish law according to whom: “If when the convert accepts the commandments he knows in his heart that there are things he will not do because he is too weak, that does not hurt the acceptance of the commandments.”

According to Riskin, the demand of converts to perform all the commandments “cannot be real, and I do not believe in things that are not real. I could also not take upon myself to perform all of the commandments according to that interpretation. I am also still learning,” Riskin said.

Rabinovitch’s conversion court is to deal mainly with the conversion of minors up to the age of 13. The state conversion courts will not convert minors without their families except for adopted children, in which case the parents are also required to adhere to a religious lifestyle. According to Rabinovitch’s stated beliefs, conversion of minors in his court will also be easier because he does not believe an Orthodox education to be a condition for conversion of a child. In 2008, Rabinovitch wrote that society must provide schools where children “can grow closer to the Torah and the commandments,” and that “there is no need to say that that the parents should be persuaded to also grow closer to Judaism” but this “should in no way be made a condition for the conversion of children.”

A glimpse into the debate over converts accepting an Orthodox lifestyle was revealed in February when a tape came to light in which Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef spoke out harshly against Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern over certain of Stern’s ideas about conversion. Yosef was recorded saying that at a meeting with Stern, “What does he tell me? ‘No need to perform [the laws of] the Torah, the converts, and accept the whole Sabbath. What does that mean?... Make Kiddush and then go to soccer, then to the beach, the main thing is to make Kiddush.’ I said to him: Where does his honor make this up from? No need to perform the whole Sabbath? All the commandments? Where is it written? ‘No, let him be traditional, it’s the intention’ I said: You are revealing a face in the Torah that is not according to Jewish law.”