Why Won't the ultra-Orthodox Accept IDF Conversions?

'I don't see any reason to disqualify and I don't see any difference between the process in the army and the civilian one,' says Former IDF Chief Rabbi Yisrael Weiss

Yisrael Weiss served as the army's chief rabbi from 2000 to 2006, a time when conversions carried out by the army increased from a trickle to a giant wave of hundreds of converts a year. Part of a longstanding conversion crisis, doubt has now been cast on the validity of all army conversions, including those undertaken by Rabbi Brig. Gen. (res. ) Weiss.

Yisrael Weiss- David Bachar
David Bachar

In its wake, the Yisrael Beiteinu faction in the Knesset has proposed a bill that would prevent the Chief Rabbinate, controlled in part by ultra-Orthodox Jews, from intervening or disqualifying army conversions. In response, Israel's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar threatened the prime minister this week that if the bill passes, he will remove his stamp of approval from the government's conversion system.

Rabbi Weiss, now a judge in the civil conversion court, has volunteered to defend both army and state conversions in his new book, "My Heart's Blood," and in this interview as well.

Rabbi, how has army conversion become unacceptable for the ultra-Orthodox?

I really don't understand. I felt that things were rather quiet when I was in the army rabbinate [although] there was a disturbance about conversion the first year. I don't understand what's happened to the ultra-Orthodox just now. I really don't have an inkling; I can only say that if one questions army conversions, then all civil conversions are being questioned as well."

What happened that first year?

Until I was named to the post, there were very few conversions in the army. No conversion institutes worked with the army, and every time soldiers wanted to convert the army rabbinate gave them a sort of personal tutor. This means that the conversion was not - I would almost say industrial - and at that time the army chief rabbi converted about 80 soldiers a year on the average. When I arrived, Gen. Elazar Stern was the chief educational officer and he asked me to create a larger structure, because the army needed one. At that time there were 7,000 soldiers whose Judaism was not recognized as such according to Orthodox Jewish law and a more organized approach was needed. He brought me in to the process and to tell the truth I hesitated for a year, and made it very hard for Stern to create the program.

What was wrong with it?

I am in effect the last step in the process, as the head of the rabbinical court to whom the converts appear. Stern started a system for learning, but the examination was done by me and only by me. Since Stern sought to create a very lenient system, this meant to appear before the converts in a manner I would almost call polar - to attribute the utmost importance to the fact that they were in uniform, in combat, and, heaven forbid, could pay with their lives.

He wanted to make the conversion short, fast and elegant, and at some point even suggested that the men be taught by women teachers: that is to say, that the army would cook all this up. I insisted that the process be analogous with the civilian conversion process, the same period of time more or less, and the same institutions.

I disagreed with Stern about the gaps between the learning periods, and I requested there be time to digest and internalize what was learned, a break between courses. I stood my ground and so for a year I did not cooperate with him. Only after he accepted the same standards as civil conversion did I get to work and forge ahead with impressive results. We converted about 600 soldiers a year on average, instead of 80, and the pace is about the same today.

I say to you, without any arrogance, heaven forbid: my insistence did not stem, heaven forbid, from a desire to make it more difficult for the soldiers. On the contrary, I saw the results. I was concerned that elements in the civilian religious world would question the army process as too easy, because of the feeling at the start of the Haredi public against army conversion as seemingly instantaneous - enter through one door and out through another. I was extremely worried about this. And I often came under attack.

I insisted in order to produce roots deep enough for this tree called conversion to remaining standing in the future, no matter the wind. I declare this as a fact: Had I not stood my ground, army conversions would have collapsed. Not two or three rabbis would have protested, but everyone would have and with some measure of justification. Everyone would have. Today I tell you, I - who sat on the army rabbinical court, and I - who sit today on the civil rabbinical court, I say that it is the same religious court judges here and there, the same demands, the same questions, the same product, the army converts people the way the civilian court does, and it is forbidden to differentiate between soldiers and civilians. The same stamp, the same meaning.

But perhaps the ultra-Orthodox are right? Perhaps the army conversion process is too easy and doesn't meet the requirements of Jewish law?

In no case do I convert someone who tells me that he does not keep all the religious rules, no way. There are two conditions guiding me: one is my impression of the young man or woman. I try to get an impression of their genuine desire to join the Jewish people. Secondly, I demand that they keep [Jewish] laws and the regulations. I say so explicitly. They are not asked to immediately swim in the sea of Torah the way I do and observe all 613 commandments as I do, but they must begin to get on track and display serious intentions and be well-acquainted with the basics of Judaism.

Who is responsible for the current situation?

I have no idea. I only know that we carry out our work faithfully. Attentive to the basic need to bring people under [God's] wing, in a credible way, not cheaply; we think on the one hand about Jewish law, and on the other about the person standing before us. We do this in the most human, most cultured and faithful way, and those who come to sit in the religious court will see this.

People want to join the Jewish people, and they do. Understand, the army opens its gates and offers many concessions to soldiers who ask to undergo conversion. They receive time off from their units, and the army houses them in Jerusalem. They receive the best conditions possible but we don't force anything on them. In the end, I want to ask you, how many soldiers begin the process and how many come out Jews? Some 20 percent finish, which means that 80 percent are in some station on the way. To me this is a sign of intention, of seriousness, of the readiness to change something in the conditions of their lives. It shows whether there is a real desire, or not, to join the Jewish people.

If you were the chief rabbi of the army today, what would you do in the face of this delegitimization?

I would fight it with all my might.

Fight whom?

All the [relevant] structures, so that they grant legitimacy to the process. I don't see any reason to disqualify and I don't see any difference between the process in the army and the civilian one. If you want to disqualify, disqualify everyone. I see army conversion as the child I gave birth to and I will fight like a lioness for her cubs, I say frankly, because I believe in the process. We must not, heaven forbid, harm it.

What do you make of opposition by Rabbi Amar? Is he for or against conversion?

I am not his interpreter. I would like to hope that he wants converts just as I do. I hope and believe this. He wants the overriding authority to give an opinion, its stamp, to the civilians and the army. From his point of view, this is like it was in the past, as if no change ever took place; in the past too, all approvals had to go through him.

You serve now as a judge of the civilian religious court headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. Are you approving conversions today that tomorrow, it may reasonably be assumed, will be disqualified by the chief rabbinate? Isn't this cheating the convert?

Our conversions will not be disqualified. There are solutions. If there is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who does not recognize our converts, there are alternatives. There are four rabbinical judges who are authorized to register marriages. In the end everyone who wants to register will be able to. No one will stop take away their right to register at the rabbinate, if and when they want to marry.