Conversion bill delayed, but tensions over issues associated with Jewish law remain
March 25, 2022
(JNS) — The Knesset, which was to vote to revamp rules regarding Jewish conversion, has delayed the bill until the start of its summer session in May due to the political sensitivity of the issue. The delayed vote represents the latest in a series of efforts to resolve religious disputes through political means—most recently, an attempt to establish prayer sections for different streams of Judaism at the Western Wall (Kotel) and to introduce competition to kosher certification, currently a monopoly of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Of the three hot-button issues—conversion, the Kotel and kashrut—the first is currently front and center. The “conversion system” bill, submitted to the Knesset plenum on March 7 for a first reading that didn’t happen, calls for allowing city rabbis to establish their own conversion courts.
“The proposed move is expected to expand the number of courts authorized to convert in Israel,” the bill states. Not said is that the move is meant to break the ultra-Orthodox hold on the conversion process. Orthodox conversion is difficult under the best of circumstances, but the demands of the ultra-Orthodox have been criticized, including by other Orthodox Jews, as being overly stringent.
Currently, there are about 10 official conversion courts, all under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate, which is under the sway of the ultra-Orthodox. There are also some private, independent courts.
“What we are trying to achieve is to decentralize the power of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Tani Frank, director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which was involved in drafting the conversion bill. The center, founded in December, focuses on religious freedom and matters related to Jewish identity.
The hope is that by expanding the number of conversion courts, those who want to become Jewish will have a better chance of finding more lenient rabbis, according to Frank. While the bill still gives the chief rabbis “a say regarding the conversion process in all courts,” they wouldn’t sign off on the final conversion certificates of the local, city courts and also wouldn’t guide them in Jewish religious, or halachic, law.
“Every city rabbi would have halachic independence, and that’s a big part of why the chief rabbis oppose this bill,” said Frank.
‘An impact on the general question of who is a Jew’
The bill deals solely with Jewish conversion inside Israel and recognizes only Orthodox conversions, something for which it has been criticized by more progressive Jewish groups.
“I have to admit some of the specifics of the legislation are not things that we wanted, but we had to compromise,” Frank told JNS. However, he noted, “This is the first time that the Government of Israel is going to legislate a law that deals with conversion. It was never done before, and although it doesn’t necessarily directly deal with the conversion of foreigners — of people outside of Israel — it does have an impact on the general question of who is a Jew and who can convert.”
The bill was sponsored by Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana, himself an Orthodox Jew and Religious Zionist. Religious Zionists, who outside Israel would be generally categorized as Modern Orthodox, are split on the issue of widening the circle of conversion courts. The more traditional among them are against the idea, said Frank.
The raison d’être of the bill is the large number of Jews from former Soviet countries who live in Israel but are not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law. “According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, living in Israel today are more than 400,000 citizens either without religion or others, who are not considered Jews according to Jewish law,” the bill states. “Most of them immigrated to Israel in the great waves of immigration from the Commonwealth of Independent State countries, Ethiopia and the rest of the Diaspora. In this spirit, Israeli governments saw conversion as a national and religious challenge.”
That so many non-Jews were able to immigrate to Israel is a result of the gap between those eligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and those who are considered Jewish by religious law. The Law of Return takes a broad view, granting citizenship to whoever has at least one Jewish grandparent.
Frank explained that Israel arrived at that formula due to the racist Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, which imposed restrictions on those who were even one-quarter Jewish. Israel concluded that if someone could be persecuted for being one-quarter Jewish, then he or she should have the chance to be saved as well. However, Jewish law has its own standard, dating to the second century C.E., which establishes matrilineal descent—that only someone with a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews take that ancient code seriously and have set the bar for undergoing conversion high. “Today, when a person wants to get converted, the numbers are that only a quarter, 26%, of those who initiated the conversion process also finish it,” said Frank.
Whether or not one is Jewish in Israel has important ramifications concerning major life-cycle events, such as marriage, which is the monopoly of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. It will not conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews, even if those non-Jews think of themselves as Jewish. Nevertheless, even if conversion were made easier, Frank acknowledged that not all would avail themselves of the new rules. “They have most of the rights that other citizens have. First of all, it’s a symbolic move towards this community, saying, ‘You are part of the collective of the Jewish people,’ ” said Frank.
‘They don’t represent the only way’
Rabbi Yuval Chernow, who heads the Center for Jewish Ethics at Tzohar, which provides traditional marriage ceremonies for secular Jews and private kosher certification, says that the bill won’t accomplish its purported goal. “Most of the immigrants that came from Russia are not going to convert because even very liberal rabbis make some demands on a convert, and most of these people are secular,” he told JNS.
He views the conversion bill as essentially political—an attempt to reduce the influence of the Chief Rabbinate. He, too, would like to see the power of the ultra-Orthodox reduced, saying monopolies lead to extremism and corruption. “I would like to see the ultra-Orthodox have some power but not all of it,” he said. “They must recognize that they don’t have a monopoly; that they don’t represent the only way today. And they can’t do that. It’s part of the ultra-Orthodox ideology, that there’s only one way.”
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have expressed heated opposition not only to the conversion bill but to all the reforms, including efforts to liberalize kosher certification and to create separate spaces at the Western Wall for Conservative and Reform Judaism.
Attempts to change the religious status quo have galvanized ultra-Orthodox Jewry in the Diaspora. Am Echad, a group of haredi Jews, most of whom are members of Agudath Israel of America, was founded in the 1990s but had grown quiescent. It was revived in 2018 in reaction to the Western Wall issue.
A delegation of some 40 Am Echad members came to Israel in late February, meeting with key leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. They delivered 150,000 printed emails from Jewish communities around the world warning Bennett against “partitioning the Kotel.”
“This will create a rift and distance people from Israel and from each other,” the email read in part.
However, it was the conversion bill that was chiefly on the minds of the delegation when they met with Religious Affairs Minister Kahana. Irving Lebovics, co-chairman of Am Echad, told JNS: “This particular bill, the way it’s written, is potentially very destructive.”
“The issue is you need to have a minimum standard,” he said. “And in issues of religion, that standard belongs to rabbis.”
He believes that the bill, by undermining the chief rabbinate, will have a debilitating effect on Diaspora Jewry, which relies on the rabbinate’s standards. Though it doesn’t address conversion in the Diaspora, Lebovics said it could lead to a situation where 10 million from the Diaspora who are not Jewish could claim residence in Israel under the Law of Return.
“You have to have a situation where politicians are not making the rule of Jewish law, but the rabbis are making Jewish law because that’s their expertise,” he said.
Chernow agreed that there must be standards but noted that the conversion issue poses a real dilemma. “There are 400,000 people who are part of Jewish society and actually behave like Jews. They celebrate the holidays. At the same time, they aren’t recognized as Jewish according to halachah.”
He thinks the best way to solve the problem is to allow for the conversion of the immigrants’ children but says “only a small minority of rabbis say you can do that, and I don’t see them coming to power.”