Regev Responds


The Conversion Law Fraud

The conversion law proposal that was supposed to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union has undergone changes which only strengthen the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. How the mighty have fallen.

Candidate for conversion in the rabbinical conversion court in Jerusalem. 21.07.03. Photo: Flash 90 Candidate for conversion in the rabbinical conversion court in Jerusalem. 21.07.03. Photo: Flash 90

On Sept. 16, the constitution committee discussed the law and justice of a proposal by its chairperson, MK David Rotem, the subject of which was the reform of religious approval for conversion. Apparently, this was discussed following bills which MK Rotem had submitted on this subject in 2007 and 2008, which won the support of many MKs, in particular secular ones from various factions and parties. But the current proposal bears Rotem's name alone, and this is no accident. When I heard that MK Gafni had praised it, I realized that something was up – something bad.

 After seeing the bill, I understood why Gafni is in favor of it, and I can only hope that the other members of Knesset, who saw something worthy of support and reinforcement in Gafni's original initiative, will explain to him that this is not the way to glory and will abandon Rotem's current bill to nameless oblivion and to the support of Gafni and his ilk.

There is only one appropriate response to the conversion issue: abolishing the compulsory authority of the Chief Rabbinate completely and utterly.

How the mighty have fallen! Rotem, who impressed his colleagues and the public with his decisive support for a version of "domestic partnership" open to (almost) all, and was known to side with "a breakthrough and a breach of the status quo", has now returned to a line decisively loyal to the status quo, and – truth be told – to something much, much worse.

Amidst the tumult of laundered words, it is important to clarify what happened to Rotem's legislative initiative in its final stage, and how far it has strayed from what he proposed one or two years ago. These things are particularly important, since we know that Rotem represents "Israel Beiteinu", which has a natural and clear interest in the composition and flexibility of the conversion system, a system strangled in the vice-like grip of the Chief Rabbinate and its supporters in the Haredi sector. In 2007, Rotem presented a bill which was going to authorize rabbis of cities and settlements, and the regional rabbis where these settlements were located, to establish conversion courts without the need for any additional approval for their conversions.

According to the description of his bill, it was supposed to compel the state to recognize conversions in spite of opposition of the Sanhedrin, which objected to giving this broad authority to the local rabbis. It was meant to deal with the bottle-neck of conversion proceedings and give relief to people who wanted to convert. At the end of 2008 Rotem returned and presented this bill to the Knesset, and according to the the bill's description, even mentioned that a similar bill had been introduced by MK Michael Melchior. This bill is as different from its predecessor as black is from white, and it is no accident that instead of broad support from religious and secular MKs on the right and left, it finds favor now only with rabbi Gafni. The words of the description emphasize that the goal of the bill is to anchor the status quo and the authority of the Chief Rabbinate in official legislation. And it doesn't even pretend to offer relief and a solution for the conversion difficulties. Rotem is still trying to present it primarily as aid and assistance to the immigrant public, which faces a wall in the form of the Chief Rabbinate in trying to convert. But anyone with eyes in his head and anyone who knows something beyond the press releases of the MKs, will understand that this bill is the opposite of a "breakthrough and breach of the status quo".

Without authority in law.

So what does the bill actually say? It is meant to broaden the authority of the Chief Rabbinate into an area in which it has no legal authority, and the Supreme Court even explicitly ruled this and saw in it an important principle.

The Supreme Court, as early as the case of brother Daniel at the beginning of the 1960s, explained that there is no law defining Judaism for the purpose of personal status like the law which determines Jewish identity for the purpose of civil affairs, such as the Right of Return and the Civil Registry. As a matter of consistency, the Supreme Court determined that for civil purposes, a civil and secular interpretation should be adopted. Therefore, even though the term conversion is primarily a religious one, the Chief Rabbinate should to be responsible for its interpretation or implementation in any matter touching on the civil authorities of the state.

Thus, the Supreme Court ruled that Daniel Rufeisen should not be regarded as Jewish, even though he was born to a Jewish mother, and was viewed as halachically Jewish in spite of his conversion to Christianity. On the other hand, the Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize and register those who converted in Reform and Conservative rabbinical courts, in spite of the fact that the Chief Rabbinate and the politicians of the religious parties opposed this with all their might. Similarly, the supreme court instructed the Interior Ministry to record as Jews those who underwent a modern Orthodox conversions abroad, in spite of the fact that a rabbinical court in Israel had canceled these conversions retroactively, since the family had not persisted in observing shabbat and kashrut.

It should be mentioned that just recently a comprehensive public opinion poll came to light, published by the Smith Institute at the request of the Hiddush, Freedom of Religion for Israel organization, which I have the privilege of heading, which indicates that 72% of the adult Jewish public is opposed to the policy of the religious courts of refusing to convert, or canceling the conversions of, those who do not persist in keeping shabbat or kashrut. [And, incidentally, it is worth reminding MK Rotem and Minister Lieberman, the head of his party, that according to this poll and others like it published by other polling agencies, that 95% of immigrants support abolishing the status quo and breaking the monopoly the Chief Rabbinate has on marriage in Israel]. While Rotem's bills of 2007 abolishing the compulsory authority of the

abolishing the compulsory authority of the Chief Rabbinate

Chief Rabbinate and 2008 were explicitly aimed at authorizing local rabbis to perform conversions without the need for approval from the Chief Rabbinate, and relied on the fact that these rabbis were appointed to their posts from the outset on the approval of the Chief Rabbinate, the current bill demands the personal and specific authorization of these rabbis to conduct conversions with the approval of the Chief Rabbinate.

If that's how things are -- what did these scholars agree to in their ruling? In the past, Rotem presented his bill in light of the intransigence and harshness of the Chief Rabbinate. Does anyone really believe it is possible to trust the Chief Rabbinate to feel the pain of immigrants and open wide before them the gates of conversion, without putting barriers in front of them like harsh demands for maintaining shabbat and kashrut, and sending their children to Orthodox schools? Can a leopard change its spots and the Chief Rabbinate its severity? And if the Rabbinate wants to make things easier, what is stopping them from doing so now, without additional legislation which will broaden its authority and strengthen its control? No less serious is the attempt of this bill to broaden the authority of this Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts into the civil sphere. The former president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar, ruled and explained at length why the Rabbinate should not be granted authority in the area of civil recognition, and why it should be limited exclusively to personal status, with the law still granting them control in the matters of marriage and divorce. And here we have the current bill determining something unprecedented, according to which the conversion certificates from a rabbinical court will be what determines "the decisive viewpoint on the Jewishness of the subject of this certificate before any responsible body and for any purpose".

A hybrid arrangement.

The unrealistic patchwork proposed by the bill, which is inadequate to confront the root of the problem in Israel, can be seen in the clause determining that appeals to the decisions of the special rabbinical court can only be entered before another rabbinical court appointed by the High Rabbinical Court, and this provision is only valid until April 1st, 2014. If the matter were not so grave, this would be a first rate April Fool's Day joke. Even the proponent of the bill, a God-fearing, mitzvah observing Jew, willing to rely on the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, is proposing that this hybrid arrangement lasts only as long as the mandate of the current Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, president of the Sanhedrin. And what happens after that, for heaven's sake?!

If I had seen it written on a screen on the internet, I would never have believed it. The legislation depends entirely on one particular man, and thus reflects to what extent the Chief Rabbinate is bankrupt as a government institution, and has turned into a hostage of Haredi politics, and everything extreme in it is regarded as good. Unfortunately, I must express grave doubt about the optimism of many as to whether the seemingly greater openness and flexibility of Rabbi Amar can be trusted. We have not yet heard him take a clear stance on anything sounding like conversion. And if he doesn't dare speak about this openly, out of fear of the thugs in his camp, why should the public trust him and the Knesset put their faith in him?

The public has been exposed lately to a number of incidents in which one of the state's rabbinical courts tossed out the conversion of another court, and one publicly employed rabbi refused to marry people converted by another. Lest there be any doubt, all of these were Orthodox, and all claim exclusive rights to halacha and its interpretation. But the problem is, their interpretations of halacha are different, some are more lenient and some more stringent, and none takes into consideration the ruling of his colleagues. Those with authority in the world of halacha take harsh and severe stances, and the more lenient ones are under constant attack.

In a jungle like this, instead of recognizing that no civilized state can come to terms with conveying government authority to the rabbinate of one group or another, this bill wants to add to the patchwork and rule that if an Orthodox rabbinical court establishes the Jewishness of someone, another rabbinical court cannot annul it, and if it tries to annul it anyway, it will feel the lash of the Torah, as it were, i.e. Rabbi Amar. Of course, that would only be until April 1st, 2014, since after that his mandate will end and his successor will be, almost certainly, even more stringent, and a big problem is likely to arise from putting such authority in his hands.

Since we have already been witnessed incidents in which municipal rabbis and rabbinic courts have forbidden the marriages of people who underwent a relatively lenient Orthodox conversion, the law proposes allowing members of a rabbinical court that supervised the conversion, under certain circumstances, to marry those who converted under them, without regard to where they converted. And all this to circumvent the stringent municipal rabbis. It's a real Kramer vs. Kramer situation in a new guise, which the bill proposes to enshrine in legislation – rabbi vs. rabbi, rabbinical court vs. rabbinical court, and all of this without a single Reform Jew – heaven forbid – being involved.

MK Rotem, who has previously showed his good intentions and openness to breaking the status quo and finding a breakthrough, would do well to wash his hands of this foolish venture. We don't need to make any more patchwork agreements, but rather to recognize that the time has come to put into practice the written assurance given in the independence proclamation which provides for freedom of religion and conscience, to reclaim the authority of establishing Jewishness from an increasingly ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, to recognize that the Torah has many faces, that Judaism has many interpretations and that the correct way to internalize the dynamic vitality of Judaism is by taking a stance based on voluntary choice without legislative interference.

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