July 20, 2010
The Israeli Conversion Bill: What it means and why everyone’s so mad
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No one interviewed for this article could say exactly what practical impact the bill in its current form — without the third article — would have on Jews outside of Israel. Rabbi David Rue, who has been head of the Orthodox Los Angeles Beit Din (rabbinical court) since 2000, seemed to agree with Rotem, that the bill would have no impact on Jews who convert under non-Orthodox supervision outside of Israel. “It’s not going to affect them,” Rue said. “In terms of aliyah, they’ll still be eligible under the new law. They can’t get married by the [Israeli rabbinate] now, and they won’t be able to get married [in Israel] if this passes. So what’s the difference?”
Rabbi Seth Farber, the Orthodox founder and director of ITIM, the Israeli nonprofit Jewish Life Information Center, explained that what worried Reform and Conservative leaders was the possibility that gains made previously in the Israeli Supreme Court might be invalidated by the new bill. In 1988, the court decided that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora would count for purposes of aliyah. A 2002 decision stated that Israelis who convert under non-Orthodox supervision in Israel would be counted as part of the state’s Jewish population. And even though Conservative and Reform-converted Jews are in the same boat as the olim from the former Soviet Union vis-à-vis the rabbinate, the movements still “made a lot of progress” over the past 20 years. The Rotem bill looked like it would roll all that back. “It was a theoretical possibility that the court might revisit those decisions,” Farber said, “saying that those decisions were made in the absence of law.”
Many Jewish leaders in the United States (particularly those from Jewish Federations, the Jewish Agency, and the Conservative and Reform movements) as well as many individual American Jews have made clear that the message the Rotem bill sends to Diaspora Jewry will not be taken lightly — even if its practical impact is hard to identify. The New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR), the largest interdenominational rabbinic organization in the world, made that sentiment clear in its letter to Netanyahu. “The recent actions of the Knesset Law Committee gratuitously undermine our achdut [unity] and scatter our focus,” the board wrote. “Does this conflagration really serve the interests of Am Yisrael [the Nation of Israel] and Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel]?”
The overwhelming majority of Jews outside of Israel — some 85 percent — are not Orthodox. The Orthodox minority has been far less vocal in support of or in opposition to the Rotem Bill. The NYBR — whose letter had the signature of at least one Orthodox rabbi at the bottom — has been one of the few exceptions to the rule. (Farber is another.)
Part of this may be the result of confusion about the bill’s language. Rue, whose beit din converts “between 30 and 100” people per year, said, “I don’t think anyone knows what the implications of the bill will be, because it will need to be interpreted by the courts.”
The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Picard explained that even if the bill passes — and he didn’t expect it would — more laws would need to be legislated. Take Riskin as an example: Even if Rotem’s lenient hometown rabbi were allowed to perform conversions, the decision over whether to register someone for marriage would still be left in the hands of the more stringent rabbinate, which could refuse to recognize the conversions done by liberal rabbis. “It will create a need to give authority to local rabbis over marriage and divorce,” Picard said.
Or it would take the Jews whose conversions were performed by Orthodox rabbis deemed too lenient by the Charedi rabbinate and lump them into the same pool as everyone else whose status the rabbinate calls into question. That group currently includes Jews whose conversions were performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and, since 2006, it has also included Jews whose Orthodox conversions have been retroactively annulled by the Israeli rabbinic authority.
Solving the problem of retroactive annulment is the second stated aim of Rotem’s bill. In the past four years, the rabbinate has upheld rulings in a number of cases that refuse to recognize even Orthodox-supervised conversions as valid. In some, the conversions being invalidated are decades old, and some of the annulments are based on very stringent readings of halachah.
The new stringency of the rabbinate in Israel has been taken to its most extreme in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Rishon LeZion, where the rabbis in charge of marriage registration refuse to recognize any conversion at all, no matter which court oversaw it.
Rotem’s bill would require the approval of the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court (a position currently held by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar) for any cancellation of a conversion. This clause, Rotem claims, will eliminate the risk of conversions being retroactively nullified. The bill would first force any nullification case to go back to the court that performed the conversion — which Regev called “a good thing,” because the original court “has an interest in keeping the conversion intact.” But because the final arbiter is the chief rabbi, the original court “would be under tremendous pressure” to rule stringently. If it went to an appeal, Regev explained, the panel would be “hand-picked by Rabbi Amar.” And even if Amar turns out to be a lenient chief rabbi, interested in making conversion a realistic possibility for numerous olim from the former Soviet Union, that’s no guarantee that his successor would also be. “When you look at the bill,” Regev said of its ability to prevent retroactive annulment, “you see that it’s a joke.”
The specter of seeing their conversions cancelled by the Israeli rabbinate has changed the conversion landscape for the Orthodox movement in the United States as well. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest organization of Orthodox Rabbis in this country, established a new, stricter framework for conversion in an effort to give Jews by choice greater assurance that their Orthodox conversions would be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate. (In a statement on July 19, the RCA acknowledged that the Rotem bill “may not be perfect,” but that it “does contain much to commend it,” and urged Diaspora Jews “to respect Israel’s internal political processes.”)
Rue — whose Orthodox beit din is not endorsed by the RCA — said he regularly gets his converts registered in Israel and wasn’t worried about the Rotem bill. “It’s not going to affect me,” Rue said. “I know too many people.”
“The situation in Israel is insane,” Rue said, painting a picture of a conversion system in which connections are key, city rabbis can decide to register or not register people independently of what the “very weak chief rabbis” say, and, “Israeli bureaucrats can do whatever they want.” For Rue, the key question is, “Do you know how to work the system or not?”
Nobody knows what will happen if the bill passes. The former Soviet Union olim are “clearly not particularly religious,” Regev said, “and clearly not going to be particularly adherent to mitzvot,” which would make it unlikely that they would convert within the rabbinate’s Orthodox framework. “Fewer and fewer immigrants are interested in conversion,” Regev said, “on two counts: One, they realize what kind of hoops they will have to go through.” Also, “They realize that it’s really a conditional status,” Regev said of the status of even Orthodox converts in Israel today — one that can be revoked at any time. Secondly, “They realize that life really isn’t impossible for them without conversion,” Regev said. “They have become accustomed to living their lives without going through conversions.”
If the bill is stopped, however, the challenge doesn’t disappear. There seems to be a consensus among the most vocal of the bill’s critics that part of the solution to this crisis will be a new kind of conversion. “We are clearly living at a time when the overriding concern should be to increase the number of Jews in the world,” Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, said. “To maintain the current conversion policies in Israel is in direct conflict with the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people.” But that’s where the consensus breaks down.
Angel, an Orthodox rabbi, promotes a more lenient form of halachic conversion.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s Schonfeld suggested something more radical: a new kind of Judaism in Israel. “The solution is an open religious system that would include not only Reform and Masorti [Conservative Judaism],” she said, “but that would include the indigenous Israeli Jewish expression that would come from an open and pluralist society. What’s really going to get people to convert to Judaism is that they see a Judaism that they want to convert to.”
Regev said that his organization, Hiddush, was created with the ideal of turning Israel into a country that practices religious freedom and equality. “Across the board, you find abuses and a denial of basic liberties,” Regev said. He mentioned a number of recent instances of the ultra-Orthodox imposing their ideals on the Israeli public, including the establishment of gender-segregated bus routes, staging protests at the entrances to public parking lots on Shabbat, fighting against the integration of racially segregated government-funded schools, and verbally and physically attacking the Women of the Wall, who attempt to pray as men do (with tallit, tefillin and kippah) at the Western Wall. Regev said that the fight over the conversion bill is, “at best, stage one of the central battle.”
Picard says he has seen Israelis rail against the rabbinate, but he would prefer to see Israelis take responsibility and create “a very serious secular Judaism [with] its own ideas about marriage, burial and, of course, about conversion.”
But most native-born, secular Israelis do not seem to be paying attention to the debate.
“They’re sleeping through this,” Los Angeles Federation President Sanderson said on July 16. “I think that the population in Israel doesn’t understand this bill. It’s not being talked about in the way that it should be, and it’s really being talked about more in the Diaspora, and that’s a shame. It’s a real shame, because I think that if this bill gets passed, the Israeli population is going to wake up on Thursday morning [July 22] and they’re going to be living in a different country.”
Speaking from Israel early on July 19, national Federation CEO Silverman — having heard Netanyahu come out in forceful opposition to the bill the day before — said that he was hopeful about the prospects of sitting at a table “with authors of the bill, and with the constituencies that want to have input” in an effort to come up with a new bill.
The goal was, Silverman said, “to come back to its original intent and its original vision, which was terrific. If that happens, then everyone wins, and everyone has a seat at the table. Frankly, it enhances relationships and unifies us as people.”