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Israel’s New Conversion Bill: What the Rabbinate Can’t Stop

by Shmuel Rosner

March 20, 2014 | 3:26 am

Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, right, with former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. Photo by Max Rossi/Reuters

Yes, as sad as it sounds, when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel opposes new legislation, in most cases it means that the legislation is worthy of passing. It now opposes a new conversion bill — really a technical improvement that will allow a couple dozen local rabbis the power to convert non-Jews to Judaism, instead of confining that power to a small cadre of rabbis in four rabbinic courts. A technicality in appearance, the chief rabbis are right in saying that the bill would lead to the fragmentation of standards for conversion and confusion in the state religious system. It will.

Fragmentation of standards is the intention behind the legislation, as the court’s current standards have become intolerable and impractical. In other words, if Israel wants conversions — and it has hundreds of thousands of reasons to want conversions (in the form of hundreds of thousands of citizens who came to Israel based on the Law of Return, but are not recognized by the rabbinate as Jewish) — it needs to take the procedure away from the chief rabbis and enable other rabbis to convert based on a different set of standards, a more relaxed set of standards.

This is just another brick in the crumbling wall of Israel’s rabbinate, an institution that does everything within its own power to destroy itself. The public doesn’t really like it, and that is gradually making it irrelevant. The more people opt out of the rabbinate-managed system of conversion, marriage, burial, the closer we get to a tipping point — when enough Israelis will no longer abide by rabbinate rules, it will finally be recognized by Israelis to be what it already is, a nuisance rather than a huge problem. Then, the question of whether it should be dismantled will become one of less urgency and less importance. Mainly, a question related to the waste of funds on an outdated institution.

Of course, such bills can’t pass without a battle and without compromise. And in recent days, the Habayit Hayehudi Party has done everything within its power to block the legislation and change it — claiming that the conversions processed by such a bill would not be recognized by anyone and would just mislead new converts into believing they are Jewish when they really aren’t. Don’t believe what they say: Their political battle to change the bill isn’t about the quality of conversions, but rather about the power of rabbis. Habayit Hayehudi pretends to be a party of the average Israeli Joe, while it is in many ways a party partially controlled by a few rabbis — much like the Charedi parties (and in some ways even more so). Those few rabbis don’t like the legislation, as it weakens the power of rabbis to dictate to the public the terms for conversion, and the politicians are their emissaries in the Knesset.

Some religious politicians and rabbis have threatened that if the new bill is approved, religious Israelis would have no choice but to establish an “alternative [to the] rabbinate,” as Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri said. This is the essential nuclear option — and threat — that is often used whenever someone attempts to weaken the rabbinate: If there’s no agreed-upon, unified mechanism of marriage-conversion-kashrut-etc., the result is going to be the fracturing of the “people” into separate segments that could no longer be considered one people.

That’s a hollow threat, as the people are already in the process of fracturing. For a growing number of Israelis, a conversion approved by a Charedi-controlled rabbinate isn’t going to be the defining condition for them to become engaged with a potential spouse. For a growing number of Israelis, a marriage ceremony mandated by the Charedi-controlled rabbinate is already an anathema. The more Israelis quit using the bad services of the rabbinate, the more hollow the threat of a fracturing nation becomes. If Charedim, or Zionist-Orthodox Israelis, are going to establish their own rabbinate, set the rules for themselves and separate themselves from the rest of the country, then so be it. I don’t think this is going to happen. Charedim — possibly. But they are already isolated and don’t usually mix with other Israelis. Habayit Hayehudi voters — unlikely. Some of them might join the Charedi crowd, but most of them, like most other Israelis, don’t really want to tear apart the country over nuances of halachic disagreements, and they definitely don’t want to tear it apart over this or that rabbi’s power grab.

So, yes, the process is very slow, and at times quite frustrating to watch. But a tiny step forward in the long slog to a rabbinate-rule-free state has been taken. And the painful truth — painful, that is, for proponents of the rabbinate — is that this was a step forward, whether the actual legislation eventually passes or not.

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