A controversial bill that would allow local rabbis to oversee conversions to Judaism in Israel passed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Wednesday by a vote of 7 to 4. The bill will now return to the Knesset plenum for its second and third readings, which likely will take place during the Knesset’s spring session.
The bill was opposed by the country’s chief rabbis, Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett in a letter this week that the bill “threatens the entire (state) conversion system.”
“It is inconceivable that a bill on an issue that is at the very heart of the existence of the Jewish people and its spiritual survival is being promoted without first undergoing a halachic (Jewish legal) evaluation by the Chief Rabbinate and the chief rabbis, who are responsible for this issue by virtue of their position,” the rabbis said in their letter, according to Haaretz.
The letter continued: “Promoting a law of this type without broad agreement is liable to split the Jewish people in its land into camps that will not recognize each other’s Jewishness and bring us to a situation whose aftermath we cannot imagine. It is such a situation the Chief Rabbinate is seeking to prevent.
There are currently 33 rabbis, and four conversion courts, that can perform conversions throughout the entire country.
Tuesday’s contentious committee debate on the bill pitted the Jewish Home party, which opposes the bill, against the rest of the government coalition. The bill was sponsored by Elazar Stern of the Hatnua party; the committee chairman is David Rotem of the Yisrael Beytenu party.
“This bill provides the first ray of light for the more than 330,000 immigrants who came to Israel as Jews but are not halachically Jewish,” Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM Jewish Advocacy Center, who has worked to bring the bill to the Knesset floor, told JTA.
“At ITIM we speak to hundreds of immigrants each month who are struggling with their dual identities, and this bill will enable them to pursue conversion in a halachic and accessible way.”