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Government advances conversion reform that seeks to curb rabbinate’s control

Contentious proposal for accepting Jewish conversions meant to give more power to local authorities, but liberal critics say it doesn’t go far enough

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

The government on Sunday approved Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s bill to reform the state-sponsored process for converting to Judaism.

Kahana’s proposal is meant to introduce greater competition in religious conversion, allowing not only the national rabbinate to approve conversions — as is the case today — but also regional and municipal rabbinates.

In a tweet following the approval of the bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, Kahana hailed the reform as “making history.”

“Together we have taken a step toward preserving the Jewish identity of the State of Israel: a state-sponsored conversion law, in accordance with Jewish law, under the auspices of the rabbinate,” Kahana said.

However, critics argue that the reform may ultimately have little effect as local authorities are ultimately controlled by the national rabbinate and other provisions of the bill may similarly keep final say in the hands of the chief rabbi. The progressive Jewish organization Hiddush also spoke out against the bill as it enshrined in law that only Orthodox conversions would be officially recognized in Israel.

The proposed reform has drawn its sharpest criticism from ultra-Orthodox figures, including the chief rabbis, as well as some in the national-religious camp, who argue that it will result in less reliable conversions.

In response to the bill’s approval on Sunday, the country’s two chief rabbis — the Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and the Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef — sent a letter to all government ministers criticizing the measure.

“The government is discussing a law that will have an impact on many citizens and on the entire Israeli society. Making decisions on a topic so sensitive and important as this while ignoring the stance of the chief rabbis and Israel’s rabbinic judges… causes a rift in the nation and will necessarily cause the formation of disparate communities in Israel,” the letter read.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, right, and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend the ‘Yeshivas March’ against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The chief rabbis said Kahana’s proposal amounted to “mistreatment of the convert, as anyone who goes through this [conversion] process will not be considered a righteous convert by the majority of rabbis and rabbinical judges of Israel.”

Having been approved by the government, the bill will head to the Knesset for a first reading in the coming days. If it passes, it will then head to the Committee on Special National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services for further review and potential changes, before being brought back to the plenum for a second and then a final, third reading.

There are roughly 450,000 people living in Israel who have some Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate, mostly immigrants from former Soviet Union countries. In Israel, which does not allow non-religious or civil marriage, people who are not legally considered Jewish but also do not practice another religion live in a state of limbo, unable to marry — or divorce — through the rabbinate or through a church, mosque or any other religious institution.

When he presented his plan last month, Kahana said it “is the only way to deal with this challenge.”

One of the key issues at play is the conversion of children to Judaism. Under some interpretations of Jewish law, children under the age of 13 can convert irrespective of their parents’ religious status. As the conversion of a child is generally considered to be simpler and faster than that of an adult, converting the children of people not recognized as Jews is one way of addressing the hundreds of thousands currently living outside an official religious framework more quickly.

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, that view is not currently accepted by the rabbinate, which maintains that a child’s parents need to have converted to Judaism first, which significantly slows the process.

The bill was drawn up with advice from several leading rabbis in the Modern Orthodox movement, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a top figure in religious Zionism. However, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have rejected Kahana’s reform outright.

“I try to be coordinated with the chief rabbis. Unfortunately, this coordination does not always go smoothly,” Kahana said last month.

Seth Farber, the head of the liberal Orthodox Itim organization, lauded Kahana for advancing conversion reform but said that he was potentially undermining his own efforts by being overly deferential to the rabbinate to the extent of failing to truly alter the system.

“There was a big effort by Kahan to try to appease the chief rabbinate,” Farber said. As a result, under the current provisions of the bill, for instance, only rabbis who have been approved by the chief rabbinate would be able to form a conversion court at a municipal level, meaning that even though the proceedings would be conducted under the auspices of the local rabbinate, its authority would still ultimately come from the chief rabbinate.

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM and Giyur K’Halacha. (KoKo)

Farber also accused the ultra-Orthodox critics of the plan of peddling “misinformation,” saying their claims that municipal rabbinates could not be trusted to ensure proper conversions did not align with the fact that the same rabbinates were entrusted with overseeing similarly critical religious issues. These include kosher supervision, marriages and maintaining a physical enclosure around a city, known as an eruv, that allows those inside to carry things on Shabbat.

“The municipal rabbis were appointed by the chief rabbis and with their approval. So if they’re in charge of kashrut, eruv and marriages, why shouldn’t we trust them for conversion if they’re qualified?” Farber asked.

Farber’s organization runs a program called “Giur K’Halacha,” or in English “Conversion in accordance with the law,” which is geared specifically to helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union to convert to Judaism. Farber told The Times of Israel that he and his organization see this as critical for ensuring that Israel “maintains a Jewish character,” while the chief rabbinate does not attach similar importance to this effort.

“There is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of conversion in Israel today. We see conversion as part of a response that is necessary for the ‘ingathering of the exiles'” — a religious phrase referring to the immigration of Jews from all over the world to Israel — “and because of that there are a set of Jewish laws that can be exercised to perform conversions in a way that is consonant with Jewish law but at the same time also meets the needs of the former Soviet Union,” he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the chief rabbinate that in the past 20 years has not been as sensitive to the historical opportunity that the immigration of millions of people has provided… sees these people as ‘goyim,'” Farber said, using a sometimes pejorative term for non-Jews.

Indeed, Israelis who immigrated or whose parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union have long accused the rabbinate of discriminating against them, forcing them to offer documentation of their Jewishness far beyond that which other Israelis have to provide, including DNA tests in some cases.

Looking at the issue from a slightly different perspective, Rabbi Uri Regev, the CEO of the more progressive organization Hiddush, criticized the proposal as a blow to religious freedom.

“It looks to enshrine Orthodox control over reform in Israel instead of advancing Jewish pluralism,” Regev said in a statement.

Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel are not recognized for religious purposes — though they are accepted for the purposes of citizenship — and Kahana’s plan would maintain that.

It looks to enshrine Orthodox control over reform in Israel instead of advancing Jewish pluralism

“The correct approach… is to give equal status to conversations from all the central streams of the Jewish people, ending the exclusive authorities of the rabbinic courts, and allowing civil marriages so that every convert can get married in Israel,” he said.

The approval of the conversion bill by the government was, however, hailed by some liberal groups.

Tani Frank, the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Triguboff Institute, said the government “should be congratulated for approving the Conversion Law, which will allow many people who came to Israel under the Law of Return to join the Jewish people.”

However, echoing some of Farber’s criticisms, Frank said that the government needed to ensure that “a variety of municipal rabbis” would be allowed to take part in the system and that “the independence of local rabbis to establish conversion courts must be strengthened” so that the law could “fulfill its goal of widening the gates of entry to the Jewish people.”

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