Israel’s Chief Rabbinate appealed this week to European ultra-Orthodox rabbis, calling on them to oppose a new bid to reform Israel’s state conversion system.
“The Israeli government must reject the [Nissim] committee’s recommendation, and not even discuss them,” Rabbi Eliyahu Raphael Heishrik, a member of Israel’s top rabbinical court, told a gathering of dozens of Haredi rabbis in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday.
Moshe Nissim, a former justice, finance, and industry minister, on Sunday presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his final recommendations for a proposed streamlining of Israel’s conversion institutions into a uniform process under the auspices of a new state-authorized Orthodox body.
The proposed changes were immediately dismissed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who said they would block the proposed reforms.
The two-day conference of the Rabbinical Center of Europe brought together several dozen ultra-Orthodox rabbis from around Europe in a show of support for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has vociferously opposed the reform.
The Brussels-based center, founded in 2000, offers aid to small, far-flung European Haredi communities.
The Haredi website Shturem.net quoted an unnamed rabbi at the event warning that the Nissim recommendations “undermine the foundations of Judaism and will lead to a weakening of Judaism as it has been passed from generation to generation.”
Heishrik, who despite being an Ashkenazi Gur Hassid was described as representing Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the gathering, urged the rabbis to sign a petition calling on Israel’s government to reject and refuse even to debate the proposed framework.
On Sunday, both Israel’s chief rabbis and some 25 Orthodox-nationalist rabbis called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to reject the Nissim report, arguing that stripping the Chief Rabbinate of the authority to convert will divide Jewry.
“I unequivocally reject these recommendations and I will see to it that they aren’t even debated” in cabinet committees, said Deri.
The ultra-Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate currently has a near-monopoly on state-recognized conversions to Judaism, a situation that has been the subject of criticism and ongoing advocacy from Conservative and Reform movements.
The new proposal would not change Orthodox control over the state’s official conversion apparatus, but would remove it from the Chief Rabbinate’s oversight, which has led many religious-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders to oppose it.
The plan also calls for recognizing conversions carried out by the Conservative and Reform movements abroad for the purposes of letting a convert obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, a policy already in force in Israel, but passed via a High Court of Justice ruling. The Nissim plan would anchor that recognition in formal Israeli law.
At an “emergency meeting” attended by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yosef and leading religious Zionist rabbis on Sunday, participants expressed their alarm at Nissim’s document, some details of which were earlier leaked and reported on in Hebrew media.
“Recognizing Reform and Conservative converts is a very serious violation,” said Yosef. “Each and every clause of the bill is problematic.”
He also objected to the inclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives on a panel that would appoint the rabbinical judges for conversion under the new system.
“Just the fact that Reform representatives are involved in the committee to appoint conversion judges is totally inappropriate and therefore this document must be rejected out of hand,” said Yosef. “This law must be buried.”
Lau said the new system would “create the illusion for people that if they receive a certificate, this is what will turn them into converts.”
“This is an opening toward assimilation and will bring the destruction of Judaism that is happening in the [rest of the] world to the Holy Land,” said Lau. “The Chief Rabbinate has for years made an effort to see that conversions will be only in accordance with halacha [Jewish law], without outside considerations.”
Along with the chief rabbis, religious-nationalist rabbis — including Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau, Rabbi Mordechai Shternberg, and some 20 others — signed the letter to Netanyahu asking him to reject Nissim’s suggestions.
“We, the rabbis of Israel, regard with concern the danger to the unity of the Jewish people as a result of the proposals for reform in conversion which include the appropriation of conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversion,” the letter said.
“We call on all members of the Knesset and all the cabinet ministers to do everything in their power in order to stop the conversion reform, which is likely to cause assimilation, disintegration and division in the Jewish people, similar to what is happening, sadly, in many Reform and Conservative communities abroad.”
Nissim’s proposal reportedly envisions a state body led by an official appointed by the chief judge of the state’s top rabbinical court and the chairman of the Jewish Agency. There will be five conversion centers across the country manned by Orthodox officials and all conversions will be based on Orthodox Jewish law. The rabbinical judges will be chosen by a panel of 11 that includes the prime minister, the justice minister, the chief rabbis, and the chair of the Jewish Agency. Crucially, the panel will not have a defined Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox majority and will give voice to the Reform and Conservative movements, too.
The controversial clause of Nissim’s proposed bill lays down that conversions carried out by “a recognized Jewish community abroad” will be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship, even when they were not done in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law.
But according to Dr. Yizhar Hess, the head of the Conservative movement in Israel, the proposed reforms herald little change for non-Orthodox Jews.
“It must be admitted that the report by Moshe Nissim is revolutionary to a considerable extent,” Hess said in a statement. “Removing conversion from the hands of the chief rabbinate in favor of a separate independent conversion authority is welcome.”
However, he lamented, the new state-run conversion authority would retain Orthodox control over conversions to Judaism.
“Any legislation that enshrines the Orthodox monopoly, even if it is liberal to some extent, means further humiliation for millions of non-Orthodox Jews,” he said. “Have we not had enough of that over the past two years?”
The proposed law comes on the heels of several High Court cases that have slowly broadened the state’s definition of who is a Jew.
In March 2016, the High Court decided that non-Israelis who were converted in Israel by private, mostly ultra-Orthodox, rabbinical courts outside of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship.
Nissim began working on his report last September. According to the Walla news site, his final conclusions and suggested legislative changes were signed off on by several senior religious-nationalist rabbis.
Marissa Newman, Stuart Winer and Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.