Knesset moves to decentralize conversion to Judaism

Knesset moves to decentralize conversion to Judaism

While rabbinate warns bill endangers ‘halachic validity’ of conversions, backers say it restores local rabbis’ ‘traditional role’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

The building of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in Jerualem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The building of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in Jerualem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset Law Committee voted to advance a bill Monday that would allow a much wider circle of state rabbis to conduct conversions.

The bill would allow local rabbis to form religious courts and formally conduct conversions to Judaism that would be recognized under Israeli law. Thus, the legislation would shift the power to officially convert people to Judaism from a small group of rabbinic judges in just four state rabbinic courts to as many as 30 local three-member rabbinic tribunals, and possibly even more down the road.

The bill passed the vote in the Law Committee and now heads to its first of three readings in the Knesset plenum — over vehement opposition from the Chief Rabbinate. MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), the bill’s primary sponsor, has vowed to push it through into law, and committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) has promised to push ahead despite the criticism.

The Chief Rabbinate opposes the bill, saying it would lead to fragmentation of standards for conversion and confusion in the state religious system.

“We must do everything to improve the service given to converts,” the rabbinate said in a statement in January to the Haredi website Kikar Hashabat. “But we must not compromise on the demands of halacha (Jewish religious law) when it comes to conversion. This conversion bill gives unqualified clerks the power to rule [on conversions], and endangers the halachic validity of conversions in Israel,” the rabbinate said.

This week, the Chief Rabbinate called on MKs to wait on the vote in order to allow the rabbinate itself to present a compromise bill. “The vote is a unilateral move that contradicts understandings reached with the Rishon Lezion” — an honorific for Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef — “who is currently developing a version that would be acceptable to all sides,” the rabbinate said in a statement.

“If the vote moves ahead, all cooperation with the rabbinate will be ended,” the statement warned.

But the bill also has its supporters, including among state rabbis. Rabbi David Stav, a former chief rabbi candidate and chairman of the relatively liberal Orthodox Tzohar organization, said last month that the bill was a much-needed return to the way conversions were previously conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi David Stav attends a conference promoting youth and education in the Israeli parliament, January 6, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Rabbi David Stav attends a conference promoting youth and education in the Knesset, January 6, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The bill essentially brings back the traditional role of the local rabbi to convert those who wish to join the Jewish community, as it existed for decades under generations of chief rabbis,” Stav said in January.

The bill would help an entire public “that wants to be part of the Jewish people” – including hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking non-Jewish family members of Jews who came to Israel over the past two decades.

“At the same time it would help to find adoptive families for converts through the local rabbi and community,” Stav said. The conversion process often includes connecting a convert with an observant Jewish family to enable them to become familiar with Jewish ritual and daily life.

Israeli law inherited its system of official state-recognized religious institutions from the Ottoman and British legal systems that preceded the founding of the state. Under current Israeli law, many issues of personal status, including religious identity, marriage, divorce, burial and more, are handled by state-sanctioned and -funded religious authorities, including Jewish rabbinic courts, Muslim Sharia institutions and others.

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