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Orthodox rabbis today 100 times more stringent than Maimonides — ex-minister

Moshe Nissim, who proposed conversion reform, blames Chief Rabbinate and Haredi parties for High Court recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions done in Israel

Moshe Nissim arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Moshe Nissim arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Today’s Orthodox rabbinical courts are 100 times more stringent than the venerated sage Maimonides was regarding conversions to Judaism, a former minister who has proposed a compromise reform on Israel’s conversion laws charged Wednesday, blaming the ultra-Orthodox parties for this week’s High Court ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions.

Monday’s High Court ruling determined that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship. The bombshell decision shattered the longstanding Orthodox monopoly on officially recognized conversions in Israel.

Moshe Nissim, a veteran lawmaker and minister, was tasked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017 with heading a special government committee that proposed an overhaul of the conversion system in Israel, which would have removed it from the control of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate and establish a new state-run Orthodox authority instead.

But the 2018 proposal was never adopted by the government due to ultra-Orthodox and national religious opposition.

Speaking Wednesday with Army Radio, Nissim said the Haredi parties and the Chief Rabbinate were “undoubtedly” responsible for the High Court’s ruling, arguing that the court had been pleading with the government to legislate a policy and delayed its ruling for 15 years, but the government never honored that request.

Asked whether a conversion system could exist that would satisfy all parties, Nissim said that was impossible since Orthodox rabbinical courts have become too extreme in their demands from potential converts.

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

“There are rabbinical courts that are very stringent, demand that converts observe all 613 mitzvahs, ask them indecent and weird questions, reject many converts even though they studied and are willing [to undergo the process],” said Nissim, a former justice minister. “That’s why many people who yearn to convert avoid coming to these courts, because they say, ‘We don’t have the ability to fulfill all that is demanded of us.’

“That goes against halachic policy throughout history,” he charged, citing the famous 12th-century scholar Maimonides. “Maimonides set out rules for what is required from converts, and today’s rabbinical judges demand 100 times more than what Maimonides demanded. As if Maimonides were Reform, to the point where they don’t accept his halachic rulings.”

He charged that the existing situation was causing people to leave Judaism due to the stringent demands, calling it the “main problem” facing modern Jewry.

Nissim is the son of former Sephardi chief rabbi Isaac Nissim. He first served as a Knesset member in 1959 when he was 24 years old, the youngest lawmaker in Israel’s history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) receives a report by Moshe Nissim (L) on a proposed overhaul of the conversion to Judaism system in Israel on June 3, 2018 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Monday’s dramatic High Court decision was the culmination of an appeal process that began more than 15 years ago, involving 12 people in the country who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox denominations. The justices specified that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state had failed to do so.

Non-Orthodox groups petitioned against the status quo, leading the High Court to urge the government to pass legislation on the matter, but that was never done, leading to Monday’s ruling.

The ruling only applies to conversions in Israel. A previous court decision forced the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions abroad for purposes of immigration, but not those performed in the country.

While the ruling was lauded by left-wing, centrist and secularist parties in Israel, it was denounced by right-wing and religious politicians, who vowed to advance legislation in the next parliament to overturn it. Both of Israel’s chief rabbis similarly blasted the move.

This week’s ruling follows a 2016 High Court decision ordering the state to recognize private conversions to Orthodox Judaism that are conducted outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate.

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