Thursday, November 06, 2014

Decentralizing Conversions in Israel

MK Elazar Stern, the New Conversion Bill's sponsor (Ynet)
Last Sunday, the Israeli Kenesset passed a new bill that will reform the way conversions to Judaism will be handled. This has brought objections from the religious right with the claim that henceforth some conversions will be suspect with respect to their actual validity.

First let me say that I firmly support the current parameters of conversion as standardized and practiced by most Orthodox conversion courts. While there has in the past been a dispute about some of those requirements, it is not useful anymore to allow conversions that do not adhere to all of them.

The requirements are 1) Bris (for males), 2) Immersion in a Kosher Mikva, and 3) Kabbolas HaMitzvos – accepting the requirement to follow Halacha. It is this last one that has engendered debate. Nonetheless it is now a widely accepted requirement -  both here and in Israel.

That does not mean that a conversion cannot be done if the convert does not know all of the Halachos. Quite the contrary. Halacha requires only that we teach potential converts the basics (like Shabbos and Kashrus). We can then convert them right away and teach them more details later. It is the acceptance of all of them that is important – not the immediate knowledge of them.

This is the letter of the law. Such converts are Jewish even if for some reason - moments later they violate Shabbos on purpose. If one was sincere about accepting Shabbos and all the other Halachos at the moment of conversion and then sinned immediately upon conversion they are considered a Mumar Yisroel… a sinning Jew. But a Jew nonetheless.

(It is however accepted practice nowadays that potential converts study Halachic Judaism for quite some time before they are converted. This will discourage those who did not quite understand what they were getting into and it will also show the level of commitment for those that are not discouraged.)

While questions have been raised about the sincerity of one who accepts the Mitzvos and then violates them right after the conversion, it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss how that is dealt with today. Suffice it to say that the sincerity of a potential convert’s commitment is what is important. That is the letter of the law. And as an Orthodox Jew, this is what I accept as the requirement for conversion.

This issue came to a head a few years ago when Russian immigrants to Israel that had one Jewish parent were allowed to immigrate as part of Israel’s ‘Law of Retrun’. This law allowed any individual who had at least one Jewish parent to move to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship. The problem is that Halachic Judaism does not recognize as a Jew anyone whose mother was not Jewish. So that a person entering Israel whose father was Jewish but his mother not - was allowed to enter under the ‘Law of Return’.

Such people considered themselves to be Jewish and have become integrated into the country – including becoming soldiers of the IDF. Most of these were not observant – nor did they want to be. And yet here they all were risking their lives by joining the IDF and thinking of themselves  as Jews.

In order to fix this problem special conversion courts were set up to expedite their conversions. This was hotly protested by Charedi Rabbonim because of the obvious problem of non observance of those being so quickly converted. They were not considered Jews.

The Charedi Rabbonim succeeded in remedying the situation by centralizing the conversion process. After taking over the Chief Rabbinate, they mandated that conversions could only be done by the limited number of courts which they authorized. No independent conversion court would be permitted to do conversions no matter how Halachic they claimed to be. They extended this rule to all conversion courts outside of Israel as well. Only those that the Chief Rabbinate approved of would be accepted.  The RCA agreed to their parameters, upgraded their standards, and all converts of the RCA were accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

I am in favor of unity on this issue. So to the extent that this unified the conversion process is to the extent that I supported it.

The problem is that it left a lot of problems in its wake. Non Jewish Russians could no longer convert so easily. The Chief Rabbinate now required sincere acceptance of Halachca. And they were pretty strict about what that meant.

As an aside things started unraveling in the RCA too after the Freundel affair. They are now reviewing the process.  

But more importantly and as stated earlier the Israeli Kenesset last Sunday modified the conversion laws of the state by decentralizing conversions. They will now allow independent conversion courts to do conversions.

This has greatly upset the Chief Rabbinate who has made claims that the new law will generate non Kosher conversions over which the Rabbinate will have no say. And mess up our knowledge of who is really a Jew and who isn’t.

Are they right? I’m not so sure. While I think a standardized policy over conversion process is a good idea that should be persevered, I don’t think decentralization will sabotage future conversions – as long as those independent courts follow Halacha in their conversions. True – it will be harder to monitor those independent courts. But it will not be impossible.

Charges that the new law undermines the Chief Rabbinate and will result in illegitimate conversions do not seem to be correct. For one thing the new bill requires every independent conversion to be signed off by the Rabbinate. So they have the ultimate say in the matter anyway. The new law is silent about the Halachic requirements of conversion. All it does is open up more conversion courts that will not necessarily be part of the Chief Rabbinate. Reform and Conservative conversions were not mentioned at all in this new law. So nothing has changed there. The rules of conversion have not been tampered with by the government.

So why indeed pass such a law if nothing of Halachic significance has changed? It is my understanding that far too many converts were facing unnecessary obstacles by a system over-zealous and understaffed. With the increase in the number of courts comes an expedited and perhaps a more sympathetic conversion process. Looked at this way, I don’t see what all the fuss by the right is all about.  

Yes, it may make things a bit more complicated for the Rabbinate. But anything that can expedite a legitimate conversion and make it a more pleasant experience is a good thing.  As I have said many times in the past, converts are among the best of us. And they should be treated accordingly.  For a better explanation of what this new conversion law is and isn’t - watch the following video of MK Rabbi Dov Lipman who explains it well.