Sunday, July 03, 2022

Should Conversions Be Performed Only by the Chief Rabbinate?

Rabbi Berel Wein (Arutz  Sheva)
In a recent op-ed, Rabbi Berel Wein notes that Israel’s conversion controversy has not gone away.

An updated conversion bill that basically conforms to Halacha is now being considered by the Keneset. The previous bill - which would have recognized Conservative and Reform conversions was rejected.

When the news about the modifications in that bill broke a while ago, I supported it. I could not understand why the Charedi parties were so opposed. What was it about the new bill did that was so objectionable? That it broadened the pool of rabbis in Israel to perform conversions should not have mattered as long as final approval of every conversion was subject to the approval of the Chief Rabbinate.

To me this sounded like a decent compromise. By not requiring all conversions to be done by the Chief rabbinate itself it would ease the burden on them while ultimately leaving it under their control. Conversions would be done by community rabbis who were themselves ordained through the rabbinate. I therefore saw no real issue. In cases where there might be a questionable conversion, the rabbinate would be able to reject that conversion as they saw fit. 

Why change it at all? It seems like there was a public outcry at the way this Rabbinate bureaucracy operated. I no longer recall the details but I do remember being quite upset at how potential converts were treated by the Chief rabbinate. That is probably why the bill has popular support.

The bill in its current form was approved by Tzohar, a alternate rabbinic organization headed by Religious Zionist Rabbi David Stav. 

It is however vehemently opposed and criticized by the Charedi political parties and by many rabbinic leaders here in Israel. I had questioned their position since the rabbinate would still have final say on all conversions. But as Rabbi Wein notes, their concern was not without merit: 

I saw a very different and insightful reason for opposing the passage of this bill in one of the Israeli newspapers last week. The journalist pointed out that synagogue and community rabbis, by the very nature of their personal involvement with the people of their area and congregation, are more prone to succumb to outside and personal influences in such sensitive matters as conversion then are the ivory tower, disconnected and scholarly rabbinical courts of the Chief Rabbinate.

I can testify to this from my own experience. When I was still a student at HTC  I was asked to be a witness to such a conversion by a highly respected rabbi with an otherwise impeccable reputation.

The synagogue rabbi is put in a very difficult position when one of his devoted congregants asks him to convert a non-Jew who is attempting to become a member of that person's family. An influential member of the Shul would come crying to their rabbi about a son who wanted to marry a non Jewish woman and could not talk them out of it. They begged their rabbi to convert their son’s fiancé  so that their grandchildren would be Jewish.

There were a lot of questionable conversions like that back then.  

The pressures in Israel are of another sort but no less concerning. They controversy is political in nature. The massive influx of Russian Jewry that immigrated to Israel after the demise of the FSU included a lot of people that were technically not Jewish. Even though they thought they were and led their lives that way - even observing many Jewish traditions. So integrated were they into Israeli society that many of their youth served in the military - often risking their lives by volunteering for dangerous assignments. In this not insignificant way - they were more dedicated to Israel than most of the Charedi population.

Religious Zionists legitimately feared that without being converting those immigrant children there would come a time in the not too distant future where Jews would be outnumbered by non Jews.  That fear led them to seek lenient forms of conversion that have long ago been rejected by mainstream leaders across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.

That is where the controversy has remained – unresolved. The Charedi parties which had been part of the ruling coalition had prevented the Keneset from changing how conversions would take place leaving it to a Chief Rabbinate that agreed with them. 

That changed when the new government was formed that did not need the Charedi parties to form a coalition. The recent (now collapsed) coalition government was able to accommodate the Religious Zionist point of view.

But the concern about creating converts that had no intention of observance was the same as it was back here in Chicago all those many years ago. The pressures on local rabbis by members of their community is the same albeit for different reasons.

I’m not sure whether to support or reject the new conversion bill. The concerns are real. But the rabbinate still has the ultimate authority. Will they be able to sufficiently investigate each conversion to see if their standards are met? I honestly don’t know. But I would be reluctant to change anything right now. The stakes are too high no matter what side of the controversy one is on.