July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Israel’s Conversion Controversy

I) Introduction

Much ink has been spilled, many pens have been broken and significant vitriol has been vented over the debate regarding proposed changes to the State of Israel’s conversion protocol. Sadly, the issue has pitted against each other rabbanim and leaders associated not only with different hashkafot, but also those within the Religious Zionist community itself. All struggles and machlokot are uncomfortable. They are even more challenging when they separate those so (relatively) hashkafically close to one another.

Some have been presenting the debate as between the Religious Zionist and chareidi communities. In actuality, the issue is a matter of major debate within the Religious Zionist community itself. The ranks of those opposing the reform include many (seemingly the majority) of this community’s poskim, gedolei Torah and leaders. In fact, one of the strongest objectors to the reform is the head of one of the Religious Zionists community’s leading parties. (Sadly, the debate parallels a number of other major debates and disagreements currently creating painful discord within the Religious Zionist community.)

Unfortunately the debate has evoked cynicism, delegitimization and recrimination. Certainly not all, but some on both sides present their opinion as the only legitimate one and accuse the other side of intentionally spreading misinformation, or even of falsification. Some have even resorted to casting doubt on the character of those who oppose their positions, sometimes engaging in outright character assassination.

For many it is a zero-sum game; their side has a complete monopoly on the truth, while the other side is composed of the devious, dishonest and power-hungry. Sadly, this tone has been exacerbated on social media, where subtlety and appreciation of the gray are often disregarded and people not always familiar with the details of the debate lambast gedolei Yisrael and community leaders. The conversation within our community has come to mirror the acrimonious nature of “debate” in broader society.

In truth, we should generally give people the benefit of the doubt of being l’shem Shamayim (assuming we have no bonafide reason to suspect otherwise); this should be even more true in a case like this, which involves people who have faithfully devoted their lives to personal fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot and to inspiring others to do the same. We have every reason to assume that the rabbanim on both sides are acting for the sake of Heaven and what they perceive as the greater good of Am Yisrael.

There are those who are branding the Rabbanut’s objection to the reforms as motivated by their selfish interest in maintaining control and power. The fact that there are an abundance of poskim, gedolei Torah, and leaders within both the chareidi and Religious Zionists communities (totally disconnected from the Rabbanut with nothing personal to gain from their control) who also object to the reform shows that this is not the issue.

So what are the issues? Unfortunately, the rhetoric has been so intense and (often) disconnected from the actual issues, that many are having a hard time identifying and understanding the issues behind the debate. Most posts on the topic advocate strongly for one position without properly presenting the other side. It behooves us to respect each side by studying and understanding their opinions.

This article presents the issues and positions of both sides (Part One), offers an opinion on the matter (Part Two), and suggests how to move forward (Part Three).


II) Understanding the Debate: An Overview (Part One)

A. The Proposed Reform

Matan Kahana, the Minister of Religious Affairs, has proposed a reform that allows for the establishment of additional batei din (courts) to carry out conversions. As opposed to the situation today, where all conversions need the approval of the Rabbanut Harashit (Chief Rabbinate), the reform allows municipal rabbis (and possibly others) to run independent conversion courts. (Though the reform includes the chief rabbis on the oversight committee, the committee is carefully constructed to keep them from being able to set standards.)

There are two motivations for the reform:

1. Some feel that conversion through the Rabbanut can sometimes be inefficient, unnecessarily cumbersome and insensitive.

2. The intention to convert more people by employing creative paths and alternative standards (specified below).

B. The Goal and the Issues

Those advocating for change aim to address the presence of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who identify as Jews despite being halachically non-Jewish. The issue began (en masse) with the aliya from the former Soviet Union, which included (and continues to include) many people of Jewish descent, but not halachically Jewish (because their mothers were not Jewish), who identify as Jews and have integrated within Israel’s Jewish society. The presence of a large population of non-Jews who socially identify as Jews is unhealthy in that it leads to intermarriage and undermines the Jewish character of the State.

The ideal solution to the issue would be to convert this population. The challenge is that conversion requires kabbalat mitzvot (acceptance of mitzvot), which the vast majority of this population is not ready to commit to. The suggestions made by those advocating reform is to convert minors (who are not yet old enough to be asked about kabbalat mitzvot) and (for adults) to employ an alternative standard for kabbalat mitzvot. Suggestions of this alternative standard range from not clarifying details of what converts are actually committing to or being satisfied with partial kabbalat mitzvot to using Jewish identity, Israeli identity or presence in Israel as a form of kabbalat mitzvot. (The different options are suggested by various reform advocates. There is major disagreement even within the camp of reform advocates as to what suffices.)

Those who object to the proposed reforms have issues with the aforementioned halachic leniencies, the circumvention of the Rabbanut, or both.

On the halachic plane, regarding the conversion of minors, many poskim (including Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l) believe that the conversion only works if the child’s parents are observant and plan to raise the child that way. (Converting a minor hinges on it being beneficial for him. If he will live his life as a Jew violating Torah and mitzvot, his conversion was, assumably, not to his benefit.) This has been the accepted practice in most batei din. (It is important to note that many of the poskim quoted as a source for the validity of this type of conversion were referring to leniencies for individuals, not to the standard for wholesale conversion.)

Regarding kabbalat mitzvot, most poskim reject these alternative versions and hold that kosher conversion hinges on sincere, comprehensive commitment to mitzvot (and not just Jewish or Israeli identity). Additionally, most poskim believe that there must be a real basis to believe that the convert will continue observing mitzvot after their conversion.

C. The Rabbanut Harashit

As mentioned, one of the issues being debated is the role of the Rabbanut Harashit in general and, specifically, whether it should be the sole address for conversion. The first (Ashkenazic) chief rabbi, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt”l, saw the founding of the Rabbanut as no less than the fulfillment of the “return of judges” prophesied by Yeshaya (1:26). He set it up to serve as Israel’s centralized rabbinic authority. In 1947, Ben Gurion reached an agreement with the religious parties that included the understanding that matters of personal status, including conversion, would continue to be determined by the existing religious authorities. This arrangement has been termed the “status quo arrangement” (and was the basis for all parties agreeing to the UNSCOP recommendation of a Jewish state in Israel).

Though the chareidi community has never seen the Rabbanut Harashit as the central authority, Religious Zionists used to be unified in their view of the importance of the Rabbanut Harashit.

Recent chief rabbis have been of a more chareidi orientation and not always among the ranks of leading poskim. This has led many (mostly on the left side of the Religious Zionist spectrum) to see the Rabbanut Harashit as less central and call for (or not oppose) minimizing its role within the State and most significantly its oversight of conversion and kashrut.

Most Religious Zionist poskim and rabbinic leaders, however, continue to see the Rabbanut as important because of its role in both ensuring matters of personal status and strengthening ritual issues (like kashrut) and the Jewish character and identity of the State. This is why even many of the supporters of the reform hinge their support on the Rabbanut’s consent (which has not been forthcoming).

D. Values on Both Sides

Many on both sides have been painting the other side as lacking important values. Many of the reform advocates are portraying the other side as insensitive to the non-Jewish population and the social fortitude of the State of Israel. Many of those against the reform are portraying the other side as less committed to halacha. Though there may be some on each side who fit these characterizations, it is incorrect and unfair to cheapen the opposition by simplifying and categorically dismissing their position this way.

The rabbinic leaders on both sides of the issue are all deeply committed to halacha and all care about the social issues within Israel and around the world. The debate is about how strong the halachic basis is for the leniencies, how much good the leniencies will bring, and how to balance these two factors. The bitter dynamic of this debate is an important reminder of the need to be careful not to paint those who disagree with us with broad strokes that simplify and cheapen their position.

When poskim and gedolei Yisrael debate an issue (even if they disagree harshly with one another), we apply the principle of “eilu v’eilu” and maintain respect for all of the positions and individuals involved.

In light of this, one wonders why we should hesitate supporting the reform. Why not let many batei dinim convert, with each beit din deciding which standard to rely upon and each convert deciding which beit din to convert through?

The answer to this question hinges on understanding the unique nature and impact of conversion.


III) The Reasons to Maintain the Status Quo: An Opinion (Part Two)

A. The Need for a Broadly Accepted Standard for Geirut and Personal Status Issues

There are many differences in how each of us perform mitzvot, daven and serve Hashem. Most of these areas are personal, and the differences have no impact on our relationships with other Jews. It is therefore easy to apply and live by the principle of eilu v’eilu. Both are the word of God, and people should follow the guidance of their specific posek.

Personal status is, of course, a major exception to this rule. It is critical to ensure that people convert, marry and divorce in a way that is broadly accepted in Israel and around the world. No matter how much a rabbi or group of rabbis are convinced of the validity of their conversion standard, they must ensure that it will be broadly recognized (especially when acting in the context of the State of Israel). It is unfair both to the convert and to the Jewish people to convert under any other circumstances.

As mentioned, this was one of the main reasons for the formation of the Rabbanut and the urgency of the agreement with Ben Gurion (even pre-State). In a world of continuous diverse standards, this continues to be a critical issue. Baruch Hashem, the Rabbanut has been successful in arranging marriage, divorce and conversion in a way recognized (to a large extent) by Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.

Jewish communities and their dayanim and leaders are familiar with and respect the chief rabbis and their standard. Allowing tens of different batei din to convert using their own criteria (including criteria rejected by the majority of poskim) will create a reality where all Israeli conversions will become suspect.

It is important to note that there is significant disagreement even among those advocating for change. For example, one of the advocates believes in criteria so low that even his fellow advocates strongly object to them. Once the floodgates are opened, there will inevitably be conversions performed based upon opinions rejected by the vast majority of poskim (even those who support the reform). Naturally, most potential converts will flock to the beit din that demands the least, which means that conversion will end up being based on the absolute lowest standard and will not be accepted by the vast majority of poskim and communities.

Additionally, parallel to the conversion reform, the same Minister of Religion intends to change the criteria for the election of municipal rabbis. His intention to transfer the decision to (mostly) secular-dominated city councils could very well facilitate (and this may be part of the intention) the appointment of rabbis who support the lowest criteria. (Recent Israeli High Court intervention in the setting of criteria for rabbnic accreditation makes matters even more potentially problematic.)

The reform will create a reality that casts doubt on all conversions. Many batei din, poskim and rabbanim within Israel and from around the world have already made it known that they will not accept conversions performed according to the new standard and possibly (because of the changes) all conversions performed by the State of Israel. There will be converts accepted by some but not by others who will find themselves and their children in very uncomfortable situations. There is a very real danger that the reform will divide the Jewish people and leave our children and grandchildren a legacy of suspicion, confusion, disunity and heartache.

It is also important to carefully consider future eventualities. What doors will the reform open? What will the consequences of such a change be? What kind of municipal rabbis might a future secular government and Minister of Religion appoint? The present Minister of Religion is religious. Tomorrow’s minister may not be. (Based on the precedent of the current Knesset, he could even be a Reform rabbi.) Additionally, we need to anticipate the future implications of the precedent being set by the use of the Knesset to force the Rabbanut’s hand. (See more about the contemporary political context in Section C.)

Proponents of the reform point to the fact that, historically, communities around the world (and even—in the past [before the mass migration of non-Jews]—in Israel) did not have a uniform conversion system. This was an inevitable implication of Diaspora life, and one that caused major problems. The one mitigating factor was the fact that communities had limited interaction with each other. This gave the batei din of each city the ability to function independently without (generally) creating (major) conflict.

The wonderful and blessed new reality of the State of Israel is that people from all its regions fully interact with one another.
Baruch Hashem, Israel (and recently the United States) has successfully created a uniform system. It is something we ought to protect. The reform proposes that any municipal rabbi be able to convert people from all over the country. In that case, it is even more critical that the standards for conversion be nationally uniform. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a situation where one municipal rabbi sets (by default) a (the lowest) standard for the whole State that is not accepted by the vast majority of the poskim in Israel and around the world.

The Rabbanut and its conversion may be far from perfect, but it is the only system that is and will continue to be broadly accepted and should, therefore, not be circumvented. Many proponents of the status quo compare circumventing the Rabbanut to opening a parallel alternative to the DMV or Ministry of Health. The truth is that circumventing the Rabbanut is even more problematic. Different ways of issuing driver’s licenses or of dividing roads does not divide a people. Different forms of medicine or medical treatment does not prevent people from marrying one another. This issue threatens to do exactly that. The Rabbanut may not be perfect and, understandably, there are those (as always) who feel that their standard or approach might be better, but this fact should not lead us to circumvent the one institution that can oversee a program of uniform, broadly accepted conversions.

To point to a parallel example, the Tzohar organization has long been performing marriages in a way that people see as more user-friendly. Baruch Hashem, they perform these marriages as per the standards of and in coordination with the Rabbanut. This ensures that their marriages are universally recognized. This approach needs to be taken with conversion as well. It may mean that less conversions can be done, but it ensures a continued uniform, broadly recognized standard.

Those who have issues with the Rabbanut should do their best to improve it, without creating a situation where people feel that they cannot marry each other. This is why many of the proponents of change have hinged their approval on the Rabbanut’s consent to the changes.

Many of the reform’s proponents emphasize the significance of the problem and proclaim the need to act at any cost. They are definitely right about the problem. That having been said, we need to be careful not to allow our intention to solve one problem to cause us to create a bigger one. Those who feel that the lower standard is sufficient need to respect the fact that a very significant part (at least) of the Torah world disagrees with them and appreciate the ramifications.

Many of the proponents paint the decision as a choice between action and inaction—having a solution versus stagnancy. Sadly, we have learned (through processes like Oslo and the Gaza disengagement) that action is not always the better course. It is also important to remember that, on the one hand, the Rabbanut is not inactive (it converts thousands each year). On the other hand, even the reform advocates agree that their proposal will get nowhere near solving the problem because the vast majority of the population is unwilling to commit to any level of kabbalat mitzvot. The issue is not whether to act and solve the problem or be inactive and let it fester. We face a problem that everyone is addressing and neither side can solve. The question is how far to go; how to balance between the desire to convert and halachic standards.

Finally, there are those who see the reform as part of the Religious Zionist community’s reassertion of its rightful place within the State’s rabbinic establishment. There is a feeling that the chareidi community has used the past years during which it has had significant political power and control of the Ministry of Religion to marginalize representatives of the Religious Zionist and that a corrective is necessary. This point may be true and it is legitimate for the Minister of Religion to appoint Religious Zionist rabbis to important positions. That having been said, we should not allow this goal to cause us to enact reforms that will undermine the acceptance of conversions or the Rabbanut as general (see next section).

B. The General Undermining of the Rabbanut and Psak

The Religious Zionist community has traditionally emphasized the importance of the Rabbanut (for the aforementioned reasons). Taking conversion out of their hands, especially if done through the political means being employed, will seriously weaken the Rabbanut and its ability to fulfill its broader role of both ensuring uniform standards for marriage and divorce and strengthening the Jewish character of the State.

On a more basic level, we need to ask ourselves if we truly respect the institution of the Rabbanut. Do we only respect it and the role it plays when we agree with the people elected and the positions they take? If this is the case, it is actually not the institution we respect but rather those who agree with us. If we disregard the Rabbanut when we disagree with their positions, we must realize that others will follow our lead. Forcing these changes “over their head” will seriously undermine the Rabbanut and its future ability to impact the State.

Sadly, the very attempt to do so is already having this effect. For example, a few weeks ago, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for the suspension of the chief rabbi if he did not follow the political orders he was receiving. It is inappropriate to try to pressure or force the hand of halachic authorities. Sadly, this has become somewhat of a norm and needs to be recognized as unacceptable. This is not how halachic decisions can be made and definitely not how they will be broadly recognized as reliable.

The attempt to use political clout to force the hand of the Rabbanut is inappropriate and sets a very dangerous precedent. The fact that the chief rabbis are political appointments does not mean that politicians should be making halachic decisions for them. Would the English or South African Parliament attempt to dictate halachic policy to their chief rabbis? Should the fact that our parliament consists (mostly) of Jews change that? We should not allow the fact that we are all Jews living in a Jewish country to cause us to forget that piskei halacha (even when they are a matter of debate) are not determined by politicians (even religious ones), secular law, or the number of social media likes garnered by a social media post.

C. The Context

The reform is not taking place in a vacuum. Many organizations and political parties have long been seeking to increase religious diversity in the State of Israel by strengthening other denominations. They also seek to dilute the general Jewish character of the State. The new Israeli government has put these parties in positions of power unhindered by the presence of (most of) the religious parties.

These secularist parties have openly stated their goal to take advantage of the current makeup of the government by making radical changes to the religious and Jewish character of the State. Many of their leaders see and have expressly defined this reform as part of a series of more significant problematic reforms. (It is important to note that commitment to conversion reform was part of the coalition agreement with the secular [and often anti-religious] Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.)

Proponents of the reform believe that passing their reform is a way to avoid the proposal of more significant reform. This is difficult to accept; the fact that these secular parties (including a Knesset member who is himself a Reform rabbi) have been clamoring for greater reform for decades and are calling for these reforms to be enacted now gives real reason to believe that this reform could very much be the beginning of more severe reforms to come. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his party, as well as other partners in the coalition, are calling for the institution of civil marriage as the next step.

Though the Minister of Religion and the rabbanim advocating for the reform have good intentions, we must be wary of the pandora’s box such a reform opens and the inevitable consequences.


IV) How to Move Forward: Modest Proposals (Part Three)

A. Conversion Reform

So what should we do? There is a real problem and we must do everything possible to address it. The constructive way to move forward is to work with the Rabbanut. If we value the Rabbanut’s role as the halachic standard setter (for national matters) for the State, we must recognize the need to work with them as opposed to trying to circumvent them or force their hand. This is why many of the rabbanim who support change have conditioned their support on the Rabbanut’s approval. This will not happen as long as the Rabbanut feels that the changes are being made around them, above them or with a (proverbial) gun to their head.

The proponents of change should realize that the Rabbanut’s consent hinges on conditions they are comfortable with. It could be that the reform will need to be limited (or maybe even totally abandoned), but working with the Rabbanut (with the clear understanding that only what they approve will be moved forward) is the only way to gain their consent and thereby should be the plan of action.

There are many rabbanim (who have spoken with me about this over the past days) who have excellent relationships with the Rabbanut and have been successful in helping improve the system who can help those seeking change have meaningful, respectful conversations with the Rabbanut. All this is possible once all those involved realize that this is the constructive way to proceed.

B. Fix the Bridge

When dealing with a flood, we need to not only clean up the spill, but first turn off the faucet. The “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return that grants citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent (even if not halachically Jewish) has created and continues to exacerbate the challenge we are facing. Many of those making aliyah today (and most of those immigrating from certain countries) are not Jewish and there is no rabbi who can convert them at the pace they are entering. A thousand Ethiopians were brought to Israel over the past few weeks, to the consternation of Ethiopian Jewish leaders here who claim that these people never identified as Jews and were not part of their community. A similar issue applies to those being brought to Israel from the Ukraine. Those on both sides of the reform debate agree that as long as the government uses the “grandchild clause” to actively pursue the aliyah of non-Jews, any conversion program or reform is (relatively) inconsequential.

Considering the high level of intermarriage in the Diaspora, the “granchild clause” is an existential threat to maintaining a halachically Jewish Israeli society. Any version of conversion reform will only slightly repair the problem the clause has created. If we do not shut the faucet, any conversion reform enacted will be (relatively) insignificant. Instead of exhausting our energies disagreeing over the nature of the hospital we ought to build under the bridge (that will anyway fall way short of “healing” most of those in need), we should be focused on fixing the bridge itself.


V) Conclusion

Our return to Eretz Yisrael and building of a Jewish state challenges us with unprecedented questions and conflicts—regarding which even our poskim and gedolei Torah disagree about how to resolve.

We must make sure that we respect both opinions and the poskim and gedolei Torah on both sides. Practically, I suggest that we act in a way that allows all Jews to continue marrying one another without suspicion and that simultaneously strengthens our centralized rabbinic institutions.

This piece is based on extensive research and substantive conversations with leaders on both sides of the debate. Thank you also to the tens of rabbanim for Israel, the U.S., and around the world who reviewed the piece and helped ensure that it presents properly and comprehensively.

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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