June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Why I Support Israel’s Conversion Law

A luxurious mikvah for women in Alon Shvut (illustration).

In a recent issue of The Jewish Press, Rabbi Arie Folger laid out his objections to the proposed restructuring of the way that halachic conversion is carried out in the State of Israel. Rabbi Folger is a widely respected rav, as well as a dear colleague and friend. I have no desire to engage in a point-by-point debate with him in the press. At the same time, in the interest of both balance and accuracy, I would like to offer a different perspective on the proposed changes, considering the actual changes that are being proposed and the realities to which they are a response.

Additionally, since the proposed legislation contains no mention of the halachot of conversion, aside from asserting that no conversion is valid unless undertaken in strict accordance with the Shulchan Aruch, I will not address the various potential halachic issues that have been bruited about in the press. (This is in line with my personal opposition to the public discussion of sensitive Torah issues in the media.)

The Law: Contrary to the claims of its opponents, the proposed legislation is purely administrative in nature. It empowers city rabbis, themselves members of the established Israeli Rabbinate, to set up conversion courts under their direct supervision. In both Israel and abroad, local rabbis have always been entrusted with the full range of Torah activity and authority, including conversion. Indeed, this was the case in Israel during the first 50 years of its existence. So, the present law simply restores the status quo ante.

Thus, this law does not allow for the creation of wild-cat conversion courts. On the contrary, those city rabbis who will be empowered to set up conversion courts have already been vetted, tested and approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Their piety, integrity and halachic scholarship is above reproach and fully in line with the standards of the Chief Rabbinate itself.

The Chief Rabbinate in the Law: Contrary to the heated assertions of some, the purpose and effect of the proposed law are not to disestablish the Chief Rabbinate. On the contrary, the active involvement of the Rabbinate is enshrined therein. It serves as a supervisory body, regarding standards demanded both of converts and members of the various batei din for conversion. The law is intended to make conversion more accessible to those who so desire. At present, bureaucratic and other obstacles stand in the way of many potential converts. This is particularly true for those seeking to convert children, especially for childless couples seeking to adopt.

The Motivation Behind the Law: In 1991, a miracle occurred. The Soviet Union crumbled, and the “Jews of Silence” were set free.
A million of them came home to Eretz Yisrael. A third of them were not Jewish but were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return (based on the so-called “Grandparent Clause”). By now, their children and grandchildren are fully integrated into Israeli society. They speak Hebrew flawlessly. They serve in the army and shed their blood in defense of our country. In the eyes of many, even most Israelis, they are no less part of the Jewish population than are born Jews.

And yet, obviously, they are not Jews, and the Rabbinate cannot sanction marriages between them and Jews. This does not, however, prevent an increasing number of Jewish Israelis from marrying them. These weddings are often performed with all the trappings of a traditional Jewish wedding, because all involved see themselves and wish to be seen as Jews. As these couples increase in number and have children, the numbers of these non-Jews will increase. It is this situation that will, inevitably, require the creation of genealogical records (sifrei yuchasin) to document who is really Jewish and who is not. Such a development will not only be tragic per se, it will endanger the social fabric and the very life of the State of Israel.

The Dangers of the Status Quo

There are several, patent dangers that render the present situation untenable.

1) Non-Orthodox Conversion: The Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in the State of Israel is based upon the Ottoman and Mandatory practice that entrusted the head of each religious denomination with a monopoly on matters pertaining to their faith community. As far as Judaism is concerned, that authority is invested in the Chief Rabbis.

However, again, this is a matter of default practice, not of law. Any government or, more likely, Supreme Court ruling, could sweep away that monopoly overnight, and with it the halachic definition of Jewishness. Given the aggressive, unforgivable encroachments of the Supreme Court on the Torah in recent years, such a development is well within the realm of possibility.

This proposed legislation will establish, once and for all, that the only accepted definition of a Jew is being the child of a Jewish mother or converting according to halacha. Indeed, it is worth recalling that the demand for just such a law was the battle cry of both the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, and Agudas Yisroel throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In a word, the way to prevent the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel is by adoption of the proposed law.

2) Schism Is an Existential Danger: Halachically, there is no way to divest a Jew of his being a Jew. As our Sages, first cited in this connection by Rashi, stated (Sanhedrin 44a): “A Jew, even though he has sinned, remains a Jew.” The only way for the descendants of Jews to cease being such is not by lack of observance of the commandments, but by being born to a non-Jewish mother or by not being converted according to the dictates of the Torah.

History bears this out fully. Irreparable schism has only been visited upon the Jewish body politic under these conditions. This was true of the early Judeo-Christians, the vast majority of Karaites, the Sabbatians, the Frankists and, tragically, a large segment of Diaspora Jewry. By virtue of Divine Providence and devotion to God and His Torah, the Jewish people have survived. Part of that capacity to survive was rooted in the painful ability to absorb the loss of these communities and to withdraw within ourselves.

That is not the case in the State of Israel, which is still so tangibly threatened by enemies, both near and far.

In marked contrast to other Jewish collectives, the Jews of the Land of Israel are characterized by an increasingly powerful sense of religious, tribal, and ethnic unity. That sense of “togetherness” (be’yachad) is a critical and indispensable element of our ability to withstand those who would destroy us. The fact that “We are all Jews,” share values and faith, and can marry one another is a non-negotiable element of that tribal unity. Alongside God’s protection, this tribal solidarity is far more critical to our survival than the most advanced weapons. And yet, it is precisely that unity that the present circumstances endanger.

Now, there is no doubt that many of these “non-Jewish Jews” will not be able or willing to sincerely convert or meet the standards of the proposed courts. However, there are large numbers who are willing to convert halachically, which is borne out by the fact that there are several charedi and Religious Zionist batei din that already perform reputable conversions, outside of the Rabbinate. The goal of the proposed law is to make credible, recognized conversion available to these people. This will significantly diminish the existential challenge that we face.

3) The Jewish State: One common argument maintains that Judaism in the State of Israel is in dire straits. It is claimed that the only way to prevent further deterioration is to further reinforce the powers and reach of the Chief Rabbinate.

But the first assertion simply does not reflect reality.

Every academic study of Jewish belief and practices in Israel over the past 30 years shows a persistent and powerful increase in both. This goes well beyond the demographic rise in the charedi and dati le’umi communities. Even among those who define themselves as “secular” (which really means non-Orthodox, not atheist), the percentages of Jews who believe in God and pray to Him (over 80%!), observe holidays, study Torah and more have risen to an amazing degree. Indeed, the argument could be made that the shrill cries against the Torah that feature prominently in the media are, effectively, the swan song of those who would separate Am Yisrael from the Torah.

Although we are far from a situation where every Jew observes all of the commandments, the direction we are headed (and please God it should continue) is clear. It is into this Israel that these potential converts will find themselves.

To sum up, the law being proposed by Israel’s Minister of Religious Services contains no concessions in matters of halacha. It does not disestablish the Chief Rabbinate in matters of conversion. It secures the status of halacha as the exclusive arbiter of Jewishness in matters of personal status. It is a response to a very real, existential challenge to the Jewish fabric of the State of Israel. If adopted, it will advance the ongoing deepening of the latter’s Jewishness. It is an idea whose time has come.

Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey R. Woolf studied for almost 10 years under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, and received semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He has taught for 30 years in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, as well as in many hesder yeshivot and seminaries.

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