• Conversion, the Knesset and the Supreme Court

    Late last March, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that “that the state must recognize private conversions to Orthodox Judaism that are conducted outside the framework of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate… According to the ruling, individuals who underwent conversion at any Orthodox rabbinical court, in Israel or aboard, will be recognized as Jewish, and will thus be eligible to receive Israeli citizenship in accordance with the Law the Return. “I see no justification for interpreting the Law of Return in bringing discrimination between those who converted to Judaism in Israel and those who converted to Judaism abroad,” Miriam Naor, the president of the Supreme Court, wrote in the court ruling.

    While the ruling brought immediate condemnation from the Chief Rabbinate, its implications are far from clear. The Supreme Court did not rule to accept any conversion from any denomination. Rather, it ruled that the State must accept Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, just as it accepts conversions from Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.


    What about Conservative and Reform Conversions

    In a follow-up to the Supreme Court ruling, the Moetzet Rabbanei Tzohar met to discuss the implications of the ruling and what steps Tzohar should take on the issue. While the Moetzet made no decision about the Supreme Court ruling (you can see a prior Moetzet decision regarding Giyyur in Israel here) and therefore Tzohar has yet to take an official position on the matter, the guests invited to address the rabbanim – Professor Aviad HaCohen and MK Ze’ev Elkin offered important insights about the issue of conversion and the law.

    According to Professor HaCohen, Giyyur is not mentioned in Israeli law. Officially, no one has the legal right to perform conversions in Israel, because the Knesset never gave jurisdiction over conversion to any official branch of government. Essentially, this makes anyone doing Giyyur illegal, because they don’t have the right to do so. This means that everyone who did engage in giyyur, from the Chief Rabbinate to the Chareidim to the private giyyur, is essentially acting outside of the law. Thus, because neither the Chief Rabbinate nor anyone else has the legal authority to convert, there’s no reason to give legal precedence to one rabbinic body over any other. For this reason, the Supreme Court ruled that even if the Giyyur wasn’t performed in the context of the official channels, nonetheless the converts must be categorized according to the Law of Return as Jews.

    How do we ensure that people don’t use the law as a means to attain citizenship? The Court said that it would only recognize a conversion performed בקהילה יהודית – in the context of a Jewish community; Does the community have a history? Does it have institutions? (This is similar to the previous Supreme Court decision which recognized conversions in the Diaspora as long as it was performed in the context of a community – thus recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in the Diaspora.) The Court argued that it doesn’t make sense that a rabbi who performed a conversion outside Israel would have his conversion recognized, but if that same rabbi moved to Israel and performed a conversion, his conversion would not be recognized.

    The bottom line is that the Supreme Court had to issue its ruling for the simple reason that there’s no law on the books. Moreover, the justices on the court intimated that absent Knesset legislation, the Court will extend its ruling to include Reform conversions if asked. If the Knesset passed a law giving conversion authority to a specific body – either the Chief Rabbinate, or the local rabbinates, or both – the Supreme Court would most likely accept the law as legislated.


    The Politics of Conversion

    In his address to the Moetzet Rabbanim, MK Zev Elkin noted an inherent contradiction in the Religious Zionist world today. On one hand, we want to limit the power of the religious establishment in Israel in order to maintain the Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel. At the same time, we’re not really happy with the current rabbinic leadership in the Chief Rabbinate, and resist its attempts to centralize its control and power.

    MK Elkin noted that the Chareidim and the Chief Rabbinate are gravely concerned, worried about the possibility of Reform conversions in Israel. So, he suggested that it’s possible to turn the challenge into an opportunity for a compromise. As passing a law would require the agreement of all religious parties in the coalition, the only law that will pass the Knesset is one that would give both the Chief Rabbinate and local Rabbinates the legal authority to perform conversions. This would leave the Ultra-Orthodox parties with a choice: Do they want the Chief Rabbinate to keep its power and in order to receive the support of the Religious Zionists agree to share that power with the local rabbinates? Or, will they dig in their heels, refuse to compromise, and everyone loses?

    All indications do not point to the possibility of a compromise. A recent law proposed by Elazar Stern that would have allowed local rabbinates to perform conversions was scuttled by Shas. Then again, with enough pressure and the proper incentives, in politics, anything is possible.