Recently, the Israel Democracy Institute published its annual report, “The Israeli Democracy Index, 2014”, which revealed a number of troubling statistics in the range of issues explored. Among other disturbing revelations, according to a survey published in the report, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel suffers from a low level of confidence and trust from the public, with 58% of Jews surveyed expressing little or no confidence in the institution. While sources in the Rabbinate have claimed that their reputation suffers primarily as a result of corruption tied to individuals no longer in the Rabbinate, a look into the Rabbinate’s conversion system, as one example of many, reveals more deeply rooted issues.
Less than a month ago, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion courts were authorized to revoke the conversion of a woman on the basis of insufficient religious observance by the woman following her conversion. There is no doubt that according to the laws of the State of Israel, the Rabbinate’s conversion courts are authorized to deliver such a ruling. But according to Jewish religious law (Halakha), a legal system to which the Chief Rabbinate is ostensibly bound, there is no authority in existence that is empowered to revoke a conversion based on levels of observance post-conversion.
From the Middle Ages until our present day, nearly all Halakhic authorities have agreed that even in the most extreme cases of non-observance, in which converts revert to their prior religion immediately following immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh) at the final stage of the conversion process, the converts nevertheless remain Jewish from the perspective of Jewish law, even if they deceived the conversion court about their intent to be observant. According to Jewish law, the only grounds to revoke a conversion are to disqualify the Halakhic fitness of the mikveh in which the convert immersed, to find a serious Halakhic flaw in the circumcision of a male convert, or to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the convert had no intent to join the Jewish people at all. Non-observance, in and of itself, does not constitute sufficient evidence, especially in a society where the majority of its members are not observant.
It should be noted that if, indeed, the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion courts are authorized to revoke conversions on the basis of non-observance, then the vast majority of its conversions can in fact be revoked for the following reasons.
According to research published in mid-2014, large portions of Israel’s citizens officially defined as having no religion, who immigrated to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return, are interested in being part of the Jewish people and religion. But the vast majority wish to express their Jewishness in the way that most Israeli Jews do, i.e., through the observance of Jewish traditions at one level or another as expressed by family meals on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, re-telling of the Exodus from Egypt on the first night of Passover, the affixing of a mezuzah on their homes, etc. In practice, the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion courts have adopted Halakhic approaches which allow for converting citizens under these terms. The problem is that they have adopted such approaches not openly and transparently but through mutual winking and deceit.
In fact, the game of deceit begins with the preparation course converts must attend for a full year before the conversion, a course which requires the study of Halakha at a level of detail that the majority have no intent of observing, rather than focusing on the basics that the vast majority do, in fact, plan to observe. Moreover, the conversion courts test converts in these details of Halakha and demand from them a formal statement which, for most of them, is an outright lie – “I accept upon myself to keep and observe all of the laws of the Torah, all of the Rabbinic laws, and all of the religious traditions of the Jewish people.” Yet it is known to all, both the converts and the judges presiding in these courts, that the large majority of converts do not intend to be religiously observant, but to lead a traditional Jewish life similar to the average Israeli Jew. As such, the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion program has created a situation which actually encourages deceit with the approval of the conversion courts themselves.
As a first step, among others, toward rehabilitating the reputation of the Chief Rabbinate, it is incumbent upon the Rabbinate’s conversion courts to adopt openly and transparently the Halakhic approach which allows for the conversion of those who will be traditional, though not necessarily religiously observant, and to cease the deceitful games which the courts themselves have created. Further, the courts must desist from revoking conversions on the basis of non-observance, a ruling which contradicts Halakhic tradition, and most certainly from basing such rulings on deceit which they themselves encourage.
In general, the Chief Rabbinate must conduct a thorough housecleaning in any number of additional areas, but that is the subject of a separate article.