Jonathan Muskat

Matan Kahana’s Conversion Reforms: Good for Israel or Bad for Israel?

Last week, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav David Lau, wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he will not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance the reforms advocated by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in the area of conversion.  It was reported that Rav Lau already instructed that conversion processes be stopped.  He warned that “Implementing the proposed conversion outline will result in a split of the Jewish people:  two states for two peoples, divided Judaism instead of united Judaism.”  He argued that this divide will be irreparable and will cause future uncertainty regarding who can marry whom when Jewish status is in doubt.  In response, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party, sent Rav Lau a letter telling him that he must sign off on conversions and he called for Rav Lau’s immediate suspension.

I think that our initial reaction when we read about this power play is that it’s all about politics.  Our initial inclination is that this is another battle between the charedi-appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel and the religious zionist Matan Kahana who wants to return the state to its zionist roots by providing greater power to religious zionist rabbis and sephardic rabbis in defining who is a Jew in the area of conversion.

After conducting some research in this area and speaking to rabbis who both support and oppose Matan Kahana’s reforms, it is clear to me that the issue is much more complex than simply a power struggle between charedim and religious zionist and sephardic leadership and I believe that there is division even amongst the religious zionist leadership because the issues involved are both hashkafic and halachic in nature and I hope to clarify, to the best of my understanding, what those issues are.

Currently, only special conversion courts, which are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi, can perform conversions, and Matan Kahana’s proposed legislation would allow for conversions supervised by city rabbis, who are part of the Rabbanut, and according to some versions of the proposed legislation, roshei yeshiva of Yeshivot Hesder.

Now there is a theory that we have close to 500,000 Israelis, most from the former Soviet Union, who are officially categorized as “religionless,” and if we don’t find a way to convert them or their children then we are going to have a major intermarriage problem in Israel and the way to solve this problem is through more accessible conversions.  According to this theory, since the Chief Rabbinate is unwilling to create a solution to this problem, they don’t care enough about the Jewish state and the Jewish people so we must not bury our heads in the sand and we need to find solutions outside the Chief Rabbinate to convert the non-Jewish Israelis to solve the intermarriage problem.  The reason why this theory is not correct is that while more accessable conversion courts may increase the number of Israelis who are able to convert, it will not “solve” the demographic challenge.  The vast majority of non-Jews in Israel are uninterested in conversion.  No matter how user friendly we make conversion, we will not succeed in convincing hundreds of thousands of completely secular Israelis to convert.

The current debate revolves around the conversion of traditional Jews, mostly sephardim who may not be fully halachically committed to keep the entirety of the Torah yet, but they are very favorably inclined towards halacha, judaism and am Yisrael. In addition, these conversion courts would convert the non-Jewish children of these families, in accordance with the halachic position which does not require the parents of minors who convert to be fully observant.

There is a conversion court called Giyur Ka’halacha which was started a number of years ago out of frustration that the current conversion system, due to halakhic and bureaucratic pressures, is not converting enough children or adults.  Therefore, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, zt”l, a first-tier posek and former rosh yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Maaleh Adumim, who recently passed away, together with Rav Re’em HaKohen, Rav David Stav, Rac Ariel Holland, Rav Haym Amsalem, Rav Yehuda Gilad and other prominent rabbis, started Giyur Ka’halacha, a new conversion court system which operates outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.  Their conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate is in charge of Jewish weddings and you cannot get married civilly in Israel.  If someone from the former Soviet Union, with a Jewish father, comes to Israel and obtains automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, he or she is not halachically Jewish.  If this individual then wants to convert under Giyur Ka’halacha, he or she may participate in conversion classes and, when deemed prepared, the prospective convert will be brought to the beit din. If he or she wishes to be married, since the Rabbanut does not recognize the conversion and will not register his or her marriage, the prospective convert will need to first be married civilly abroad, such as in Cypress, in which case the State of Israel will recognize the marriage.  Afterwards, once the prospective convert and his or her partner are registered as married and sign various pre-nuptial agreements, Giyur Ka’halacha will officiate at their wedding, on the day of the conversion, or shortly afterwards.

Even though we don’t have all the details of Matan Kahana’s proposal, the proposal empowers an orthodox city rabbi to appoint conversion courts which will operate under his supervision. The conversion certificates from these batei din, and those from the Rabbanut’s “special conversion courts,” will be identical, and the converts will be able to register for marriage through their local religious council. Just to be clear, this is not a proposal to allow for conversion from conservative or reform rabbis in Israel.  This is a proposal to allow for orthodox rabbis who are outside the Chief Rabbinate conversion system but are government-appointed rabbis of cities (and maybe roshei yeshiva of Hesder Yeshivot) in Israel to determine conversion policies, and their conversions will be certified by the State of Israel.

Some argue that these reforms will de-centralize rabbinic authority in Israel and doing so is bad for the Jewish character of the country.  They argue that weakening the authority of the Chief Rabbinate in the area of conversion is the first step leading to a complete separation of church and state in Israel, which will certainly diminish the religious character of the Jewish state.  The advantage of centralized rabbinic authority is a sense of unity and clarity.  The disadvantage of centralized rabbinic authority is the danger of a lack of accountability.  As an example, I am in favor of the centralized beit din system for conversion that exists in the United States with the Beth Din of America.  Approximately fifteen years ago, the Beth Din of America, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, changed its procedures regarding conversions. A prospective convert must accept upon himself or herself to observe mitzvot. Instead of letting each rabbi decide on his own who meets that standard, regional courts were created with batei din to convert people.  Before these courts were created, a rabbi could have been pressured by his shul president to convert the non-Jewish girl that the shul president’s son was dating, even if the rabbi didn’t believe that she would become halachically observant.  To remove that pressure, regional conversion courts were created so that the rabbi could simply send the prospective convert to the regional conversion court.  If there are consistent and reasonable standards that are equitably applied and there are checks and balances to ensure that this is the case, then there is a tremendous value to have the unity and clarity that is created with a centralized system.  The Beth Din of America is far from perfect, but I believe that it constantly strives to be a transparent system always working hard to ensure that its standards are for the most part uniformly and equitably applied.  If there is accountability then I believe that there’s value to having one standard for conversion so that there is clarity that when you convert through the Beth Din of America, you have the comfort to know that your conversion will be accepted by the mainstream orthodox Jewish community.

However, in Israel, it is asserted that there is insufficient oversight in the conversion process, the system is not user friendly and standards of conversion are not evenly applied.   I was told, for example, that if a young woman wants to convert, some rabbis on the Chief Rabbinate-sponsored conversion court may check to see whether the woman has a boyfriend and at times automatically disqualify the young woman from conversion.  Even in America, having a Jewish boyfriend is not an automatic cause of disqualification by the Beth Din of America.  Rather, in this case, the Beth Din may encourage and eventually require both the non-Jewish woman and the non-observant Jewish boyfriend to become observant.  The argument for de-centralizing rabbinic authority is that currently there is no accountability with regard to the conversion court’s user-friendliness and uniformity of standards and there is a perceived lack of desire to change this reality.  As such, creating competition, or other capable conversion courts that will be more user-friendly, will force the existing Rabbanut conversion courts to improve their procedures so that prospective converts come to them for conversion.

I am sympathetic to those who want to take bold action by creating competition because they are frustrated by the lack of progress of the Chief Rabbinate in the area of conversion, and reforming the conversion court might be the wake-up call that the Rabbanut needs to create and implement processes and procedures to ensure fair and consistent standards and accountability.  However, for me the question of whether to support the Chief Rabbinate or Matan Kahane’s reforms boils down to whether we believe that the conversions by city rabbis who could certify batei din like Giyur Ka’halacha are acceptable and whether they will be acceptable at least “b’dieved,” after the fact, by some consensus within the Israeli rabbinate.

The Giyur Ka’halacha Beit Din has a more relaxed standard of conversion.  In general, those rabbis who serve on these batei din will convert a child as long as the parents are traditional, i.e., if they keep kosher, recite Kiddush on Shabbat, light candles on Chanukah, and don’t chametz on Pesach, etc.  Many sephardi families are traditional and fit in this category.  In a responsum, Rav Rabinovitch said that one could convert children in Israel even if you know that they won’t be fully observant in order to prevent intermarriage based on his understanding of the Gemara in Ketuvot.  Nevertheless, Giyur Ka’Halacha rabbis will only convert a child if there is some level of observance by the family.  When it comes to adults, Giyur Ka’halacha rabbis require the adults to reach a level of shemirat hamitzvot deemed as sufficient by them.

Rav Eliezer Melamed, a prominent religious zionist rabbi in Israel and author of the Peninei Halacha books, recently came out in support of Matan Kahane’s reforms.  He cited the Gemara in Masechet Bechorot that if a prospective convert says that he is unwilling to observe a particular mitzvah, we do not convert him.  That is why reform or conservative conversions are invalid, namely because their ideology is that one need not observe all the mitzvot.  However, he writes that the halachic authorities are divided as to whether you can accept someone as a convert if he or she intends to be a traditional but not fully observant Jew.  The rationale to accept a prospective convert who is not fully observant is that, first, there is a likelihood that in the future he or she will become fully observant and second, the mitzvot that he or she observes right now demonstrate his or her true desire to join the Jewish nation, which is ultimately what is needed to become a convert.  He also writes that even according to the stricter view, if a bona fide beit din decided to observe the more lenient standard and accept someone as a convert who only committed to be traditional but not fully observant, then the conversion is valid bdieved, after the fact, even according to the stricter view of conversion.

That, in my view, should be the primary question in determining whether to support these reforms.  In America, for example, the Beth Din of America requires that the prospective convert will likely keep kosher and fully observe Shabbat and they require the prospective convert to live in an orthodox Jewish community because realistically if you don’t live in an orthodox community in America, then the chances of you remaining fully kosher and fully Shabbat observant is very low.  If we want to convert a child, then generally the parents need to be fully observant and the child must go to a Yeshiva day school.  There are some exceptions but that is generally the requirement for conversion based on the belief that if these elements exist, the child will more likely than not be Shabbat and kashrut observant when he or she becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, as the case may be.

Indeed, some halachic authorities in America would hold that some conversions done by Giyur Ka’halacha would be invalid even b’dieved (after the fact), based on their understanding of their study of the topic.  Perhaps in Israel, in the State of the Jewish people, there may be greater openness for a more lenient standard than outside Israel.  But I think this is the real question.  If I believe that at least b’dieved the conversion of these individuals is valid, then I support Matan Kahana’s reform because I want to make the conversion system in Israel more user-friendly, and I want to provide an option for Israelis who love the Jewish holidays, who light Shabbat candles and make Kiddush on Friday night, who serve in the Israeli army and clearly identify with Judaism but may not be fully observant to become halachic Jews with the hopes that they will continue to grow in their Judaism.  But if I believe that most mainstream rabbis understand based on their study of the topic that these conversions are not even valid bdieved, then making these reforms may not be wise because it creates greater confusion.

In sum, I believe that the current conflict between Matan Kahana and Rav Lau reflects a major hashkafic debate relating to the value of a centralized Rabbinate in the State of Israel and a major halachic debate as to whether conversions with a lower threshold of acceptance of mitzvot is legitimate even after the fact.  We can view this debate as a cynical power struggle between two religious groups or hopefully, as I have demonstrated, we can view this debate as a battle of ideas as to what is best for the Jewish people in Israel both halachically and hashkafically.







About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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