The Chief Rabbinate’s Unsurprising Conversion Deal

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate made two big announcements in the “conversion” world — and yes, there is just such a world — that have been garnering outrage and exasperation from many in the Modern Orthodox community.

The rabbinate announced an agreement it has reached with the Council of European Rabbis in which it will no longer send rabbinical delegations to perform conversions in Europe. Rather, communities in Europe will have to work with the existing conversion structures of recognized Batei Din. In exchange, the European rabbis agreed that they would not recognize any private conversions performed in Israel, which the Chief Rabbis don’t recognize (or like). At the same time, the Chief Rabbinate issued a list of accepted Batei Din around the world, whose conversions it would automatically recognize.

These actions have prompted outrage in Israel (I actually haven’t heard a peep about them from colleagues in the United States). According to the Jerusalem Post, “ITIM Director Rabbi Seth Farber strongly criticized the criteria, saying they were not based on Jewish law but rather had been designed to create a political monopoly over Jewish personal status issues. ‘It’s about power, institutions, and centralization, and it’s unprecedented in Jewish history,’ Farber said.” Farber sent a letter to Israel’s Attorney General demanding that he reign in the rabbinate and prevent it from overstepping its bounds by grabbing power it shouldn’t have.

In making this deal, the Rabbinate linked two seemingly unconnected issues: Private conversions here in Israel, and the list of recognized conversion courts around the world.

Recognizing Conversion Courts

A number of Sephardic communities don’t recognize conversions at ALL, in total contradiction to accepted halachic norms. At the same time, most Orthodox communities agree that there needs to be “some” standard – because most everyone in this discussion thread understands that there is a minimum halachic threshold. So you’re left with essentially an unanswerable question: which rabbis are “in” and which are not? Even if you accept Rabbi Chuck Davidson’s assertion that ANY Orthodox conversion should be immediately recognized, you’re not in any better shape, because that just leads to the next obvious question: What’s Orthodox? Who is a rabbi? Who then gets to decide? Every community has standards. Why should Israel be different?

Private Conversion in Israel

The issue of “private” conversions in Israel is a power and political issue that the rabbinate may ultimately lose. But even more liberal conversion organizations like Giyyur K’halachah want standards. They just want to be on the “included” list, like the Haredi conversion court of Rabbi Karelitz in Bnei Brak always were. Rabbi David Stav, Chairman of Tzohar, has always argued that the Rabbinate should be an oversight body, determining standards that others can carry out – like the government does in areas of health, safety, etc. In those and many other areas, the government doesn’t provide the service, but oversees it. This is also Tzohar’s position regarding Kashrut. In fact, the rabbinate not only issued a list, but also provided a mechanism for rabbis excluded from the list to apply for approval. The problem isn’t the technical existence of the list. Rather, it’s that too many don’t trust the rabbinate to serve impartially and include rabbis with whom it does not agree.

Rabbis Seth Farber and Elli Fischer have argued vehemently that the very existence of an official rabbinate leads to inherent abuses, which ultimately cause chilul hashem and push Jews away from Judaism. I appreciate that point of view. It’s important to point out that a large majority of Israelis don’t agree with that perspective. They want there to be a rabbinate, and they want it to make rules. They just want it to also reflect “their values” – and not just the values of the Haredi community.

The real problem is that in the end, while Religious Zionists care about conversions, we don’t care about it “enough” to make it a real political issue. The Bayit Hayehudi has essentially given up on religious issues, recognizing them to be a hot potato that only brings political punishment, and never reward. As a community we care – but not enough to vote on this issue like the Haredim. Our representatives, and theirs, know this.

Until this changes, Haredi interests will continue to wield the power of the Chief Rabbinate.

About the Author
Raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Michigan until his aliyah in 2008. He then served as a Judaic studies instructor and Academic Coordinator of the Elkana Campus of the Orot College of Education from 2008 until 2018. Today he is the director of OTS Amiel BaKehila, which sends delegations of educators, Israel-Engagers and Jewish artists to small and medium-sized Jewish communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter also serves as the Shorashim Coordinator for English-speaking countries for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar. A graduate of Yeshiva University with an MA in Secondary Jewish Education and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, he has taught and lectured to groups of all ages in communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter lives with his family in Yad Binyamin, Israel
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