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Why Diaspora Jewish leaders should support the conversion bill in Israel

Empowering local rabbis will actually strengthen the Chief Rabbinate, introduce transparency, and help stem a looming halachic and demographic catastrophe
(iStock)
(iStock)

Given our many years of close collaboration and friendship, I have the greatest respect for my fellow rabbinic leaders within the Diaspora Jewish community. While we have long refrained from direct intervention in internal matters involving our respective communities, the current conversion reform bill has elicited passionate opinions, including the piece recently published by various North American Jewish Orthodox leaders, since it relates to the future of world Jewry.

It is therefore critical that such positions and/or criticisms be based on the facts and the real intent and effects of these reforms.

The unfortunate reality is that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate conversion court system currently has no transparent system of standards for conversion. This is unlike the clear, public, and transparent standards in conversion courts around the world, including the GPS system (Geirus Policies and Procedures) of the Rabbinical Council of America defining criteria for conversion for some American Orthodox communities. In Israel, by contrast, the current process is that one Chief Rabbi, through the services of one clerk, offers directives to all courts that leave no flexibility for dayanim (religious judges) in each conversion court to apply appropriately in individual cases. These directives can change every five years, or at any time based on the whim of a given Chief Rabbi’s changing attitudes.

Additionally, the Chief Rabbinate currently recognizes conversions of the GPS courts as well as at least 32 other conversion courts in the United States, only some of which are formally associated with the GPS system. The Rabbinate also recognizes conversions from at least four conversion courts in London, and dozens more around the world. This open-ended approach is hardly a controlled system. To the contrary, it is a recipe for inefficiency and even for corruption that threatens the integrity of both the Chief Rabbinate and its conversions. Painfully, this is no mere speculation: a former Chief Rabbi was convicted for accepting bribes to perform conversions. The damage such corruption inflicts upon the Chief Rabbinate and the Torah it represents in the eyes of the Israeli and diaspora public is incalculable.

Contrary to some suggestions, Religious Zionist leadership does not seek to harm the Chief Rabbinate. While there are those among us, myself included, who have past and ongoing differences of opinion with the Chief Rabbinate, our goal has always been to make it more transparent, guided by halacha and the interests of the Jewish people. Instead of weakening the Rabbinate, this legislation will strengthen it by addressing the following specific flaws of the current conversion system:

  • Within days of their conversions, 90% of converts of the Chief Rabbinate courts cease being observant despite their (unfortunately fictitious) declarations to the contrary at the time of conversion. What do such converts actually take away from their Torah studies? That God, His Torah, and His rabbis reward them for lying – Heaven forbid!
  • The number of converts through the Rabbinate decreases each year.
  • The absence of competition and transparency – in both conversion and kashrut- have contributed to a system where corruption and fraud, as noted above, prevail.
  • While we are confident that the new proposal will improve the efficiency and integrity of the process, it is not possible to accurately predict the rate of potential converts under the new proposal. It is therefore disingenuous to reject this plan based upon such unfounded predictions and resulting fears.

Along with many of my colleagues, I stress that it is precisely our respect and concern for the Chief Rabbinate that we support the more active involvement of local, municipal rabbis in this process. These are not “renegade” rabbis but God-fearing communal and halachic leaders whose ordination and position originate with the Chief Rabbinate. They have been tested at least at the same level as the Chief Rabbis and will continue to work for them and on their behalf, strengthening them by fixing these and other flaws.

By challenging, and with God’s help significantly reforming, the current system, the Chief Rabbinate will become far more amenable to the significant change that this process so desperately needs. Contrary to common misconceptions, this new system will ensure that any conversions performed by city rabbis will be under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and formally recognized by the state of Israel.

Indeed, when we decentralized the process of halachic marriage a few years ago, it was openly feared that this would threaten the integrity of Jewish marriage. Few, if any, critics stand by that criticism today. Most quickly came to realize that our actions strengthened the Rabbinate’s overall role in marriage. It introduced a more compassionate and user-friendly alternative that has enabled tens of thousands of couples to marry according to law and halacha. Simply put, these measures saved countless Jews from being lost to intermarriage. I am humbly confident that these conversion reforms will similarly greatly reduce assimilation.

Some argue that these reforms will force open the Sifrei Yuchsin (genealogy ledgers), leading to painful divisions of Jew against Jew. I reject this criticism, since the proposed legislation changes nothing in this regard.

The current conversions of the Chief Rabbinate are generally rejected throughout the Orthodox world, including by all Haredi and Hasidic communities, the Beit Din of America, and the London Beit Din of the United Synagogue. Instead, these courts check each individual case that comes their way. By virtue of a decision by the Chief Rabbinate’s council, even the Chief Rabbinate’s own registrars are not obligated to accept its own conversions!

This will continue under the proposed legislation. If a community Rav or Beit Din accepts the standards of a future specific court, the conversion will be accepted but if not, it won’t be. Nonetheless, we are confident that when courts understand the standards of city rabbis, they will be more likely to recognize their conversions.

My colleagues and friends across the rabbinic diaspora: we all must acknowledge the clear and present challenge in Israel today that, if not rectified, will represent a potentially catastrophic halachic and demographic crisis. Over time, it may even weaken the Jewish identity of Israel’s citizens and their willingness to support and fight for the defense of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people want to be recognized as halachic Jews. We must invest every possible effort to welcome as many of them as possible, as always guided by halacha and our desire to create a more united Jewish future for ourselves and our children.

As always, our people thrive on differing opinions and perspectives. Indeed, respectful dialogue is central to the development of our tradition and our national identity. Given the high stakes in the present dispute, we can and must work together to create solutions to overcome this challenge. I look forward to our continued partnership on behalf of the entire Jewish people, here in Israel and around the world.

About the Author
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of the City of Shoham, Founder & Chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.
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