New Battle Looms Whether or Not Conversion by Reform Rabbis Can Be Recognized in Israel

A new battle loomed in the government today over the perennial Issue of state support for the religious establishment. Minister of Justice Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro, of the Labor Party, made it clear to his National Religious Party colleague, Interior Minister Moshe Shapiro, that the government would not defend in court the NRP’s insistence that conversions by Reform rabbis cannot be recognized in Israel. The NRP called an urgent caucus of its Knesset faction today and the party’s executive committee is expected to meet later to decide what steps to take. As always happens in these controversies there was pressure for the NRP to quit the government if the issue is not settled to its satisfaction. Zevulun Hammer, an NRP Knesset member, returned from a visit to New York today with word that Rabbi Menahem Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe is opposed to the recognition of Reform conversions in Israel. According to Mr. Hammer, he thinks the NRP should leave the government unless Israeli law is amended to provide for conversions only according to halacha–Jewish religious law. In effect that would invalidate conversions performed by other than Orthodox rabbis.

The issue came to a head when Mrs. Helen Zeidmann, who was converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi, demanded that her conversion be recognized by the state though there is no official reform rabbinate here and the Orthodox establishment recognizes only Orthodox rabbis. The NRP demanded that the State Attorney General testify in court against Mrs. Zeidmann. It was the Justice Minister’s rejection of their demand that brought about the present contretemps. An amendment to Israel’s Law of Return, passed under heavy Orthodox pressure last year, officially recognized as Jewish only persons born of a Jewish mother or converted. But the amendment did not spell out that conversion must be in accordance with halacha and Orthodox protests at the time were of no avail. The Zeidmann case may bring the issue to a test. But there were hints in political circles that a compromise might be reached if the Labor Party and the NRP agree that a court decision in Mrs. Zeidmann’s favor would not be regarded as a precedent for other conversions performed by Reform rabbis.

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