Joint Beit Din Suggested As Way to Solve Controversy over Conversions

A proposal that Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis in the United States set up a joint beit din, a religious court, to solve the controversy over conversions has been suggested to four American Conservative and Reform rabbis visiting Israel. The four are seeking to prevent the Knesset from changing the Israeli Law of Return to nullify conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who lives in Jerusalem, told a press conference here today that Premier Menachem Begin was among those who suggested the beit din.

But a spokesman for the Premier refused to confirm this, saying only that a number of ideas were discussed. The spokesman, however, confirmed that Begin urged the various religious bodies involved to reach an agreement over the question. The Premier has promised Likud’s two religious coalition partners, the National Religious Party and the Agudat Israel bloc, to amend the Law of Return to require conversions only according to halacha.

TO PROVIDE A ‘JEWISH VISA’

The purpose of the beit din would be to offer “an internationally recognized Jewish visa to those who were not born Jews,” according to Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice-president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, a member of the American delegation. He said the non-Orthodox rabbis welcomed the idea on the “stipulation that no rabbi would be excluded as long as he accepts the principles of the agreement reached between the parties concerned.”

However, leaders of Agudat Israel have already voiced their opposition to creation of such a beit din, threatening to leave the government coalition if the idea were to materialize.

Asked whether the idea would be discussed with Orthodox leaders in the United States, Kelman said, “I will talk to whoever talks to me.” He said that past experience has shown that American Orthodox leaders were willing to cooperate with non-Orthodox Jews. As an example, he noted the existence of a halachic committee which for 20 years has supplied military chaplains from the three branches of Judaism with verdicts acceptable to all.

Kelman, Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Ely Pilchick, president of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Rabbi Joseph Glaser, CCAR executive vice-president, met with Begin at the end of a visit here initiated by Begin. The Premier invited the four rabbis to Israel after they, as part of a delegation, met with him in New York last month to express opposition to amending the Law of Return.

REAL ISSUE CITED

There was apparently no substantive outcome of the meeting with Begin, except for the understanding that efforts should be made to reach an agreement. Although Begin indicated that the amendment won’t be introduced into the Knesset before the end of the year, he gave no hint that he would drop the measure from the Knesset agenda.

The non-Orthodox rabbis contend that the major issue is not halacha, but the right to interpret halacha. “The real question is not who is a convert and Who is a Jew, but who is the converting rabbi,” Rabinowitz charged. “Even those non-Orthodox rabbis who convert according to halacha are not permitted to convert, if the amendment is passed.”

The four American rabbis, in a statement, declared: “The Orthodox rabbinate is not so much interested in preserving the halacha, as in preserving their control over the halacha. They have consistently exploited the State as an instrument to achieve through political power what they could not achieve through education and moral suasion.” Hirsch stressed that no matter what measures are taken American Jews will not turn against Israel. But at the same time he said there are American Jews who will not remain silent if the Law of Return is amended.

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