In Bill, Dangerous Precedent Given To Chief Rabbinate


Who opposes Knesset member David Rotem’s proposed conversion legislation?

In Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister, who has displayed vision and political courage in rebuffing efforts to pass it in its current form this week; and Labor, Kadima and Meretz, joined by a number of Likud members. This opposition reflects something Rotem, a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, does not appreciate: a clear recognition of the importance of the Reform and Conservative movement worldwide to Israel and the Jewish people. 

In the U.S., grave concerns were expressed by many Jewish U.S. senators and representatives; Jewish business leaders who give generously to Israel; leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish communities, and leaders of the federation system, which speaks out on such issues only in extraordinary circumstances. They have called the prime minister’s office and contacted Knesset members. Tens of thousands of Jews have sent e-mails to Israeli officials. This week I flew with key leaders of these communities to Jerusalem to speak directly with Israeli leaders. 

Why this rare outcry? Because, the current form of the Rotem bill would undermine the freedoms of Jews in Israel and abroad and as Netanyahu says, “The bill could tear apart the Jewish people.” 

Two main issues evoked the outpouring of opposition. First, the most alarming provision, which poses the greatest peril to Jewish unity, is the broad grant of authority to the Chief Rabbinate for conversion. With it, the Chief Rabbinate could claim the right to set standards on all matters of conversion including civil status matters such as what conversions in Israel or in diaspora would be sufficient either to grant citizenship under Israel’s “law of return” or to be registered as a Jew in the population registry.

This makes Rotem’s claim that his bill does not affect diaspora Jewry bewildering. And it says something sad about his view of diaspora Jewry. Even if this legislation were used only to constrain the rights of Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel, he cannot divide us from our brothers and sisters in Israel. What happens to them affects diaspora Jewry.

From the founding of the State of Israel until today, there has been no such specific grant of authority to the Chief Rabbinate on conversion. This very issue was challenged in the Supreme Court of Israel in the 1993 Pesassro-Goldstein case and the 1995 Naamat case. Chief Justices Shamgar and Barak explicitly rejected the government’s claim that the Chief Rabbinate had such authority.  The absence of that grant has given the Supreme Court clear jurisdiction to hear the conversion cases brought by the Reform and Conservative movements under other rules of Israeli law including freedom of religion. In every legal case on conversion we have brought, we have prevailed. The Rotem bill seeks to overturn these cases and the whole line of legal decisions that has followed from it and constrain the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to rule in these matters.   

Secondly, the interests of prospective converts, including Russian olim, are hurt by the Rotem bill in two ways. The bill ostensibly makes it easier to convert by giving municipal rabbis, who it is hoped would be more lenient, a greater role in performing conversions. We support that. But giving ultimate control to the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate would constrain that leniency and undercut Rotem’s central goal for the bill.

In addition, the bill’s requires that the special conversion batei din (courts) must demand of the would-be convert that s/he agree to accept the yoke of the mitzvot according to halacha. While authorities throughout Jewish history have differed greatly on what this required and often had been quite lenient, conversion courts in Israel have given a very rigid interpretation. Enshrining that in law would significantly deter prospective converts.

Further, it is precisely on this stipulation that the haredi courts have been increasingly nullifying or revoking prior conversions, some decades old — something virtually unheard of in Jewish history. This has devastated the lives of those affected. Yet this fundamentalist definition of kabbalat mitzvot — now backed by Israeli law under Rotem’s proposal — puts them at permanent risk if they choose to live a different religious or a more secular life style (available to Jews by birth) than the Chief Rabbinate deems appropriate for Jews by choice.

In the end we cannot force the Orthodox to accept and legitimize Reform and Conservative Judaism. But we do expect the government of Israel, the government of the Jewish state for all Jews, to cease being the only democratic government that formally discriminates against the streams of Judaism that represent the majority of world Jewry. Passage of this legislation will escalate that discrimination, drive a wedge through the Jewish people, tarnish Israel’s image and hurt Russian olim. Time to go back to the drawing board and really help Russian Jews without selling our birthright of religious freedom. 

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.