Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Dahan
Rabbi Eliyahu Ben DahanDavid Hochberg, B'Sheva

There is a deep-seated controversy currently raging in Israel over the status of the Conversion Authority, over who should supervise conversion to Judaism, sit on the Rabbinic conversion courts and have the initial and final say on the criteria under which a convert can be accepted as a Jew.

Israel's Chief Rabbinate and its Rabbinic Judges (Dayanim) have always had sole authority over conversions to Judaism, but MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) has drafted a bill that would take away that authority and give it to local rabbis, who may not be certified Dayanim. The bill, hotly debated in Israel, has passed its first reading. It is hailed by some but considered an irremediable disaster for Israel by many, including the Jewish Home party.

This is not a theoretical dispute between Torah scholars. The State of Israel absorbed close to 1 million Russian immigrants starting in the 1990's when Mikhail Gorbachev opened the gates and allowed emigration after years of demonstrations and other attempts by world Jewry, especially American Jewry, to force the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – by then a thing of the past - to "let my people go".

About 30% of the immigrants were not halakhically Jewish. According to halakha, to be a Jew from birth it is mandatory that one's mother be Jewish, whereas at least 300,000 of the Russian immigrants descended from non-Jewish mothers, but were eligible to enter the country as Israel's Law of Return grants entry and citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandfather or has some form of Jewish descent.

MK Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs, is spearheading the Jewish Home party's counter suggestion to the Stern bill, and hoping to make conversion to Judaism more attractive to non-Jewish immigrants. Rabbi Ben-Dahan was formerly CEO of the Rabbinic Court System, responsible for marriage and divorce issues in Israel. A close student of the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, he is known for getting things done while maintaining an affable and pleasant mien, and was famed for sending investigative teams all over the world to find recalcitrant husbands who had disappeared, in order to see that they grant their wives a Jewish divorce. Many other innovations that fall within the halakhic framework are his doing, such as having religious child psychologists testify on custody issues in rabbinic courts.

MK Rabbi ben Dahan agreed to Arutz Sheva's request for an interview that might shed light on the complex conversion issue – especially to Jews outside of Israel..

What happened to the Russian immigrants who were not halakhically Jewish?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: The rabbinic courts expected to convert a large portion of the Russian immigrants, especially those with Jewish fathers. However, this failed to materialize to any significant degree, with only a small number of the new immigrants applying to convert - a process involving study, appearance before a Conversion Court and proving to its satisfaction that the prospective convert knows about Judaism's beliefs and practices, believes in the Almighty and is serious about the obligations of being a Jew.

Why is the problem suddenly in the news?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: The Russian immigrants were successfully absorbed and became an integral part of Israeli society, in school, university, army, careers and neighborhoods, causing those who were Jewish to be indistinguishable for the most part from those who were not. As the years went by, a native Hebrew-speaking second generation that feels totally Israeli raised the specter of intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews on a large scale in the Jewish state – where before there had never been more than a miniscule opportunity to "marry out". 

Israelis never thought much about intermarriage, because even the totally secular were surrounded by Jews. Now, Israeli youth might not even be aware that the person they are dating is not Jewish and this caused even secular parents, who for the most part want their children and grandchildren to be accepted as halakhic Jews who are eligible to marry any other Jew, to begin to worry.

Why can't they just marry anyway?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: From a practical point of view, there is no civil marriage in Israel. Each religion can carry out its own ceremonies, with the Rabbinate performing Jewish marriages, so these non-Jews cannot marry Jews in Israel.

From the point of view of the Jewish people's continuity, the idea of marrying out of the faith poses a contradiction to the very ideology that established the Jewish state. And in the worst case scenario it would lead to a situation where there are lists of who can marry whom – because Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who want their children to marry only halakhically recognized Jews.

Why only halakhically recognized conversions?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel are not recognized, because – and it's not a power issue, but a real problem – these movements posit, for example, that halakha is not G-d given and can be changed at will, differ from traditional Judaism on basic principles of faith, allow for mixed marriages... This could never be accepted by religious Jewry. The only conversions recognized by the entire Jewish world are Orthodox conversions and its converts are welcomed with love (as mandated by the Torah) in the entire Jewish world.

Israeli conversions under the Chief Rabbinate are not questioned anywhere, but conversion through Reform and Conservative channels is actually pulling the wool over the eyes of a convert who does not realize that he will not be considered a real convert in many Jewish circles. 

Why are so few Russians converting?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: One theory is that religion doesn't interest them after generations under Communist rule; another is that most of their Israeli neighbors are not any more religious than they are and are Jewish so they don't see the difference. There is, however, a difference; to be born into a faith is not the same as joining it, as any religion will avow. There is always a procedure involving acceptance of tradition, even though many of those born into that faith may ignore its tenets. 

The popular theory is that the Chief Rabbinate Courts (Batei Din) are too strict and not welcoming enough.

Another factor suggested is that the prospective converts are uncomfortable with and feel estranged from a Conversion Court with judges whom they do not know and have never seen before - which may indeed be the case.

 It is also possible that not enough publicity has been given to the positive aspects of Jewish life.

What are the most acute needs today?

Rabbi ben Dahan: I see two grave problems that affect Israel's futureone being addressed and the other in need of immediate attention: 

1. The Army: The IDF has met the challenge of non-Jewish Israeli soldiers (not Druze or Bedouin who have their own faiths) and has a program, Nativ, recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, which succeeds in converting about a thousand soldiers per year.

2. The schools: There are close to another thousand non-Jewish children in elementary religious schools and about fifty thousand in non-religious schools. This problem will have to be addressed non-coercively (the Jewish religion does not recognize coerced conversion anyway) by the Chief Rabbinate, the Ministry of Religions and the Education Ministry in the near future, before these youngsters reach army and dating age. Insofar as intermarriage is concerned, this is a ticking time bomb. 

What should be done about the claim that the courts are not "user-friendly"?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) believes that this is the case and blames the Chief Rabbinate for the situation, and that is why he drafted a bill removing the authority for conversions from the Chief Rabbinate and giving it to local rabbis without central supervision.

I have checked that claim and can say with assurance that it is unfounded, as the courts under the previous head of the authority, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, were perfectly friendly, but still attracted a small number of applicants.  

Why not accept MK Stern's bill?

Rabbi Ben Dahan: Stern's bill, as has already been declared by European Jewish authorities, would end automatic acceptance of conversions performed in Israel and of course, it led to antagonism between the Chief Rabbinate and MK Stern. 

MK Stern's demand to remove the entire process from the Chief Rabbinate's hands is opposed by the Jewish Home Party, also because as religious Zionists, we see the Chief Rabbinate as the supreme religious authority in Israel, most certainly on halakhic decisions affecting the entire country or Jewish world. 

The Ministry of Religious Affairs, headed by Minister MK Naftali Bennett who is leader of the Jewish Home party, believes strongly that it is a grave error to endanger world acceptance of Israeli conversions. This is, after all, the only Jewish state.

What does your party suggest?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: The Jewish Home party suggests opening another path leading to recognized conversion, thereby seeing if adding courts manned by local rabbis who can get to know the prospective converts during the learning process might encourage more of them – such as the mothers of the above-mentioned schoolchildren – to enroll in conversion institutes.

It suggests effecting the change through a cabinet decision (which is rescindable), rather than a law, which is not. It would allow rabbis of cities and small towns (moshavim) to form conversion courts under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate which still, by already-existing law, must certify all conversions.

At the Chief Rabbinate's side, there would be a Supervisory Committee of well-known and venerable rabbis - among them Rabbi Tzfania Drori of Kiryat Shmona Hesder Yeshiva and Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitz head of Maale Adumim Hesder Yeshiva - with the responsibility to supervise the courts, formulate guidelines for conversion and to decide which rabbis, with what qualifications, could serve on these courts. The rabbis sitting in conversion courts would have to have a higher level of qualifications than that necessary to be a rabbi of a village or kibbutz. The standards for serving on a court and for conversion would be immutable and any conflicts would be brought to the committee.

How has this suggestion been received?

Rabbi Ben-Dahan: At present, the suggestion has been praised by some for not abrogating the Chief Rabbinate's authority, but others have strongly criticized it. Some 350 religious Zionist rabbis, who vehemently oppose MK Stern's suggestion, have signed ads opposing the suggestion of the Jewish Home party as well.

They are afraid it will erode the authority of the Chief Rabbis and lead to further erosions, but if one realizes that the Chief Rabbinate must okay every conversion, there is no basis for that fear.

Another problem they pose is the pressure to convert on rabbis who know the applicants personally, but since the decision to accept a convert has to be unanimous, that does not seem likely. After all, not all of the three rabbis that make up the court will know the convert.

The biggest stumbling block, they insist, is who has the authority to decide which rabbis can serve on the local conversion courts. The Chief Rabbinate wishes to retain sole authority to select these rabbis, but since it decides who is qualified to be rabbi of a city anyway, and trusts their decisions on kashrut and a host of other topics, these rabbis are not a problem. The criteria for accepting other rabbis, once it is formulated by the above-mentioned committee, could be certified by the Chief Rabbinate, then allowing the committee to decide on each candidate.

We have to sit down and hammer out the details. We have spoken to the Chief Rabbis many times and suggested various changes in our suggestion so that they can support it, emphasizing the need to do something about the tens of thousands of non-Jewish youngsters in the school system and what it will mean for Israeli society if the present situation continues.

Why not leave things as they are?

Rabbi ben Dahan:  MK Stern is backed by his party (Tzipi Livni's Hatnua), Yair Lapid and Yvette (Avgidor) Liberman, so that he could pass his law and irrevocably damage the Chief Rabbinate and the standing of Israeli conversions. The rabbis who are against the Jewish Home party's suggestion may not realize that these are the choices. 

However, MK Stern agreed to support our suggestion for a cabinet decision, and that makes us able to ensure the preservation of the respect and recognition Israeli conversions have worldwide and effect change at the same time.

"And as far as allowing local rabbis to convert, we simply have to try" ends Rabbi Ben Dahan. "We can't ignore any possibility that allows maintaining halakhic conversion standards but lets us reach out to more prospective converts."