Israeli cabinet meeting (archive)
Israeli cabinet meeting (archive)Flash 90

The government ratified in its Sunday session the compromise between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) and Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), regarding conversion into Judaism.

All of the ministers in attendance voted in favor of the decision except the Jewish Home's Uri Ariel.

The decision determines that municipal rabbis may establish conversion courts, which will receive administrative and budgetary backing from the state. A rabbinical committee whose makeup is specified in the decision will oversee the courts, which will exercise their own judgment regarding each conversion.

MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) called the decision “great news for the converts.” He promised that the implementation of the decision will be quick and that new rabbinical courts will be established that will bring a new spirit to tens of thousands of candidates for conversion, and especially those who have already given up on converting.”

"I thank my friends from Hatnua, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Meretz and Kadima,” he said, “who supported me from day one, and also my friends from the Jewish Home who understood, in the end, the great importance and the urgent need for bringing the winds of change to the conversion array.

Bennett also praised the decision, which he said “will put an end to the populism on this subject.” He called it “a balanced and responsible decision, that gives a hand to our brothers, the converts, lets them undergo the process as a positive and supportive experience, that is also done in full compliance with Halacha.”

The spokesman for Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, said that the decision “is not acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate because it deceives the convert and will do the converts an injustice.” Rabbi Yosef will convene the Council of the Chief Rabbinate to decide how to respond to the decision, he said.

The Druckman compromise

The government decision averted a Knesset vote on a more radical reform proposed by MK Stern, in favor of a compromise proposed by venerated Zionist rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Druckman. "The Conversion Law is completely negative, for three main reasons,” Rabbi Druckman said last week. “The first is that it completely takes away the authority over conversion from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, something that does not happen in the proposed government decision, which stipulates that the Chief Rabbi of Israel is the exclusive signatory for every conversion certificate.

"In addition, the government decision includes a steering committee of rabbis that oversees the Rabbinical Courts of the city rabbis, instructs and directs them – and the Head of the Conversion Array is a member [of the steering committee]. In the law, this does not exist at all. In the bill there is also a clause that grants (conversion) rights to Reform Jews – something that has no existence at all in the government decision.”

"That is why the law is terrible,” Rabbi Druckman summed up. “We were not enthusiastic about the government decision in its present form either, but it is several times better than the bad and terrible bill. We did not propose either one, but in the existing reality, in which there was a need to establish a Beit Din [rabbinical court] of city rabbis for conversion, we preferred the government decision, which cannot even be compared to the bill. The law is bad, horrible. It will not be worth the paper it is written on. No rabbi will recognize conversion according to that law, unlike the government decision.”

Tzohar Rabbis: 'a victory'

The Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, which has been a major force in the effort to reform the halakhic conversion process in Israel, described today’s passage of the Conversion Bill as “a victory for those who oppose the continued assimilation within Israeli society and the future of the Jewish People.”

Rabbi David Stav, Founder and Chairman of Tzohar, said, “The Government of Israel took responsibility this morning for our country’s future and ratified a decision which will benefit hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had been stymied for years by an outdated and unfriendly conversion process at the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. 

"Should this reform not have been accepted, we would have been witness to an irreversible path of assimilation not unlike that which exists in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora”

According to Tzohar, the transfer of authority over conversion from the into the hands of local official municipal rabbis will make the procedure far more efficient and welcoming to the convert. 

Furthermore, Rabbi Stav said, “This development will in no way impact upon the halakhic sanctity of the conversion process and will always be carried out according to the tradition which has inspired us from the time we received the Torah at Sinai. We are proud to restore the Municipal Courts of Conversion that existed in Israel until 20 years ago when they were transferred to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate."  

Rabbi Stav added that the decision "is nothing short of historic for the future of Jewish identity in Israel and in passing this law we will now be able to look into the eyes of converts and say with love and compassion, welcome to the Jewish people.”

The Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, called the reform of the conversion process "crucial to the successful absorption and integration of many immigrant Israelis."

"The measures adopted by the Government will enable many immigrants and citizens who have connected their fates and futures to the State of Israel to join the Jewish people in a more inviting manner," he said. "This is an important effort to strengthen the ties between the different parts of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world, while maintaining a framework that is agreed upon by all.

"There is no doubt that this is a welcome development to all who wish to draw in those who are distant and embrace those who have come near. The Jewish Agency will continue to work to create conditions suitable for the immigration and absorption of any individual who is eligible to make Aliyah and wishes to tie his or her fate to the State of Israel."