Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel WeinCourtesy

One of the current hot button topics here in Israel is pending legislation to make changes in the current process of converting non-Jews to Judaism. The bill itself underwent many compromises and changes until it was approved by the coalition cabinet for presentation to the Knesset for a deciding vote.

The bill, in its original form, was backed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, abetted by the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party, and other smaller secular, left- of-center parties in the ruling coalition. It seemingly opened a loophole to allow for non-Orthodox conversions to take place and be recognized.

That original bill has been modified numerous times and that loophole has been closed and eliminated. The thrust of the bill today is to allow municipal and neighborhood rabbis throughout the country to initiate and execute the conversion processes.

The bill, in all of its moderated and watered-down forms, is still bitterly opposed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which until now has been the sole arbiter of the conversion process. It is also being opposed and criticized by the Haredi political parties and by many rabbinic leaders here in Israel.

On the other hand, some of the rabbinic organizations such as Tzohar have praised the bill as being the first step in a necessary reorganization of the bureaucracy that controls the conversion process here in Israel. As of this writing, the fate of this bill is still unknown. The fact that it has come this far indicates that there is strong public support for such a measure. The bill still insists that all final conversion documents must be signed and approved by the Chief Rabbinate but that has in no way weakened the opposition to the passage of this legislation.

I saw a very different and insightful reason for opposing the passage of this bill in one of the Israeli newspapers last week. The journalist pointed out that synagogue and community rabbis, by the very nature of their personal involvement with the people of their area and congregation, are more prone to succumb to outside and personal influences in such sensitive matters as conversion then are the ivory tower, disconnected and scholarly rabbinical courts of the Chief Rabbinate.

I can testify from my own rabbinic experience that the synagogue rabbi is put in a very difficult position when one of his leading congregants or personal friends asks him to convert a non-Jew who is attempting to become a member of that person's family.

The very impersonal nature – the cold, bureaucratic, objective atmosphere of the current rabbinical courts of conversion, is itself, paradoxically, a good guarantee that the conversion process will be legitimate and that the convert will be accepted by all groups as a true member of the Jewish people. There is no perfect system that can deal with human affairs and achieve complete efficiency, fairness and alacrity. The conversion bill attempts to overcome human nature and societal frictions. Its goals are lofty but in our practical world they may be unattainable. And the efforts expended in attempting to reach those goals may very well be wasted, if not even counterproductive.

There is no question that there are hundreds of thousands of loyal Israelis who are of Jewish descent or identify themselves with the Jewish people but who are not halachically Jewish. There is also no question that the overwhelming majority of them are not really interested in a halachic conversion or in living a lifestyle of Torah observance.

The populist demands to somehow solve this “conversion crisis” by Knesset legislative action are largely motivated by politics and a basic misunderstanding of the concepts of halachic conversions. Handing over the power to convert non-Jews to Judaism to local and communal rabbis will, in the long run, cause more problems than it solves.

Not all rabbis are equal and neither are all rabbinic courts. The conversion courts of the Chief Rabbinate have proven themselves to be effective and acceptable throughout the Jewish world. The new bill will force the Chief Rabbis to investigate and approve every rabbi who conducts a conversion, something which they do not have to do today since they rely on the rabbinical courts that they themselves have appointed and with whom they are acquainted.

Every piece of legislation brings about unforeseen consequences. Rarely are those consequences positive and beneficial. Tinkering with the conversion process, as inefficient and impersonal as it may now be, will open a vista of new and unimaginable problems that will have to be dealt with in the future.

Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history. After many years serving as a community rabbi in Monsey, NY, he made aliya and is rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem. This article was written in 2015 during an earlier dispute about changes to the conversion authority in Israel.