The Amended Conversion Law: Problems and Pitfalls
The Amended Conversion Law: Problems and Pitfalls

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 here in the Jewish state. The bill itself has undergone many compromises and changes until it was approved by the coalition cabinet for presentation to the Knesset for a deciding vote.

Handing over the power to convert non-Jews to Judaism to local and communal rabbis in the long run will cause more problems than it solves.
The bill, in its original form was backed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, abetted by the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beyteinu 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 now 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 conversion processes. The bill in all of its forms, no matter how much it has been moderated and watered-down, 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 his bill is still unknown. (The amended version, where it is a government administrative decision and not a Knesset Law has since been passed, ed.) However, 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 t succumb to outside and personal influences in such sensitive matters as conversion than are the ivory tower, disconnected and scholarly rabbinical courts of the Chief Rabbinate who are currently invested with the execution of the conversion process.

I can testify from my own rabbinic experience that the synagogue rabbi is in a very difficult position when one of his leading congregants or personal friends asks him to convert a non-Jew who somehow nevertheless 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 in a paradoxical fashion 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 comes to attempt 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 effort if not even counterproductive.

There is a great debate here in Israel as to how many non-halakhic yet Jewishly identifying people live in the country. 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 nevertheless not halakhically Jewish. There is also no question that the overwhelming majority of them are not really interested in an halakhic conversion or in living a lifestyle of Torah observance.

Therefore 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 halakhic conversions. Handing over the power to convert non-Jews to Judaism to local and communal rabbis in the long run will 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 be at present, will open a vista of new and unimaginable problems that will have to be dealt with in the future.