Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Disgraceful National Conversion Law

By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute

“And Moshe said to Chovav (his father-in-law Yitro, who converted to Judaism)... go with us and we will do good for you... And it will be, that whatever good G-d does for us we will do for you.” [Bamidbar 10:29,32].

A Scandalous Proposal by the Minister of Justice

Recently a draft of a new “Official Law of Conversion in Israel” has been circulated. This proposal explicitly rejects some converts to Judaism. As we explain below, the law is meant to bypass the Supreme Court, but all it manages to accomplish is to spill out the baby (or the “newly-born” convert) with the political bathwater. As if to say, “Neither you nor I will have him!” [Melachim I 3:26] – as in King Shlomo’s famous judgement about the dispute between two mothers.

It is quite upsetting to me to see that the proposal is being presented by the government committee on new laws, headed by the Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, behaving in a way that does not suit her. Perhaps she looked for legal advice but she evidently did not turn to experts in conversion from the religious Zionist camp. (I, for one, was not consulted, in spite of the fact that I turned to the office of the Minister to volunteer my services, but I received no reply.)

Let me elaborate: the proposed law grants a hermetically sealed monopoly to the special conversion courts that are connected with the Chief Rabbinate. (Note that I have a soft spot in my heart for these courts, since in 1995 I established them and then headed them for five years. And then I continued to serve as a conversion court judge.) These “seemingly official” courts made an internal ruling not to perform conversions of non-Israeli citizens. Thus, an Israeli man who has found a non-Jewish mate (and this happens among the religious Zionist and even the Chareidi sectors), can only bring her to be converted in private Orthodox conversion courts, which are often more stringent than the courts of the Chief Rabbinate. At this point we should mention the outstanding court in Bnei Berak, run by Rabbi Karlitz – the only rabbi in the Chareidi sector who treats this matter as an important mitzva, based on today’s reality.

Ruth from Moav, Ivanka from America, Count Pototsky from Poland, and Onkeles from Rome - would not be able to convert in Israel today, because of the sharp “sword” of this new proposal. The only way that they would come under the rules of the Law of Return would be for them to convert in Paris or in Rome, in Melbourne or Houston. Isn’t it more reasonable to expect the Israeli Jew to follow his loved one to her religion or her nonreligious lifestyle? How will thegrandparentsand other Jewish members of his family feel about such a turn of events? (To my sorrow, I am aware of hundreds of cases where this has happened. “The law must be upheld.”)

Last year, in March 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court made a positive move and ruled that conversion in an Orthodox community recognized in Israel will grant the same privileges as conversion in an Orthodox court in Moscow, Amsterdam, or Johannesburg. But now this new proposal is meant to restrict the hand of the Supreme Court, to prevent it from interfering in the Divine territory of the Ministry of the Interior. Does our Justice Minister realize the consequences of her proposed decree? As I noted above, this does not seem like behavior we would expect of her...

In the Shadow of a Reform Nightmare

Well, I can reveal the secret behind these maneuvers. We have developed an obsessive fear of Reform Judaism! Perhaps they will take it on themselves to establish stalls on every street corner, and the Supreme Court will sign approvals with their eyes closed! (Don’t forget, however, that all types of conversion have been accepted for years for the purpose of the Law of Return, and there are all sorts of conversion combinations that are legally accepted in our country.) I must also admit that religious Zionism harbors an even harsher fear – that Modern Orthodox courts will be established which will compete with other courts in price and in a lenient approach.

However, as I noted above, I have serious doubts whether our Minister of Justice is aware of all of these nuances as she promotes her proposal which rejects true converts and ignores any effect this might have on hundreds of potential mates.

What Should be Done?

Today I do not come only to criticize. I can suggest the ultimate solution to counteract the fear of the Reform and the Liberal conversions. I propose that every convert in an “unofficial Orthodox” court (including the Chareidi courts and of course our own conversion court in Gush Etzion) will appear within a month of completing their conversion before a conversion court of the Chief Rabbinate (if he or she so desires). That is, private Orthodox conversion will be formally recognized in Israel only after being approved by the official courts. This is a “win-win” situation.

My dear readers: Read once again the above quote from this week’s Torah portion, referring to settlement rights given to Yitro and his family to live on good land. Can we learn from this ancient experience?

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