Israel’s increasingly strict Chief Rabbinate is seeking to tighten its hold on religious life.
A new controversy was set in motion in the Knesset this week with the introduction of legislation that would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control of conversions.
The bill “will shut the door on conversions in Israel,” according to Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy.
He asserted that the bill would “solidify” the Chief Rabbinate’s “monopoly … on Jewish life in Israel” and would in effect reject conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis as well as many overseas rabbis.
“At a time where Jews are feeling so disaffected from Israel, the government should not be giving more power to the rabbinate and changing the status quo.”
Rabbi Farber, who was born and grew up in the U.S., is a co-founder, along with Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and David Stav, and Professor Benny Ish Shalom, of Giyur Kahalacha, the largest private Orthodox conversion court in Israel.
The bill would not recognize conversions carried out by their religious court and would likely limit recognition of conversions done by Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel.
The legislation, if adopted, “will leave close to 400 people who have converted [under Giyur Kahalacha auspices] in legal limbo,” Rabbi Farber said in a statement. “At a time where Jews are feeling so disaffected from Israel, the government should not be giving more power to the rabbinate and changing the status quo.”
The draft bill, which proposes to reject all conversions done in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis, and by privately run rabbinic courts, is seen as an attempt by the charedi parties to circumvent a 2016 Supreme Court decision. That ruling rejected the position of the Chief Rabbinate and charedi-controlled Interior Ministry in finding that non-Israeli nationals who convert in private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel should be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.
The newly proposed bill would allow the state to recognize only conversions performed by its own institutions, meaning the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts system.
ITIM supported the 2016 legislation, which allowed for the full integration into Israeli life of citizens from the former Soviet Union who convert through private Orthodox courts.
The stated purpose of the legislation is “to establish that conversion conducted in Israel is recognized in law if it is conducted by the state conversion system, and no legal validity will be given to a conversion conducted in Israel not by the state conversion authority.”
Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel are already recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purposes of registration as Jewish in the Population and Immigration Authority, but not yet for the purpose of obtaining Israeli citizenship.
A Knesset hearing on the legislation is proposed for May 16.