Your article on the front page of the Nov. 7 issue, “Conversions Vote Loosens Grip of Chief Rabbinate,” rightly celebrates a small but conceivably significant step towards ending the monopoly of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate over all issues of personal status, including conversion. Any change in the status quo is certainly welcome.
However, lest your readers get overly excited by this development, they should keep in mind the following:
First, the vast majority of the 300,000-plus olim from the Former Soviet Union, and their descendants, are unlikely to undergo Orthodox conversion of any kind.
Second, this new cabinet resolution (which does not have the full force and permanence of a bill) does nothing towards recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel, leaving many olim with no possibility of being married in Israel unless they are willing to undergo an additional Orthodox conversion.
Third, it provides no solution for to the far greater problems concerning marriage in Israel; specifically, it gives no recourse to the thousands of Israelis who currently are not eligible to get married in Israel, such as Cohanim [Jewish priests] and divorcees, same-sex couples, Jews who were converted outside of Israel (including most Orthodox converts), and many others who cannot establish their “Jewishness” to the satisfaction of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate.
And finally, it does not authorize marriages in Israel by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or other non-Orthodox rabbis.
This cabinet decision does not begin to resolve the myriad of problems related to divorce, as even couples who marry outside of Israel must go to the Rabbinate to get divorced, nor does it address the problem of agunot, chained women, whose husbands refuse to give them a get, a Jewish divorce decree.
What is most encouraging about the Israeli cabinet’s vote is that it clearly demonstrates that a determined Knesset member, in this case Elazar Stern (HaTnuah), who has the will to promote reform to the current system, can convince the Israeli leadership to take on the Rabbinate for the good of Israeli society as a whole. We can only hope that this is the beginning of far more extensive reforms to the system of marriage and divorce in Israel, so that it becomes inclusive, meaningful, and ultimately brings Israeli citizens closer to Judaism.