If you’re a student of American history, you may recall a time early in the FDR presidency, when the largely Republican appointed Supreme Court would knock down much of the Democratic president’s new legislation on constitutional grounds. Eventually, FDR announced that he would double the number of justices, appointing a kind of associate justice to every sitting member of the high court, thus completely diluting their power. The threat worked and the court became much more reasonable in dealing with the newcomer’s legislative agenda – ushering in the New Deal.
Mk Elazar Stern of the Tzipi Livni movement, who is an observant Jew, may have succeeded in doing something similar to the stranglehold that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has had on conversions, not only in Israel, but in America as well. as you may know, the Rabbinical Council of America has had the resilience of a wet shopping bag in standing up to Israel’s Rabbinate in deciding which American rabbis are approved to conduct conversions and which aren’t.
But as MK Stern has told Israel radio tonight, his new conversion bill will enable the creation of some 30 new 3-judge conversion courts throughout Israel, adding about 90 new rabbinical judges to the existing conversion system. That’s a feat that even old FDR would have admired.
According to Stern’s pending bill, which already appears to enjoy the initial, albeit tacit, support of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, “a city’s rabbi is permitted to establish a conversion court within his municipal authority, as needed. The confirmation by the city rabbi that a person has been accepted into the Jewish ethnic group and has had a religious conversion will constitute an official certification with no need for any additional confirmation.”
In the current coalition government, Jewish Home has a veto power over state and religion legislation. Some in the party support the Stern Bill, some are not sure. The faction has asked Stern for two weeks, during which they’ll deliberate the issue with the two chief rabbis who are livid, apparently. They really don’t like the Stern bill. They’re Haredim, they were elected against the wishes of Jewish Home leader and Minister of Religious services Bennett, so of course they hate it. But some of the Zionist Haredim, such as Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Rabbi Dov Lior, also oppose the bill.
Rabbi Ariel told the website Srugim that he is against the bill because he likes things the way they are today, when there’s only one source of approval or disapproval for conversions in Israel. He fears a situation whereby some courts will get a reputation for being too easy on candidates for conversion, and then he and his colleagues would be forced to research every single conversion that comes before them for, say, the purpose of marrying another Jewish person.
Yes, having just one court is so much easier on rabbis.
At this point it looks like Jewish Home will not use its veto power to kill the Stern legislation, but they might ask for a few improvements. Control of the standards of conversion seems to be a major issue for the Haredim. Deputy Minister of Religious Services Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, Jewish Home, made an effort to calm everyone involved, promising to work together with the President of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, an expert on conversions, on a version of the bill that the two chief rabbis would approve.
The chief rabbis are no fools, they understand that MK Stern represents a very large majority of Israelis who wish to see the monopoly over everything Jewish wrested from the hands of the chief Rabbinate. This is why Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Rav Yitzhak Yosef (same name, different rabbi) has already expressed his trust in Ben Dahan’s ability to reach the kind of language for the new law that would “maintain the unity and wholeness of the people of Israel.”
That’s code for giving the chief rabbinate back some control over the conversion process.
The Reform Movement, nebech, has expressed its reserved support for the new bill. They approve, of course, of anything that would give the chief rabbinate a bloody nose. On the other hand, none of the proceedings mentioned above comes even close to recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions inside Israel. So they hate it.
Which means the new bill can’t be all bad.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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