The Nissim Committee’s report on conversion was submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning and it appears to already be on its way to the garbage heap of Israel’s legal history. Following the sharp attack on the report’s conclusions by the country’s Chief Rabbis, numerous other rabbis and politicians have been joining in the criticism of the Nissim proposed national conversion legislation – with many calling for its “burial.”
Former Minister Moshe Nissim noted at the end of a thorough, scholarly examination of both Jewish halacha and Israeli legislation regarding conversions:
“For the first time in Israel’s history, after 70 years, we propose a comprehensive [conversion] law, in the spirit of ‘Clear the way! Remove everything blocking my people’s path!’ (Isaiah 57:14). The purpose of the law is to establish a State Conversion Authority in Israel, which will replace the conversion system and establish it an independent judicial body, empowered to design and regulate the composition, structure, competence, powers, and everything else requires to compose a thorough and comprehensive law.”
Nissim proposes the following (the list is far longer):
1. A State Conversion Authority will be established (hereinafter: “the Authority”).
2. The Authority shall be established by law.
3. The Minister in charge of the Law shall be the Prime Minister.
4. The Authority will be an auxiliary unit in the Prime Minister’s Office.
5. The Prime Minister shall appoint the Head of the Authority in consultation with the President of the Rabbinical Court and the Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive.
6. The head of the Authority shall be an established Torah scholar who is familiar with the laws of conversion.
7. Conversion in Israel shall be performed by the conversion authority according to Torah law.
8. Conversion shall be recognized for all intents and purposes only if done by the State Conversion Authority. Private conversions shall not be recognized for all intents and purposes.
9. Notwithstanding the foregoing, it will be possible to continue the existing situation with regard to changing the registration of religious details and the nationality of a resident under section 19C of the Population Registry Law, 5725-1965, based on a public certificate.
10. The state conversion judges will be appointed by an appointments committee, on the assumption that the judges appointed will be proficient in the laws of conversion and in the way of Beit Hillel and Maimonides, and the dayanim (judges) must be imbued with love for the convert as commanded by the Torah of Israel.
The committee does not recommend recognition of Reform conversion other than for the individual to qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Its requirements of a dayan of conversions include one of the following:
He has the capacity to be a judge; A rabbi ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Yoreh Yoreh) who underwent an examination in conversion and circumcision; A person who served in the past as a conversion dayan in the state conversion system by virtue of government decisions; A rabbi who has undergone an examination in the Chief Rabbinate of Israel on conversion and circumcision or has been serving as rabbi for at least ten years; A distinct Torah scholar who is familiar with the laws of conversion.
A forum assembled on Sunday by the Chief Rabbinate was shocked by the fact that the authority over state conversions – which so far has only been usurped by local rabbinical courts – will now be yanked completely by the state, the prime minister’s office, to be exact. Both chief rabbis as well as many chief rabbis of Israeli cities warned repeatedly about the halachic pitfalls of the idea of switching the process from rabbinical clerks to state clerks.
Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, dean of Yeshivat Har Hamor, said: “This entire law is saying that conversions are a public and not a religious issue, and rabbis should not be allowed to intervene. This concerns the honor of the rabbinate and the honor of the Torah.”
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tsfat and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, noted that the report supports conversions according to Torah law, “but who will determine what is the law of the Torah?” Rabbi Eliyahu wondered.
The Chief Rabbis as well as forum participants Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau, Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, Rabbi Yosef Zaini, Rabbi David Shrim, Rabbi Zvi Kostiner, Rabbi Mordechai Negari, Rabbi Chaim Ganz, Rabbi Yeshayahu Doron, Rabbi David Hai HaCohen, Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, Rabbi Eliezer Igra, Rabbi Yehoshua Katz, Rabbi Moshe ben Abo, Rabbi Yehoshua Van Dyk, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, Rabbi Gavriel Davidovitz, Rabbi Gabi Kadosh, Chief Rabbi of Argentina, Rabbi Shimon Cohen, Rabbi Elchanan Ben-Nun, Rabbi Tzion Tawil, and Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon called on rabbis to join them in signing the communiqué issued by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, recommending keeping the authority to convert in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.
The communiqué declares: “We, the Rabbis of Israel, regard with concern the danger to the unity of the Jewish people as a result of the proposals to reform the conversion process, which include the expropriation of conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions (that last point may be erroneous – DI).”
The Chief Rabbis’ document also calls on the Prime Minister “to reject the Nissim Committee report at once and to immediately promote legislative amendments that will stop the High Court’s attempts to recognize private conversions and Reform conversions.
“We ask all members of Knesset and all ministers to do everything in their power to stop the reform in conversions that could lead to assimilation, disintegration and fragmentation within the Jewish people, similar to what happens, unfortunately, in many Reform and Conservative communities abroad.”
The Nissim report was endorsed, among others, by Dean of Bnei Akiva Rabbi Chaim Druckman; Former Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan Rabbi Yaakov Ariel; Rabbi Shmuel Blames, author of “Mishpat Grimm”; and Rabbi Avraham Gisser, Chairman of the Public Religious Education Council, Chairman of Mishpat Eretz Institute, Chief Rabbi of Ofra.