Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana’s new Conversions bill was passed on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs after the bill’s author consented to the demand of Knesset Constitution Committee Chairman MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) that the wording of the proposed law made it clear that the current legal status of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel will be preserved, and that the new law only regulates Orthodox conversions in Israel.
When he’s not busy with his Knesset job, MK Kariv also serves as the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ).
While recognizing overseas Reform & Conservative conversion not new since the High Court of Justice ruling, this bill will now enshrine in law the High Court of Justice ruling that private conversions, including those of Reforms and Conservatives in Israel too, will be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return.
MK Avi Maoz (Religious Zionism) offered a different view: “The Minister of Religious Services continues his attempts to destroy the Chief Rabbinate and state conversions. The attempt to hide behind the claim that all his moves were intended to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate will not succeed. Kahana is taking the keys of the Chief Rabbinate and hands them to his Reform friends. Most of the rabbis of Israel oppose Kahana’s moves, but he, in his impudence, is not bothered.”
That’s not accurate: Kariv and all the non-Orthodox streams in Israel will not have any access whatsoever to the Chief Rabbinate under the new law, but they will enjoy autonomy in performing Reform and Conservative conversions.
The converts that will come out of these rites will not be recognized by any mainstream Jewish community. They will, however, qualify to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return – which was the case regarding Reform and Conservative conversions abroad.
Minister Kahana tweeted this acerbic retort: “The complaints against the recognition of Reform conversions should be directed at Smotritch and Deri, who thwarted every attempt at a compromise in the past that would have conferred exclusivity on Orthodox conversions.”
“Where was Bezalel when I stood alone next to Rabbi Drukman in promoting the Nissim outline? On Deri’s side, of course. Everything that was determined by the High Court is because of them,” Kahana slammed the two Orthodox politicians.
Former Minister Moshe Nissim (the son of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Isaac Nissim) chaired a committee that examined state conversion in Israel, and in June 2018 presented his conclusions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the recommendation of establishing a new conversion authority that would be bound by Orthodox Halakhah but detached from the Chief Rabbinate. Naturally, it was DOA, the entire issue went to the High Court of Justice, and came back with full recognition of the right of any Israeli Jew, essentially, to convert whomever and whichever way they please.
A spokesperson for Smotritch disagrees with Kahana’s narrative, and pointed out a Srugim article that Kahana recently referenced, except in that article, Smotrich clearly said he supported the Nissim outline, but needed certain problematic points fixed.
“We can’t fix their negligence now,” Kahana continued. “We’ll concentrate instead on producing as many halakhic conversions as possible.”
Kahana further tweeted: “Regarding the fake news of converting illegal infiltrators – the law stipulates that city rabbis can only convert Israeli citizens. Anyone who says otherwise has either not read the law or is knowingly lying.” Except that it does in paragraph 29b, which says that other conversions will be recognized too.
The problem with the political environment in Israel is that, 1. It’s impossible to conduct a cogent, civilized debate between the Orthodox politicians in government and their brethren in the opposition. The same spirit that once killed the Nissim proposal will now force an up or down vote on the bill, and most of those voting don’t go to shul.
United Torah Judaism chairman MK Yaakov Litzman had this to contribute to the debate: “The Reform government of Bennett, Kahana, Liberman, Lapid, Kariv, and Sa’ar today took another dangerous and offensive step, which endangers the Jewish identity in the State of Israel. This is an invalid conversion law, which encourages assimilation and is contrary to Halakha and to the position of the Chief Rabbinate. The observant will have to get ready to establish an alternative genealogy system.”
A few notes: The new conversion law is not contrary to Halakha. It doesn’t introduce any new element to the process, except for who gets to run it – and even there it recognizes the Chief Rabbinate’s ultimate authority. As to being contrary to the position of the Chief Rabbinate, MK Litzman has no use for the Chief Rabbinate, relying instead on the Haredi court system, Haredi kashrut supervision, you name it. Finally, Haredi communities already rely on their own, alternative genealogy system, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Every tribe is allowed to set its own boundaries when it comes to marriages.
Finally, an amusing anecdote (not): recently, the two Chief Rabbis approached the Ministerial Committee on Legislation with an appeal to cease and desist: “This is a case of cheating the foreigner,” they argued, “because whoever goes through this procedure will not be considered a Ger Tzedek (accepted convert) by most Israeli rabbis. We call for a halt to the procedure and for the establishment of a joint body that will propose a bill that addresses the hardships while maintaining the nation’s unity.”
We had one just like that. It was called the Nissim commission. It was killed by the Orthodox right, and then the High Court stepped in and now, four years later, the Reform and Conservatives can churn up Israeli converts, the more the merrier. The Chief Rabbinate, like the Bourbon kings, have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing.