Thursday, April 07, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Supreme Court Decision about Conversion?

By HaRav Yisrael Rosen 
Dean of the Zomet Institute

New Intervention by the Supreme Court? 

Last week the Supreme Court of Israel published a decision about conversions which was described in the media as nothing short of dramatic. A panel of nine judges recognized converts who were approved by "private rabbinical courts that operate within Orthodox communities" in Israel as having rights under the Law of Return (such as citizenship and other privileges). Three petitioners waited years for this ruling. Twenty more petitions are in the pipeline, and many more converts are waiting for future developments.

And the land erupted into turmoil! The Chareidi parties and the media in their sector cried out bitterly against a new intervention, systematic and outrageous, by the Supreme Court in matters pertaining to religion and the state – something which "paves the way for recognition of Reform Judaism." They were duly followed by the "Chardalim" – the Chareidi Zionists. Harsh condemnations were heard from the Chief Rabbis and the Minister of Religion. (Rabbi David Lau: "The courts will not decide who is Jewish and who is not." Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef: "This is the elimination of official conversions in Israel." The Minister of Religion: "The Supreme Court is undermining the Jewish character of the state.")

Well, I stand in a humble position as a "minor" expert on the subject of conversions. (I established the Conversion Authority in 5756 [1996] and was its director for four years. I served as an official government dayan in conversion courts for a dozen years, and since then I serve as the head and as a judge in a private conversion court in Gush Etzion. I am a veteran on the subject of conversion, and I am the author of the book "V`Ohev Ger – And He loves the Convert.") I want to take a stand against all of the opposition noted above: Nothing could be more ridiculous! The only person who might have anything to fear from the decision of the Supreme Court is the Minister of Finance (after all, the Law of Return is worth a lot of money). On the other hand, the Minister of Absorption will rub his hands in glee to receive a gift of a few hundred new immigrants. The Chief Rabbinate and the "world of Torah," which are completely out of the picture (as will be seen below) will react in pained shock, as they always do. On the other side of the picture, the Reform establishment celebrated their "victory," and they were joined by the modern Orthodox rabbis, who for many years have been demanding greater leniency in conversion. To these people I say: There is no reason for such excitement in the realm of conversions. And I can quote Kohellet: "What is the point of all this joy?" [2:2].

What did the Supreme Court Decide? – As a Service to my Readers

(1) The decision of the court is totally irrelevant for 300,000 Gentiles who live among us who "must be converted promptly, adults and minors, and to be lenient in their conversions." The court only discussed the privileges of the Law of Return and not the matter of recognition as Jews. (Marriage and related issues have been left completely in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and the official religious courts.) These many non-Jews have already attained the right of return and citizenship, and this decision has not changed their status one bit.

(2) The fact that the official conversion courts are prevented today from taking care of foreign citizens is a ruling of the Interior and Justice Ministries, and is not because of any decisions by the Chief Rabbinate. The purpose of the ruling is to prevent such converts from automatically getting citizenship as a result of their conversion. The media claims against the Rabbinate for "making those who want to convert suffer," are a case of classic evil, while the real focus of such demands should be two Ministries – Interior and Justice. The courts of the Chief Rabbinate are willing to accept any worthy candidates, even if they are not citizens of our country. And that is a fact!

(3) Since they lack any official channel, foreign citizens who are worthy of converting are helped by private Orthodox courts, such as the court of Rabbi Karlitz in Bnei Berak and our court in Gush Etzion, but the country rejects them. They are not recognized as citizens – they do not receive medical insurance, they do not have the right to work, and they cannot vote for the Knesset...

(4) Many petitions to the secular courts and a drawn out delay of more than a decade have now led the Supreme Court to make a decision: Converts who were processed by Orthodox courts (not liberal ones) which are accepted by the community will be granted citizenship (on condition that they arrived in Israel legally and did not infiltrate into the land). However, they will not be recognized as Jews for marriage and divorce unless they convert (or have their conversion approved) in a court of the Chief Rabbinate. And that is a fact! 
To summarize: There is not one word in the Supreme Court ruling about giving recognition to "private" Judaism (even though the people covered by the ruling were converted in Orthodox courts)!

So What`s the Problem? – As a Service to My Readers 

(1) A slippery slope: Some people are afraid that as an extension of this ruling the Supreme Court will recognize Reform conversion courts! The answer to this is as follows: (a) We cannot set our entire lives by our fears for the future. (b) If it does happen, another few hundred non-Jews will receive the benefits of the Law of Return, and they will join the 300,000 that are already here. This is a budgetary and possibly a national problem, but it is not relevant in the realm of religion and the state. 
(2) Foreign workers: Others fear that the conversion courts will be swamped by legions of foreign workers who want the coveted Israeli citizenship. The answer to this is that the Orthodox conversion courts do not welcome these people with open arms. Not many of them will pass the muster, except for those which are really worthy (and I can attest from personal knowledge that there are indeed some who are). 
(3) Money: One claim does indeed bother me too – The Law of Return involves a lot of money, and we might well fear the possibility of corruption and the work of middlemen. The answer to this: (a) We cannot block something that is right out of a fear of "fools who will ruin matters" by converting, or by acting as go-betweens, in order to make a profit. In the end, criminals tend to be caught! (b) Recognition can be limited (for the purposes of the Law of Return) exclusively to courts that operate in a completely transparent mode, from the financial point of view and from the point of view of the process of conversion.

I suggest that the Chief Rabbinate should "recalculate their route." Instead of obsessively objecting to what is happening, let them adopt a policy of a new approach, so that they will take on a role of partners in the enterprise and not chronic opposition.

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