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Conversion in Israel: New Developments

From the Jerusalem Report

Reprinted with permission from the May 2, 2005 issue of The Jerusalem Report . Visit  www.jrep.com .

From the Editor

By Sharon Ashley

Over the years, I have attended numerous weddings in Israel conducted outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox framework: those conducted by a Conservative rabbi, a non-authorized rabbi, no rabbi; of men and women, two men, immigrants and native Israelis. All of these Jewish couples were wed under a huppah, recited blessings, broke a glass in identification with Jewish suffering through the ages. And, understanding that the authorities would view their nuptials as null and void, most, if not all, sought civil sanctification of their vows abroad. That foreign stamp made them kosher at home.

Late last month, the Supreme Court validated a foreign stamp of another kind, when it granted immigration rights under the Law of Return to Israeli residents who have traveled abroad to undergo non-Orthodox conversion after having studied and trained in Israel, eliminating the requirement of residency in that foreign Jewish community. “The Jewish people are one,” wrote Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, as Netty C. Gross reports in this issue, and joining the flock from within the far-flung Diaspora makes those individuals Jewish. It just doesn’t make them kosher.

These converts, like the couples wed with a non-Orthodox ketubah, will never be recognized by the chief rabbinate in Israel, the authority that governs a Jew’s life cycle of marriage, divorce and burial. The vitriol aired by the Orthodox rabbinic and political establishment in response to the ruling was predictable. The Supreme Court overstepped its bounds, they ranted; these “fast-track” Conservative and Reform conversions will flood the Jewish people with impostors, hangers-on--as if signing on with the Jews is a fate sought by the masses. “Now I won’t need to worry about hiring illegal foreign workers,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar quoted an Orthodox shopkeeper as saying. “They’ll all just go abroad to convert and come back as legal Jewish Israelis.” But don’t fret about them marrying our children: Little black books compiled by the rabbinate will list who is really a Jew, so your daughter shouldn’t marry that Jewish wannabe. That’ll preserve Jewish unity.

But, in fact, this ruling wasn’t enough. It remained one crucial step short of accepting non-Orthodox conversions conducted inside Israel, thereby legitimizing Reform and Conservative Judaism as part of Israeli life. That, presumably, is being left to the legislature, a “status quo” issue better fiddled with by lawmakers than by the judiciary. But with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox stranglehold preventing such Knesset legislation, the Court must step in to guarantee the freedom of religion provided by the Declaration of Independence. Welcoming non-Orthodox couples and converts who mark their rite of passage at home is what will preserve Jewish unity, not the blacklists.

© The Jerusalem Report

Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Sharon Ashley is editor of The Jerusalem Report.

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