Rabbi Seth Farber says Rabbinate opposes conversion reform bill for ‘political reasons’

January 17, 2022 by Gil Tanenbaum - TPS
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Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s draft of a conversion reform plan that would decentralize authority over conversions to Judaism in Israel to the Knesset has been damned by the Rabbinate.

Chief Rabbinate of Israel building in Tel Aviv.    Photo by Kobi Richter/TPS

Minister Kahana and supporters of the new law say that they simply wish to make it easier for people who wish to do so to convert to Judaism in Israel.

However, the leaders of Israel’s Rabbinate and many senior rabbis throughout the country have condemned the proposed new law. They see this as an attempt to circumvent Jewish Law as it applies to conversion. They have also suggested that the change is merely a first step towards ending the Rabbinate itself and even allowing for the recognition of all non-orthodox conversions.

Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau has even threatened to cease the certification of any conversions performed in Israel if the reform is passed.

Rulings made by the High Court of Israel on the matter have required that people converted by non-orthodox rabbis, both around the world and within Israel, be allowed to become citizens of Israel as allowed to all Jews under the country’s law of return. However, the Israel Rabbinate, which has control over all Jewish marriage in the country, is not required to recognize such converts as Jews and so does not allow them to marry other Jews in Israel.

The proposed new law would not change this. The people behind the conversion reform plan feel that the system as it stands now has been politicized and say that they only wish to see an end to what they see as control of the Rabbinate by Israel’s ultra-orthodox community.

While roundly condemned by ultra-orthodox leaders, the Zionist national religious leadership in Israel has been more supportive of reforming how the Rabbinate operates in Israel, and not just with regards to conversion.

The orthodox rabbis who support such conversion reforms do not wish to change Jewish law. Neither do they accept conversions made by non-orthodox Jewish groups that do not adhere to the Jewish laws of conversion.

One such Rabbi is Seth Farber, the founding director of Itim. Itim is an Israeli organization established by orthodox rabbis that has been working to effect change in the country’s religious establishment, both in the areas of conversion and Kashrut.

“The new legislation won’t please everyone,” Rabbi Farber told TPS. “It walks a fine line between expanding the options for orthodox conversion while still not recognizing Reform and Conservative conversion in Israel.”

Rabbi Farber explained that for him, and the other orthodox rabbis who support his organization, the issue is a political one. He said that the opposition to the proposed new legislation coming from the Rabbinate is based solely on its leaders’ fear of losing their political power and control over such matters nationwide.

As with the recently implemented new policy on kashrut certification throughout the country, the new law would only decentralize the authority over conversions. As of January 2, 2022, restaurants and other places of entertainment that provide kosher food are no longer be limited to receiving kashrut certification from their local religious councils. Instead, businesses can seek certification from any regional council in the country.

With conversion, local municipal rabbis would be able to convert people to Judaism. The proposed law would not require them to first be authorized to do so by the national Rabbinate.

“The Israeli rabbinate is upset about the legislation but primarily for political reasons,” added Rabbi Farber. “Substantively, enabling municipal rabbis to perform conversions is what was normative in Israel twenty five years ago, and throughout Jewish history.”

Rabbi Farber points out that in Jewish history there was never one rabbinical court with exclusive authority over all conversions. The new law would allow local rabbinical councils run by orthodox rabbis to set their own policies on conversion to Judaism but within the limits of Jewish Law.

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