Thursday, October 18, 2007

Another Bitch-Slap to the Rabbinate

According to Ha'aretz, another challenge to the Chief Rabbinate has popped up. Last month I blogged on the reaction to the scandalous no-heter for shmitta matter(and here); a group called Tzohar had announced that it would simply go around the Rabbinate. Well, they're at it again.
45 rabbis from Tzohar and an unspecified smattering of the Religious Kibbutz Movement in response to the chief rabbinate's policy of making conversion ridiculously difficult have said that they will simply go around it in this as well.

According to Ha'aretz,

That position ignores the plight of the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halakha. If the recommendations of the interministerial committee on conversion to expedite the process are not implemented soon, the rabbis are expected to establish the proposed conversion courts. That would represent another stage in the undermining of religious-Zionist rabbis of the Rabbinate, following struggles over marriage, kashrut and shmita in the past several months.
The latest steps began about six months ago with a conference of the Joint Conversion Institute, which prepares most prospective converts in civilian and military frameworks. After the head of the institute, Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, announced that the requirements of the religious courts kept many graduates from completing their conversion, 45 rabbis agreed to officiate in religious courts that would convert the graduates, even without recognition from the Rabbinate. Most of the rabbis, the majority of whom who prefer not to be identified, are associated with with Religious Kibbutz Movement and the Tzohar rabbis' organization.

Of course, it will be interesting to see how this plays out int he marriage arena, since the Chief Rabbinate is almost certain to refuse to allow these converts to be married in Israel - causing these folks to suffer fromthe same problems that Reform and Conservative/Masorti converts have had to deal with for years.

Although most of the rabbis invoved did not want to be identified, Rabbi Benjamin Lau spoke, "I think there will be no alternative, the Rabbinate is undergoing a process of dissolution. We saw it with the issues of marriage, kashrut and shmita, and conversion is the core of the matter. One of our roles as rabbis is to serve the public and I see this issue as fulfilling our function."

IN fact, as several generations of politicians have recognized Israel's immigration policy has been in direct conflict with its conversion policies. Thousands upon thousands of FSU immigrants are not Jewish. Only about 2,000 people are converted per year. The conversion process is currently so awful that, "According to studies carried out by the army's conversion program, Nativ, about 40 percent of non-Jewish immigrants expressed an interest before they immigrated in converting, while after a one year in Israel the number dropped by at least 20 percent." Good job, guys!

The Ha'aretz article concludes,

Three and a half years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the creation of a state conversion program that would facilitate the process, but the new arrangement did not change the basic stance of the religious judges. In many communities, the local religious councils and the local rabbis refuse to recognize the conversion certificates presented by immigrants when they come to register for marriage.

Two months ago an interministerial committee headed by Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon submitted a comprehensive report on the issue. It recommended, among other things, appointing to the conversion courts 40 volunteer judges who would not be beholden to the Haredi rabbis and would introduce a willingness to help the converts in their desire to join the Jewish people instead of finding reasons to prevent their conversion. It also called for giving Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar full authority over conversion issues. Amar opposes the idea of the volunteer judges, on the grounds that they will not be rabbis vetted by him and operating in accordance with his directives. Justice Ministry officials, meanwhile, argue that volunteers cannot hold official judicial positions.

Olmert has not yet approved the committee?s recommendations. The heads of the Joint Conversion Institute believe the volunteer initiative will not be implemented. Ish-Shalom refused to comment on the issue, but sources in his institute said that if the problem is not solved during a meeting scheduled for next Tuesday in the Prime Minister's Office, the plan for independent conversion courts will go ahead.

In the last set of posts mentioning Tzohar, some folks expressed doubts as to whether they're any better than the current crop of Orthodox political types. I couldn't say, but think it unlikely. Nevertheless, if they succeed in doing this, it will shake up the current system, and that can only be for the good. In fact, it seems possible that if Tzohar actually succeeds in forcing the matter, it may lead the way for Israel to successfully build a better state, since once Tzohar starts converting people -and will certainly marry them, if they convert them, it may well be that marriage will also be taken out of the hands of the Rabbinate, and once that happens, well, all I can say is, I await the free-for-all and fireworks with glee.

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