Let's have some order on the subject of conversion. Here are the main points:
The law: What does the law have to say? That's it, there isn't any law. The State of Israel has not formulated any law that deals with the question of conversion or authorized any entity to carry out conversions, and it hasn't established any rules on the matter either.
But what does the law provide? 'The Rabbinical Court Jurisdiction Law' states that matters of marriage and divorce of Jewish citizens or residents are within the exclusive jurisdiction of rabbinic courts. Consequently, rabbinic courts are entitled to determine who can marry (or divorce) according to Jewish law and who can’t. In other words, if a person applies to marry (or divorce) the rabbinic court may determine if he is a Jew or a non-Jew, if he is a Cohen or she is a divorcee, if he is the son of a prohibited marriage or illegitimate, and for our purposes – if he is a convert or not.
In addition, the 'Conversion Ordinance' states that the head of a religious community (such as the chief rabbi) must authorize all conversions. Thus there can be many persons who oversee conversion and many converts, but for purpose of marriage and divorce, only the chief rabbi can decide which conversion to accept and which to reject.
How it works
Here is the history of conversion in a nutshell: Until the 1970’s, people converted through rabbinic courts in a private manner (as had been the custom among the Jewish people for generations). In the 70’s, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel established separate rabbinic courts for conversion. People converting in those courts received certification of their conversion from the Chief Rabbinate. In the wake of the large waves of immigration in the 90’s, it was necessary to deal in a more orderly and intensive manner with conversion; and, in accordance with the prime minister's orders, a 'Conversion Administration' was set up. From that time to this day most converts convert in the Special Rabbinic Conversion Courts that operate alongside the Conversion Administration, and only a very small number of people still go to regional rabbinic courts. After the conversion, the converts receive a conversion certificate with the seal of the head of the religious community – the chief rabbi.
By the way, the vast majority of dayanim in the regional rabbinic courts are haredim, the rabbis sitting on the panels of the Special Rabbinic Conversion Courts are Zionists.
The complication: Everything got complicated when haredi rabbis were not happy with the conversions of the Special Rabbinic Conversion Courts which, in their opinion, were too lenient. In recent years there have been a lot of stories of dayanim and Marriage Registrars who exploit their positions and act outside of their authority in order to keep converts from marrying. Converts who appeal to the rabbinic court to divorce are cross-examined regarding their religious observance even if they have a conversion certificate signed by the chief rabbi, and some of them have had their conversions voided.
Waiting for High Court
A petition has been filed with the High Court of Justice in two such cases in the name of the Center for Women's Justice, arguing that the rabbinic court does not have the authority to question conversion certifications signed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. In many other cases the convert is filtered out at the stage of registration for marriage. The Marriage Registrars refuse to register a couple for marriage if one or both of them are converts. This occurs even when they have legal conversion certifications from the chief rabbi. Some of the Marriage Registrars send converts to rabbinic courts where their Jewishness is invalidated, or not (usually it's invalidated). The Jewish Life Information Center (ITIM) and others have now filed a petition with the High Court of Justice on behalf of a couple of converts who were sent to the rabbinic court by the Marriage Registrar, and even after the court ruled that their conversion was valid – the marriage registrar refused to register them for marriage.
The petitioners argue that the Marriage Registrars are not entitled to refuse to register a couple for marriage and to question their Jewishness when they have a signed certification from the Chief Rabbinate, and even more so when their conversion was approved by the rabbinic court.
The solution? There is none. Currently the haredim are the ones who rule the roost and have managed to twist the state’s arm. It doesn't matter how many people the Special Rabbinic Conversion convert if the rabbinic courts go ahead and invalidate the conversion after 15 years, or if the Marriage Registrars simply refuse to register them or their children for marriage.
In the short run, all eyes are on the High Court of Justice, which will have to deal with the various petitions and take a clear stand. If the High Court of Justice stammers many converts and their families will be thrown to the dogs and their rights will be trampled. If the High Court of Justice takes a clear stand – the haredi world is likely to revolt. In the long run the solution may lie only in the separation of religion and state and the complete privatization of the rabbinic courts. Everyone will convert whom he pleases, how he pleases, and will marry or not marry whom he pleases, just as it's been for two thousand years in the Diaspora.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic pleader who works at the Center for Women's Justice. Tel: 02-5664390