Good idea, lousy law
Knesset's Constitutional Law Committee approved first reading of law that would allow conversions to be performed by chief rabbis of cities. But there’s a hitch here: The High Rabbinic Court can easily bring about the annulment of those conversions. You think strengthening the rabbinic establishment helps the religious public? Think again
There is no law regulating conversion in the State of Israel. And this is how it should be, because this is a religious act par excellence, in which the State should not interfere. The rabbinic courts have been dealing with conversions for all these years without having been given explicit jurisdiction to do so by law. In the decision of the Prime Minister from 1995, Special Rabbinic Courts for Conversion were established, and they operate by virtue of this decision. The current legislative proposal that would expand conversion authority to city rabbis, provides for the first time that the Chief Rabbinate has authority to convert.
Moreover, the law also explicitly provides that conversion must be performed “properly, after acceptance of Torah and mitzvot according to Halacha.”
This explicit provision in the law not only harms the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and abroad who fear that the next stage will be that their conversions will not be accepted as valid for purposes of the Law of Return, but also harms Religious Zionism and Orthodoxy. But Religious Zionism - which mistakenly thinks it’s the rabbinic establishment -- still doesn’t understand this and still thinks that strengthening the rabbinic establishment strengthens it.
The proposed law begins with a resounding overture to those seeking to make conversions easier: “The rabbi of a city or of a local council is authorized to perform a conversion.” But then it continues in a weak voice, because in the next section this seemingly expansive provision is restricted, and it appears that not all of rabbis of cities or of local councils will be permitted to conduct conversions, but only those who have not been deemed ineligible to perform conversions by the Chief Rabbis.
And even if the rabbis of cities and local councils who are not ultra-Orthodox are permitted to perform conversions, there is no reason to assume that their conversions will not be annulled in the future. The proposed law which provides that the Chief Rabbinate has the authority to convert, also provides the manner in which a conversion may be annulled – and this is ridiculously simple. According to the proposed law, a rabbinic court may repeal the validity of a conversion because of “intentional concealment of information by the convert prior to the conversion.”
A hearing regarding such concealment is to be carried out by the rabbinic court that conducted the conversion. And it may be assumed that it is not interested in annulling conversions. However, if the rabbinic court that performed the conversion is no longer sitting --and this possibility exists since the original rabbinic court is makeshift -- the determination as to the concealment of information shall, according to the proposed law, be transferred to a panel appointed by the Head of the High Rabbinic Court. Have we started with the rabbi of a city only to wind up again in the rabbinic court?
It turns out that that not only “intentional concealment of information by the convert prior to the conversion” is grounds for questioning the validity of the conversion. Another section of the proposed law provides but for “another reason” as well. It seems that if a rabbinic court or marriage registrar questions the conversion “for any other reason” (the woman is not modestly dressed?) the Head of the High Rabbinic Court will decide whether to transfer the issue for a hearing before the rabbinic court that performed the conversion, or to a panel of the regional rabbinic court. Here again, we started with the rabbis of cities and local councils only to wind up back in the rabbinic court?
It’s not enough to say that this law sells out the Reform and Conservative in a pathetic deal with Yisrael Beiteinu. In effect, the law also sells out Religious Zionism, and turns us into a State governed by ultra-Orthodox halacha. Additionally, and most disturbingly, those converting in what they though was a simplified procedure will find themselves, in the final analysis, faced with the threat of annulments of their conversions by the rabbinic court.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic court pleader who works at The Center for Women’s Justice , tel. 02-5664390
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