Conversion and politics


Immediately after Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation was arrested and charged with placing hidden cameras in the changing room of the ritual bath adjacent to his synagogue, the question arose whether the conversions he oversaw over many years were still valid. The response from the Rabbinical Council of America, on which Freundel served, was “yes.”

Thus, despite Freundel’s removal from positions of authority on the issue of conversions, those whose conversions he oversaw should not have to worry about their identities as Jews. And yet, because of the disturbing allegations of the Freundel case, many of his former colleagues have begun a serious process of introspection and forward thinking to address sensitive issues relating to mikvah use and the conversion process.

In Israel, an effort is underway to localize conversions the way they are handled in the Diaspora. Like all personal status issues, conversions in Israel have historically been controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, a centralized political-religious office held primarily by haredi Orthodox rabbis. Earlier this year, a Knesset member in the centrist Tnuah Party introduced a bill to allow local Orthodox rabbis to create panels to perform conversions. While the bill does not mandate religious equality, it does introduce flexibility and accessibility into what is currently a tightly controlled top-down system. The bill passed one reading in the Knesset in the summer.

Not surprisingly, the Chief Rabbinate opposes the measure. So do the modern Orthodox Jewish Home Party and Israel’s haredi parties.

Despite that opposition, the government’s plan was to implement the change through a Cabinet vote. But last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew his support for the bill. Critics charged that he did so to appease Israel’s haredi parties, who are not in the governing coalition, but are considered to be the prime minister’s natural partners.

Tnuah can continue to push for passage of the bill in the Knesset, where it reportedly has a good chance to pass its second and third readings, whereupon it would become law. We strongly support this effort. While passage of the bill will not bring religious pluralism to Israel, it will serve to decentralize the power of the Chief Rabbinate. The result will be an easing of a pressure point between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and will represent another step toward allowing the majority of Israelis to live their Jewish lives as they choose, rather than being told what they must do by a political agency.

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