Conversions and politics

Conversions and politics

Immediately after Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington, D.C.’s Kesher Israel Congregation was arrested and charged with placing hidden cameras in the changing room of an adjacent ritual bath, the question arose whether the conversions he oversaw over many years were still valid. Despite Freundel’s stature and authority on issues of conversion, he is one rabbi. And the modern Orthodox movement he belonged to is just one movement. His removal will not disturb the marketplace of Jewish ideas in this country for long.

In Israel, an effort is underway to similarly localize conversions. Like all personal status issues, conversions are controlled by the chief rabbinate, a centralized political-religious office held primarily by haredi Orthodox rabbis. Earlier this year, a Knesset member in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s 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 a top-down system. The bill passed one reading in the Knesset in the summer.

Not surprisingly, the chief rabbinate opposes the measure. So does the modern Orthodox Jewish Home party as well as Israel’s haredi parties. Despite the Knesset vote, 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 the prime minister’s natural partners.

Tnuah can continue to push for passage 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 it 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 the pressure point between Israel and diaspora Jewry and a step toward allowing the majority of Israelis to live their Jewish lives without being dictated to by a political agency