The Orthodox Case for Changing the Way the Israeli Rabbinate Handles Conversions

April 11, 2022 | David Brofsky
About the author: Rabbi David Brofsky has authored books on prayer, the Jewish festivals, and the laws of mourning. He is also a teacher and serves as the rabbinic liaison for Israel’s Giyur K’Halacha conversion courts.

Last week, a group of prominent American Orthodox rabbis wrote an open letter to Matan Kahana, Israel’s minister of religious affairs, criticizing his plan to reform the chief rabbinate’s policies toward conversions to Judaism. His proposal would devolve more authority from the offices of the chief rabbis to local religious courts. David Brofsky, himself an Orthodox rabbi, responds in defense of Kahana’s plan:

[In Israel], there are thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are children or grandchildren of Jews who, due to religious persecution, abandoned their Judaism. . . . Many [of these children and grandchildren, despite not being Jewish by dint of having a non-Jewish mother or grandmother], were raised and educated as Jews, identify as Jews, and many even observe the mitzvot so common among traditional Israeli Jews, including kashrut, Shabbat, and the festivals. The . . .  challenge is how to encourage and enable these Israelis, and their children, to return to their Judaism, which was taken from them only a few generations ago.

Instead of fighting those who wish to bring them closer to religious observance, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the rabbinate calling for Jewish families throughout Israel to host potential converts for the seder this year? Or to organize public shofar blowings and megillah readings in major cities for this population? In fact, what if the rabbinate would invest in supporting those who converted in their own courts?

Likewise, Brofsky is skeptical of his interlocutors’ case that the reforms would undermine the uniform “standards” and “transparency” that they identify in the current system:

Those familiar with the various conversion courts are well aware that each court, and each judge, maintains its own standards for accepting converts. Furthermore, historically, different courts, different judges, and different chief rabbis, held different opinions regarding this issue. While the chief rabbis do have a limited ability to affect policy, . . . there is currently no transparency and there are no set standards regarding the acceptance or rejection of a convert.

Furthermore, the claim [of the letters’ authors that Israel’s current system’s merit lies in its] transparency and set standards is not only incorrect, but also halakhically questionable. The Torah entrusts the judges with the authority to determine when to accept a convert, “based upon the assessment of the judge,” [in the words of the 16th-century sage Joseph Caro, whose code became the basis of all subsequent halakhic jurisprudence]. This is true in all areas of halakhah. Checklists and “standards” are for driving licenses and kashrut organizations, not for religious courts, which rule in accordance with the halakhah.

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