By Simon Rocker
November 3, 2008
Earlier this year an Israeli dayan made an extraordinary ruling which threatened retroactively to strip thousands of Israeli converts of their Jewish status. Fortunately, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has not endorsed his decision, so the converts can sleep more easily, even if in the back of their minds, they may still feel a cloud hanging over them.
Conversion nevertheless remains a contentious issue and the Chief Rabbinate’s own policy towards it is under question. A group of rabbis associated with Tzohar, a national religious organisation, have warned that unless the official rabbinate itself adopts a more pragmatic line, they will take matters into their own hands and set up their own rabbinic courts to deal with converts.
What concerns these rabbis particularly is the future of around a quarter of million olim from the ex-USSR who came in the great wave of emigration in the 1990s but who are not halachically Jewish. They may be just like other Jewish Israelis of their generation, serving in the army, speaking Hebrew etc, but they are not Jewish in the eyes of the religious authorities.
One of the Tzohar rabbis is Benjamin Lau, a nephew of the former Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yisroel Lau and a former emissary to Bnei Akiva in the UK, who was back in London recently on a brief visit. At a fundraising event for the Jerusalem College of Technology, he spoke about the conversion crisis. “If we find ourselves in a situation that the rabbinate in Israel tried to push people out instead of connect[ing] people…something is wrong in the system,” he declared.
Rabbi Lau knows a thing or two about conversion, having helped converts in the past through a process set up originally in the 1970s by the then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to cope with an earlier wave of emigration from Eastern Europe.
And what is significant is this. In his experience, 90 per cent of those who completed the conversion process, Rabbi Lau said, were not “shomer mitzvot”, that is strictly religiously observant. “But 100 per cent felt when they finished the whole process that they linked deeply to Am Yisrael, Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people], not just to Jewish history but to the Jewish tradition and Jewish roots.” In other words, the conversion process helped integrate people of Jewish descent (for example, whose father, but not whose mother, was Jewish) into the Jewish people – but did not insist that they become fully observant before being accepted as Jewish.
Will the official rabbinate return to such flexible thinking? Or will the Tzohar rabbis carry out their threat and go it alone? We must wait and see. But none of Rabbi Lau’s London audience raised one obvious question; if a more moderate conversion policy were to be good enough for Israel, how about here?