The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, has announced a new move designed to alleviate the problems faced by gerim (converts) wishing to marry in Israel.
In a letter to the chairman of the Knesset’s Aliyah and Absorption Committee, MK Lia Shemtov, Rabbi Metzger promised that converts would be able to register for marriage in every city in Israel.
If the local rabbi who issues marriage permits refuses to recognise their conversion, an alternative marriage registrar would be appointed.
Conversion to Judaism in Israel is a long process, taking usually between two or three years, with the prospective convert needing to convince the special rabbinical court of his or her sincere intention to live life as a mitzvah-observant Jew.
Even those who have finally succeeded in completing all the necessary procedures, and have been accepted by the court into the Jewish people, find themselves frustrated by many rabbis who refuse to recognise their conversion when they come to register for marriage, effectively rendering their giyur null and void.
Israeli law does not recognise civil marriage and it is the local religious councils who issue marriage permits and certificates.
Many of these councils are controlled by strictly-Orthodox rabbis who disapprove of wide-scale conversions and refuse to recognise the conversion certificates issued by many of the special courts, claiming they are too liberal.
Last year, a senior rabbinical court led by one of the hardliners even ruled that all the conversions performed by the most prolific special conversion court were worthless.
If Rabbi Metzger indeed follows through with his commitment, it will enable the converts to bypass the hardliners and register with a specially appointed rabbi with the powers to perform marriages that will be recognised by the Chief Rabbinate and by the state.
Rabbi Metzger’s letter was seen as a surprise by most activists working on behalf of the converts.
In the past he had aligned himself with the Charedi elements who had been instrumental in his election to office six years ago, especially with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian stream of Orthodoxy who is adamantly opposed to the special conversion courts.
The surprise move is being ascribed mainly to two factors.
The first is a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Centre, on behalf of converts who cannot get married. A lawsuit was to be served within the next few weeks.
The court in the past has routinely ruled against the rabbinical establishment in matters of conversion.
Rabbi Metzger is anxious to not have his hand forced by the secular court.
The other factor is the influence of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which has promised its voters, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to bring about changes on the conversion issue.
Over 300,000 of these immigrants are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate and any moves to alleviate the frustration of those seeking to convert and marry can be ascribed to Yisrael Beiteinu’s current pivotal position within the ruling