JERUSALEM (RNS) Orthodox Jewish lawmakers have vowed to pass a law that would nullify an Israeli High Court decision recognizing all Orthodox conversions — and not just those performed by the state-sponsored Chief Rabbinate — as legally valid.
The Israeli court’s ruling Thursday (March 31) compels the state to accept as Jewish all converts who have undergone Orthodox conversions inside and outside Israel. It is a crushing defeat for the Orthodox rabbinate, which until now has enjoyed sole authority over Jewish institutions in Israel.
The rabbinate’s ultra-strict conversion criteria have made it difficult or impossible for most of the country’s 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants of Jewish ancestry, as well as foreigners living in Israel, to convert to Judaism.
Betzalel Smotrich, an Orthodox parliamentarian, said the High Court, which recently ruled that non-Orthodox conversions could be carried out in Orthodox-maintained ritual baths, is exceeding its authority.
“Again the High Court is getting involved in sensitive policy matters and doesn’t give lawmakers any choice other than to fix the distortion created in legislation,” Smotrich said.
“We will submit to the Knesset a bill giving recognition only to state ordained conversions immediately at the start of the summer session.”
Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, co-head of the rabbinate, called the court’s ruling a “scandal.”
“It is unthinkable that the private conversion industry which is unsupervised by any state body, will be recognized as official,” Yosef said.
Some Orthodox Jews lauded the ruling, however.
“This is great news for the Jewish people and our state. We are no longer violating the Torah prohibition of tormenting converts,” said Dov Lipman, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and former parliamentarian, said on Facebook.
Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, recently established an alternative Orthodox conversion court and was a co-petitioner in the suit, is confident the ruling will stand.
“I don’t believe there is the political will in this coalition to overturn the ruling,” Farber said, noting that 350,000 Israelis with Jewish ancestry cannot get married in Israel because, although they identify as Jewish, the rabbinate does not recognize them as such. There is no civil marriage in Israel.
“We turned to the High Court because we had no alternative,” Farber said.
(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)