Orthodox Conversion Rebels Challenge Rabbinate on Marriage

In the latest challenge to Israel’s supreme religious authority, several Orthodox rabbis have begun to perform weddings for converts who are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

In recent months, Haaretz has learned, these rabbis officiated at three such weddings involving Israelis converted by a new alternative rabbinical court. Their names cannot be published, however, as rabbis who perform weddings not registered with the Chief Rabbinate, under Israeli law, could face jail time.

Earlier this week, it was reported that a prominent group of religious Zionist rabbis had created this new religious court to help facilitate the conversion of Israelis not considered Jewish by halakha, or religious law. According to halakha, only an individual born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.

Circumventing the Chief Rabbinate, which has grown increasingly stringent in its conversion demands, the alternative rabbinical court converted six minors on Monday in a highly publicized ceremony.

About 20 religious Zionist rabbis are involved in the new initiative, which was launched about a year ago. Until this week, their activities were kept largely under wraps. Since last December, Haaretz has learned, these rabbis have converted close to 50 Israelis, about half of them adults. The converts are mainly Russian-speaking immigrants who were able to obtain citizenship under the Law of Return even though they are not considered Jews by Halakha. To qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return, an individual must have either a Jewish parent, a Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has the final say in who is considered a Jew for marriage purposes in the country. Hence, if it decides not to recognize the conversions undertaken by the new rabbinical court, those converted will not be able to marry in Israel. 

For that reason, all individuals undergoing these conversions are required to sign a waiver declaring that they are aware their conversions may not be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, which is the supreme authority on marriage and divorce law in Israel (among Jews). The waiver form notes, however, that the new rabbinical court will do its utmost to ensure that its conversions are ultimately recognized.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of individuals challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, confirmed that several Orthodox rabbis had begun officiating at weddings of the new converts. “In the context of giyur k’halakha [halakhic conversion] and in order to maximize the halakhic legitimacy of these conversions, there were a small number of weddings that took place following the conversions,” he said. “Our hope is that these weddings will also be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate when it examines the individual situations.”

He added that in all three cases, the couples had already undergone civil marriages outside of Israel. ITIM has been a driving force behind the establishment of the alternative rabbinical court. Farber said that the initiative began to take shape a year ago.

The conversions on Monday were performed by a rabbinical court headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi. Other well-known rabbis involved in the initiative are Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, head of the Otniel Yeshiva; Rabbi Ariel Holland from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa; Rabbi Yaakov Medan of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat; and Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of Shoham and chairman of Tzohar, an association of progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis.

As a rule, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not convert minors whose mothers have not undergone conversion. In a sharp break with this policy, the heads of the new alternative court have agreed to convert minors even if their mothers are unwilling to go through the process, so long as they commit to raising the children in a religious environment. “That is a major difference here,” noted Farber. “The Chief Rabbinate insists that the father and mother be married, but if the mother is not already converted, she cannot marry here. We don’t require that.”

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