In the last two weeks conversion to Judaism has captured the spotlight in Jewish media. That is quite an accomplishment since security and politics consistently have the monopoly in news outlets and editorials.
Scandals, however, are always fast tracked to front pages and unfortunately the Mikveh scandal near Capital Hill has rocked the confidence of many Jews, Jews by birth and choice alike, in the system. People have weaknesses, and those in leadership positions are no less human than all the rest of us. However, the betrayal of trust and the abuse of authority by one in a leadership position has far greater repercussions and is a crime not merely against individuals but against all of society.
In the environment of this scandal, although not precipitated by it, the Israeli Knesset recently passed a law allowing municipal courts to perform conversions in Israel, previously allowed only in courts under the auspices of the chief rabbinate. This allowance removes some of the bureaucracy and red tape conversion candidates are required to navigate, and it also gives them the ability to progress their conversions in the context of their own communities, dealing with courts more personable, who are familiar with the candidates on a more personal level.
However, the chief rabbinate has railed against this law and has declared that it will not recognize conversions performed under municipal courts. Their concern is that standards for conversion will not always be adhered to in municipal courts and it opens the door for rogue courts to act as they see fit. In short, it wrests control of ‘who is a Jew’ from the chief rabbinate of Israel.
Experts on both sides of the debate have fiercely dug in their toes in this standoff. The new law is welcomed by most modern and nationalist leaders, while it is opposed by most Hareidi groups (to use vague and overly simplified terms).
An excellent editorial on today’s conversions can be read here.