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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Non-Orthodox Conversions

The Israeli High Court of Justice gave a ruling today which might have far-reaching implications for the future of Israel and Judaism.

The court ordered the state to recognise the so-called "leaping conversions", in which the study itself is conducted in Israel but the actual conversion ceremony is performed overseas. People have used this mechanism to bypass Israeli law, which recognizes only Orthodox conversions when performed in Israel but also non-Orthodox conversions when performed overseas. Therefore, converts who studied in a non-Orthodox institute in Israel would go abroad for a few days to perform the actual conversion in a Jewish community there, and then return to Israel and apply for citizenship under the Law of Return.

I am not familiar with the details of the new ruling and therefore cannot guess the full impact it will have on the Law of Return, but if I understand correctly then the practical meaning is that any person producing a conversion document from any community in the world will be automatically accepted as an Israeli citizen. I shudder at the ramifications of such a reality.

When I lived in Israel, this was a non-issue to me. But having lived in Japan for a few years and having witnessed several "conversions" performed by the local community's rabbi here, I now realise the consequences of such blanket approvals of conversions. Suffice it to say that the gap between these conversions and "mail order" conversions is not that big. On two separate occasions I heard Japanese women undergoing studies for conversion here complaining that they are not learning much about Judaism and that many of their questions go unanswered. If this is indicative of the status in other communities - and there is no reason to believe it isn't so, as there no central supervising body - I don't see how anyone can take a conversion diploma from some anonymous community seriously. Certainly it shouldn't be the basis for accepting someone under the Law of Return and granting Isareli citizenship.

Time will tell what will happen as a result of this ruling, but I'm not very optimistic.

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