The issue of conversion into Judaism, and the relations between religion and state in general, is one of the realms in which the Bennett-Lapid government is making maximum efforts to show real change.
After many years of a religious minister of religion, Matan Kahana was appointed to the role. The new minister is a member of Knesset from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s party, most of whose members are National Religious, Kahana among them.
Kahana had served in the army as a combatant in an elite commando unit and later transferred to the air force, where he served as an F16 pilot and a commander of a squadron at the rank of colonel. When he entered politics, the issue of conversion was one of the most important to him, as he told Al-Monitor a year ago, when then-Religion Minister Aryeh Deri tried to pass a conversion law. “The State of Israel needs an official conversion law but one that brings relief to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens and doesn’t block the entry gate to Judaism to those who wish to enter. One who is strict regarding conversion — will make assimilation easier.”
From the moment he entered office he has worked to change the current situation, in which the Chief Rabbinate is the ruling authority regarding conversion. On this issue, Kahana relies on the coalition agreements signed before the formation of the government, which set out to shift rabbinic courts’ exclusive control over conversion to include municipal rabbis as well, a group that includes National Religious rabbis.
The Law of Return offers every person, born either to a Jewish father or to a Jewish mother, the possibility of becoming an Israeli citizen the moment he/she lands in the country. By contrast, Jewish traditional laws recognize a person as a Jew only if his/her mother was Jewish. This means that thousands of people who became Israelis by the merits of the Law of Return are not considered Jews in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate. They cannot get married in Israel — where there are only religious marriages, not civil ones — or be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
The main significance of the reform promoted by Kahana, is that it would allow hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who are defined as “without religion” and find it difficult to convert through existing institutions, to turn to rabbis who have adopted more lenient interpretations of the law and thus “join the Jewish people.” The Chief Rabbinate would be required to recognize their conversion and, Rachmana litzlan, allow them to marry within the Jewish faith. These are immigrants and their Israeli-born children who came to Israel through the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish by halacha. The more lenient process could also be helpful to those who converted through the Conservative or Reform movements.
The current political situation, which has left the chareidim out of the coalition and the government, now allows for a tragic change in geirus.
Kahana said that coming from the very heart of the National Religious sector, he sees it as his mission to shake up religious services and bring in the beliefs of the National Religious public.