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Israel Society & Culture: The Neeman Report on the Conversion Law

(January 22, 1998)

Jerusalem, 22 January 1998

Mr. Benyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister
3 Kaplan Street

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

We respectfully inform you that the committee you appointed to develop ideas and proposals in the matter of conversion in Israel , today completed its hearings. Enclosed is the report and recommendations of the Committee.

The members of the Committee request that the Chief Rabbis of Israel consent to the Committee’s recommendations. Section 2 of the Committee’s recommendations, which deals with the procedure for conversion in Israel, imposes on the Chief Rabbis the duty of establishing rabbinical conversion courts. After the Chief Rabbis’ consent, the members of the Committee will sign the report and recommendations in the matter of conversion in Israel.

In light of the urgency and scope of the problem, the Committee requests all the relevant authorities to establish immediately the Institute for Jewish Studies and the rabbinical conversion courts.

Immediately upon receipt of the Chief Rabbis’ agreement with the aforementioned recommendations on conversion, the Committee will continue its hearings on the additional subjects.

Respectfully yours,


Ya’akov Neeman
Committee Chairman

cc: Members of the Committee

Conversion Law

January 1998


Part One - Introduction

1. Selection of the Committee

On 27 June 1997, the Prime Minister appointed a committee to develop ideas and proposals regarding the issue of religious conversion in Israel (hereafter: the Committee). The Letter of Appointment is annexed hereto as Appendix 1.

The members of the Committee took account of the legal situation in existence in this matter since establishment of the State, and also the acute problem facing the large numbers of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, have integrated into the educational system, the Israel Defense Forces, the public and private sector, the towns and villages throughout the country, and are not Jews according to halakhah [Jewish religious law]. These immigrants have been precluded from fully integrating into Israeli society, because, in part, they are prohibited from marrying Jews in Israel.

The problem of conversion in Israel is a difficult humanitarian problem – personal and national – that urgently requires a suitable solution.

2. The Committee Hearings
The Committee held fifty meetings, heard the testimony of almost 80 witnesses involved in conversion matters (as detailed in Appendix 2), and received extensive written material (as detailed in Appendix 3). The Committee’s members reached unanimous agreement that, beyond the question of the dispute between the streams of Judaism, a consensual solution must be found in the matter of conversion.

The Committee reached - after debate and profound and penetrating elucidation of the matter - an agreed-upon proposal that will lead to the arrangement described later in this document. It is emphasized that, although the debate was intense and dealt with basic principles, it was amicable, each participant respecting the other and believing that it was desirable and possible to reach understanding and agreement. This jointly-held understanding is particularly important because the subject involved is so emotionally charged that it has created a feeling of polarity and division among the public. The comments of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, Zaddik of Blessed Memory, in his article "It is my Brother I Seek," published in the Israeli press in September 1948, are particularly appropriate in this matter:

My brother and my sister, throughout our people, in all the political parties and all the organizations, known and unknown, revealed and unrevealed, and those who are not in political parties or in organizations - I beg all of you. Take pity on your souls and on the soul of all our people. Let us not ignore, even for a moment, the gravity of our responsibility concerning the dimension of the destruction and of the building that we are undertaking at this fearsome and exalted time, and do not let us desecrate the Lord, Heaven forbid. Let us not individually decide, each political party and organization and part, for we certainly all want the good of our people and the establishment of our country, that for only with Him lies all truth and justice. Let no one desire or imagine, being faced with the terrible situation in which we find ourselves, to impose his opinion on his neighbor; let us not forget, from the excitement of the holy ideal, that opinion cannot be imposed and will not be realized, but rather will become mixed, softened, and then vanish. Let us not disturb our public freedom in opinions and thoughts, in ambitions and plans, in elucidating and handling them, by transferring the boundaries of the use of physical force and rooting the hate and contempt of the heart. Let us recall that "He who raises his hand on his fellow is called an evil person," and that the negative relationship multiplies mutually and unceasingly between individuals and brothers. Let us reduce our written and verbal disagreements in public and prevent their realization, and let us not descend to the level of the incivility of the fist and the venom of negativity. Let us recall the intention of the ideal justice that is in each one of us, and let us find the correct and proper path to put the relationship between us in order and temper our tendencies. "Truth and justice of peace reigned at your gates, and do not think evil of your fellow in your heart." As we objected to physical force and nurturing the contrast, having preferred that which unites and joins us, which is decisive and greater than that which separates and disperses us, as we heeded and directed ourselves in the channel of our public activities, the possibility of mutual understanding and cooperation of discourse among us will increase, peace among us will increase, and our success and glory of our people will increase.

3. The Sole Method of Conversion in accordance with Halacha
The order of the day is that we strive to achieve unity, cooperation, and mutual respect. It is accepted and agreed that there should be a unified governmental conversion procedure – according to the law of Torah - that will be recognized by all of Israel. In this way it will be possible to ensure the unity of the Jewish people.

The proposed method for conversion is intended to ensure, to the extent possible, within the framework of halakhah, that the numerous current constraints and human distress be given maximum consideration.

4. The Institute for Jewish Studies
Ms. Ira Dashevski, in her impressive and convincing comments to the Committee, described the ideal of the immigrants to integrate totally into Israeli-Jewish society, so that they will be recognized for every purpose. She described the activity of the organization "Mahanayim" and its approach regarding immigrants. Committee members approve of the organization’s approach, which enables immigrants who are not Jews - where possible, together with their Jewish family members - to learn about the world of Judaism in an open manner, without any obligation on their part. For this reason, and because immigrants are dispersed throughout Israel, it is extremely important that the Institute for Jewish Studies –established in the manner recommended by the Committee and discussed below - operate in various locations throughout Israel, giving special emphasis to those areas where concentrations of immigrants are found, and provide suitable accessibility and programs of study to meet the needs of each person wanting to learn about Judaism’s values.

The composition of the Committee, which included, among others, a representative of the Reform movement and a representative of the Conservative movement, reflects a trend of cooperation among the streams of Judaism and toward unity of the Jewish people, a trend that is to be maintained. In implementing the recommendations of the Committee regarding the nature and activity of the Institute for Jewish Studies, this trend will become manifest. The Institute, intended to be a learning stage preceding the conversion process, and rooted in it, will reflect the entire Jewish population in Israel, in its variations and streams. It will include a variety of courses that will teach the student about Judaism. The curriculum will emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish people and its Torah, and what unites the Jewish people in its variations and streams. The program is intended to teach, prepare, and qualify the students - if they wish - for the conversion process conducted by special rabbinical courts for conversion.

5. Rabbinical Conversion Courts
The Chief Rabbis of Israel - as heads of the Jewish religious denomination for the purposes of the Religious Denomination (Conversion) Ordinance, as mentioned in HCJ 1031/93, Pasaro Goldstein v. Minister of the Interior (Piskei Din 39(4) 661), and pursuant to their functions set forth in the Chief Rabbi of Israel Law, 5740-1980, will establish special rabbinical courts for conversion and will appoint the courts’ members. The court will consist of three judges, in accordance with halakhah, as required for conversion (Shulchan Aruch, Yora Deah , chap. 388, secs. 3-4). The court will not be competent to adjudicate pursuant to the Rabbinical Judges Law, 5715-1955. Such conversion - being accepted by the Jewish people - will contribute to the unity of the Jewish people.

The desire to establish a standard and consensual process is understandable. Prior to its execution, during the period of the studies or upon their conclusion, each student can come to an educated decision as to whether he or she wants to apply to the Court to undergo the conversion process.

It is assumed that the aforementioned does not limit the discretion of the court, which will convert, according to halakhah, those whom it considers to have accepted the obligation of obeying the commandments.

A candidate for conversion "is taught the essentials of the religion, which is that the Lord is One and that idolatry is forbidden. This matter is further taught, and the candidate is instructed about some of the lesser commandments and some of the more serious commandments, but these are not taught at length," all as stated by Maimonides in Chapter 14 of Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah [Laws of Cohabitation] - "... do not be strict with him lest it bother him and cause him to stray from the good to the bad path already at the start, and do not draw him to you other than through soft and acceptable words.,,"

6. Necessity of Discourse
These "soft and acceptable words" must be embodied in each of the partners – when giving advice and in their actions - to the complex structure being devised in accordance with the Committee’s recommendations. The "together" and the contact are necessary. The words of Rabbi Yehonatan Iyvshitz, Zaddik of Blessed Memory, in his commentary "Tiferet Yehonatan" to Genesis, chap. 37, v. 4, are appropriate to our subject: That verse speaks about Joseph’s brothers who hated him, and "could not speak peaceably unto him." What prevented one from speaking peaceably with the other?

When a person feels a complaint in his heart and disaffection toward his fellow, the hate increases daily, but where he speaks to his fellow... the peace returns, and if the tribes could speak with him, it would have brought peace among them....

It cannot be denied: in matters dealing with faith and philosophy, there have been and still are disputes. The Committee does not purport to settle these disputes, but rather to propose an arrangement that will comprise an agreed, practical framework for conversions in Israel.

We were given the task of finding a way to live together in mutual respect despite different world views, and as a road that Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, Zaddik of Blessed Memory, wrote of in 1933 in his article "Trip of the Camps":

... And we must decide that there is a latent power leading toward the good in each of the camps and in each of the heads of the nation, and in the unification of all of these that the general value of the Jewish people and its hope are dear to them to the same degree.

Each person shall come to know his brother by the general name Israel, not by the name of the party or camp.

Know that in each camp, we have much to mend and much to receive from the light and the good of each other, that will result in a general supreme light from which we shall attain everlasting salvation. The holiest prayer of the Holy of Holies will dwell within us, and we shall express it with all our soul "and unite us into one group to do Your will with a faithful heart."

Acknowledgments and Appreciation

The Committee acknowledges with thanks the assistance it received during the course of its work, in particular:P Rabbi I. Ben Dahan, Administrator of the Rabbinical Courts, who participated in all the Committee’s hearings and assisted us greatly on the subject of conversion in practice.

Attorney Yitzhak Herzog, who coordinated the Committee’s work at the beginning, and then attorney Malka San, Deputy Legal Advisor of the Ministry of the Interior, who coordinated the work of the Committee and provided it with legal advice.

Attorney Shimon Stein, legal advisor of the Prime Minister’s Office, who participated in all of the Committee’s hearings and advised the Committee.

Mr. Bobby (David) Brown, Advisor to the Prime Minister for Diaspora Affairs, and Mr. Gidon Me’ir, Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Diaspora Affairs, who served as observers at all of the Committee’s hearings and assisted in foreign liaison matters for the Committee.

Attorney Ofra Friedman, Chairperson of Na’amat, and attorney Eti Pilpel, legal advisor of Na’amat, who were present at some of the meetings of the Committee as observers.

We also thank the secretary of the Committee, Ms. Judith Bensusan, and Ms. Idit Hakak.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, President of the Conservative movement, and Rabbi Michael Boyden, of the Reform movement, served as permanent replacements to members of the Committee.

We especially thank attorney Noam Solberg, Senior Assistant to the Attorney General, for his professional assistance, devotion, and diligence in drafting this report and for his insightful advice.

The Committee must also thank Minister Micha’el Eitan, Minister Natan Sharansky, and MK Alex Lubotsky, who led to the establishment of the Committee and accompanied us throughout.

Part Two -
Recommendations of the Committee

Section 1 - Institute for Jewish Studies

  1. The Institute for Jewish Studies (hereafter: the Institute) will be established under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. The State and the national institutions will allocate the necessary budget for establishment of the Institute and for its operation.
  2. The Institute will be responsible for organizing a program of studies to instruct the students in Judaism. The studies will take place at various locations in Israel and in various languages, in order to provide an appropriate response to the need of the public in the aforementioned area. The period of study in the Institute will extend for about one year.
    1. The Board of Directors of the Institute will be composed of seven members, one of whom shall be the chairperson, according to the composition of this Committee. Each of the members of the Board of Directors will be allowed, upon the approval of the chairperson, to appoint a permanent replacement. The permanent replacement may participate in all meetings of the Board of Directors.
    2. The chairperson of the Board of Directors and its members will be appointed, jointly, by the chairperson of the Ministerial Committee for Diaspora, Aliyah, and Absorption Affairs - with the approval of the Prime Minister - and by the chairperson of the Jewish Agency; the composition of the Board of Directors will reflect a representation of the entire Jewish population of Israel, in all its variations and streams.
    3. The Committee recommends that during the initial period of service of the Board of Directors, the following be appointed to serve as members:
  3. The Board of Directors of the Institute will determine its operating procedures and may appoint sub-committees in accordance with the objectives of the Institute.

    The courses of study at the Institute are intended, subject to section 6, for citizens of Israel and for immigrants who are not registered as Jews.

  4. The Board of Directors of the Institute will determine the general acceptance procedures and may also permit a non-citizen of Israel or a person who is not an immigrant to study at the Institute, taking into account the position of the Ministry of the Interior regarding the persons continuing stay in Israel.
    1. Studies at the Institute will be conducted in the following subjects: the written and oral law; halakhah - commandments relating to matters between individuals, and commandments relating the relationship between individuals and the Almighty; customs; Jewish thought and principles of faith; Jewish history; contemporary Judaism; Zionism and the struggle for the establishment and building of the State of Israel
    2. The curriculum will emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish people, its teachings, and that which unites the Jewish people, in its variations and streams.
    3. Each student will determine the study program appropriate for him or her.
  5. The curriculum, including the particulars of the courses and meeting their requirements, living the religious experience, and selection of teachers and instructors will be consistent with the objectives of the Institute, and will be the responsibility of the Board of Directors of the Institute and subject to its supervision.
  6. An individual who successfully completed his or her studies at the Institute will receive a certificate. The certificate will state that the said individual successfully completed his or her studies at the Institute for Jewish Studies in preparation for conversion. The certificate will be presented to the Rabbinical Conversion Court mentioned in section 2.

    Section 2 - Process of Conversion in Israel.

    1. The Chief Rabbis of Israel will establish special rabbinical courts for conversion (hereafter: Rabbinical Conversion Courts) and will appoint the members of the Rabbinical Conversion Courts.
    2. The Rabbinical Conversion Courts will be established in various locations in Israel in accordance with the population’s needs.
  7. The State will allocate funds for the establishment of the Rabbinical Conversion Courts and for their ongoing operation.
  8. Conversion in Israel will be performed by the Rabbinical Conversion Courts according to the law of Torah. State institutions will recognize only these conversions.

    Section 3 - Validity of the Arrangement

  9. This arrangement constitutes an expression of the agreement of all the members of the Committee and the bodies they represent; it will be submitted, in order to be given the validity of a court judgment, at any legal proceeding dealing with conversion in Israel.
  10. The members of the Committee will serve as members of a committee to monitor implementation of the arrangement for the next five years.

Sources: Israeli Prime Minister's Office