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  • "Israeli" Halakha:The Chief Rabbinate's Conversion-to-Judaism Policy 1948-2018
  • Netanel Fisher (bio)


This article presents, for the first time in the literature, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's policy on conversion to Judaism during the past seventy years. It focuses on the conversion policy applied to immigrants who are non-Jewish according to Jewish (Orthodox) parameters. The article's main question is: what was the rabbinical establishment's policy regarding the conversion of non-Jewish immigrants? Did the Israeli establishment encourage non-Jewish immigrants to convert to Judaism so that they could fully join the Jewish majority society, or did it, on the contrary, raise the level of requirements and make it difficult for them to convert? This question reflects a deeper one: How did the establishment of the State of Israel affect Israeli halakhic ruling? Was the creation of a Jewish sovereign state halakhicly significant for the Israeli rabbis?

The main argument presented in this study is that the halakhic policy of conversion was indeed deeply influenced by the state, and that Israeli halakhic ruling has unique characteristics distinguishing it from Orthodox rulings in the Diaspora. At first sight, this claim is not new; many scholars have already demonstrated "Religious Zionist influence" on halakhic rulings on conversion to Judaism as well as on other issues.1 The exposure of new sources in this article reinforces this claim by providing further in depth scholarly analysis of this topic. At the same time, this article will also point out the limitations of this claim by revealing Zionist rabbis' difficulties in applying Israeli halakha. Finally, while the Ultra-Orthodox's influence on contempoary struggles over conversion in Israel today is well known, this article shows that as much as the Ultra-Orthodox have influenced the state's policies on conversion, the state has in turn shaped the Ultra-Orthodox's views [End Page 61] of conversion. Thus, while not necessarily Zionist, the Ultra-Orthodox position is essentially Israeli.

Most current studies in this field have focused either on the Israeli political establishment's conversion policies,2 or on the halakhic writings published by prominent rabbis.3 But this study strives to examine how halakhic and ideological ideas have been translated into practice. Therefore, this article is based not only on the analysis of halakhic responsa, but also on newly revealed archival materials, including correspondences and minutes of the Chief Rabbinate, and interviews with those who were familiar with the inside story. It also presents an annual conversion report from 1948 till the present. With all these sources, it aspires to present and analyze seventy years of the Israeli rabbinate's policies on conversion to Judaism.

The practical orientation enables us to depict the gap between halakhic language and ruling, which is typically theoretical, and the problem of actual implementation. Thus, the study reveals how some Zionist rabbis did not succeed in implementing their moderate religious-Zionist approach, and some were not interested in doing so due to what they regarded as an illegitimate "stretching" of the halakhic boundaries. At the same time, this practical perspective also shows that a notion of collective responsibility has led some Haredi-establishment rabbis to adopt more lenient and expansive conversion policies.

The article begins with an overview of how the modern situation expanded Jewish collective boundaries and how the entry of non-Jews into Jewish society was addressed. It proceeds to examine the development of new concepts of Jewish identity, including a national-secular one, and the ways in which such a notion influenced Israeli policy concerning immigration and naturalization of non-Jews. Finally, a review and analysis of the Israeli rabbinical establishment's policies on the issue of conversion to Judaism is presented, constituting the innovative core of this study.

conversion to judaism in the face of modernity

In Judaism, conversion is the procedure of entering into the Jewish people and religion. The basic requirements of conversion, including immersion in a ritual bath (tevilah), ritual circumcision for males (brit milah), and acceptance of the Torah commandments (mitzvot), were formulated in Talmudic times. The relative paucity of requests to convert to Judaism, and the lack of separation between Judaism as a religion and...


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