Analysis: The rabbis vs. the jurists

The old tension between religion and state is rearing its head once again.

May 18, 2009 22:49
2 minute read.
Analysis: The rabbis vs. the jurists

Druckman 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The old tension between religion and state is rearing its head once again. The battle has begun. On one side are rabbis, products of the world's best yeshivot and institutes of Talmudic studies, informed by an ancient Jewish tradition set down in the Talmud and the vast rabbinical literature that spans centuries. On the other side are judges, among the brightest scholars of Western jurisprudence, who are influenced by liberal, humanistic and decidedly secular modern thought. In the middle are thousands of converts, most of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These newcomers to Israel received automatic citizenship under the Law of Return, even though they are not Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish criteria because, for instance, their father was Jewish but their mother was not. These immigrants quickly discovered, however, that to be a full-fledged citizen of the modern Jewish state they had to embrace a demanding form of Orthodox Jewish practice adhered to by only a minority of Israeli citizens. Only by converting to Orthodox Judaism would they be allowed to marry by the Chief Rabbinate. Only by converting to Judaism would they feel that they truly belonged to a state that defines itself as "Jewish." Over the past two decades, as the waves of immigration from the FSU began to arrive in Israel, about 300,000 non-Jews have come as well. A few thousand of them converted to Judaism under the guidance of Orthodox rabbinical courts. But over the years a rift has grown between two camps in the Orthodox rabbinical world. One camp, dominated by religious Zionist rabbis, looks upon the mass conversion of these non-Jewish immigrants to Israel as a national duty aimed at ensuring a culturally unified Jewish-Israeli society. Rabbi Haim Druckman, the outgoing head of the National Conversion Authority, represents this camp. The other camp is made up of halachic purists, most of whom are haredi, who oppose any compromises in ancient Jewish law. Because their Zionist sentiments are not strong, they reject the claim that mass conversion is important for the strengthening of Jewish state. A representative of this camp, High Rabbinic Court Judge Avraham Sherman, even went so far as questioning the validity of hundreds of conversions performed or overseen by Druckman. The internal battle between these two camps of rabbis has led to the intervention of the Supreme Court. The justices of the court want to know why the rabbis are bickering among themselves and why so many converts might suffer from this bickering. In the process, the secular Supreme Court might end up ruling in an inherently religious issue. This makes many rabbis nervous and angry. They see it as a violation of their jurisdiction. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they have brought it on themselves.

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