Conversion conflict - a Zionism issue
'Most converts via Conversion Authority remain gentile in their behavior.'
conversion class students 248.88 Photo: Hilary Leila Krieger [file]
A nasty legalistic brawl that casts in doubt the Jewishness of hundreds of converts to Judaism is really a clash of political ideologies vis-a-vis Zionism, rabbis on both sides of the fray said Monday.
The clash between rabbis who see the creation of the State of Israel as a positive sign from God signaling a step closer to final redemption and those who reject any religious implications resulting from the renewal of Jewish sovereignty comes as Israelis prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their independence on Thursday.
Last week, a panel of three haredi, non-Zionist rabbis belonging to the High Rabbinical Court, the state's highest rabbinic institution, caused an upheaval in the Orthodox rabbinical world after publishing a caustically incriminating indictment of the head of Israel's Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, who is a religious Zionist.
The haredi judges' decision effectively annulled retroactively hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of conversions performed between 1999 and 2003 by Druckman.
Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the haredi rabbinic judge who wrote the decision, accused Druckman of forging documents to make it seem as if he were present at dozens of conversions when, in actuality, he was represented by proxy.
But Sherman's main thrust was an attack on Druckman and other judges in the Conversion Authority, the vast majority of whom are religious Zionists, who saw the endeavor of mass conversion in Israel as a "national goal".
"All these rabbis have one thing in common," Sherman wrote, referring to rabbis serving on state-run conversion courts.
"They all see in conversion a sacred commandment as part of their national responsibility ... in other words, the conversion is not primarily the spiritual and religious need of the individual convert who wishes to join the Jewish people and accept upon himself all the commandments. Rather, conversion is a means of improving the spiritual situation of the entire Jewish nation living in Israel. It is a way of bringing Jews closer to their Judaism.
"But, in reality, for dozens of years now the vast majority of converts via the Conversion Authority remain gentile in their behavior, except for the performance of rituals, which remain for these converts empty of spiritual content. These converts see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people solely in a patriotic, nationalistic way, without any religiously significant feelings of belonging. Therefore, these [conversion court] rabbis should be seen as intentional transgressors of Jewish law."
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a member of Tzohar Rabbis, a group of religious Zionist spiritual leaders, said Sherman's arguments proved that the historical processes that brought the Jewish people back to the Land of Israel had no religious significance for him.
"Since the creation of the State of Israel rabbis have argued over its theological significance," he said.
"Should we see the creation of the State of Israel as the return of the people to its rightful land as part of a larger eschatological process, as religious Zionists believe, or is it just a bunch of individual Jews who happen to have landed in the Holy Land together by coincidence, as the haredim believe."
A senior member of the Conversion Authority, who preferred to remain anonymous, said conversions serve the national interest and are, therefore, a mitzvah.
"We are talking about a group of people who ended up in Israel because they have some sort of connection with the Jewish people," the source said.
"Their mother may not be Jewish, which makes them gentile according to Halacha. But their father is Jewish, or one of their grandparents is Jewish or they are married to a Jew. As a result, they are considered "of the seed of Israel."
"In addition, they totally identify as Jews. They do not see themselves as gentiles. They serve in the IDF, they are patriotic, they are Zionistic. We have a duty to bring them closer to the Jewish people."
The source also pointed out that if the approximately 300,000 non-Jews who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return are not converted, there will be intermarriage and assimilation.
"The haredim are not part of any of Israel's national endeavors because they do not see any religious value in the creation of the State of Israel. That's why they don't serve in the IDF and they don't identify with Zionism. They also don't think their children, who are brought up in isolated communities, will ever marry non-Jewish immigrants or their offspring. But I think they are wrong."
Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a senior lecturer of Talmud at Bar Ilan, said that Sherman's decision was unprecedented in halachic literature.
"I would hope that Sherman was making a principled argument in terms of the need for converts to accept upon themselves adherence to Orthodox Jewish law [kabbalat mitzvot]," said Woolf. "But Sherman's across-the-board disqualification of rabbis and Torah scholars... That, to my knowledge, in the field of halachic literature is unprecedented."
Woolf called Sherman's dispute with religious Zionists a dissent in the field of religious policy, not ideology.
"A certain religious policy may lead a halachic decisor to lean in a certain direction. That is also what pushed Sherman to excoriate rabbis who hold the position that the broader needs of the Jewish people are a halachic consideration.
"I just hope this controversy will be solved, because we are talking about an issue that could make or break Jewish unity. I am not saying to give up on principles. But we are not only playing with people's individual status, but also with the life and death of the state of Israel, because maintaining Jewish unity is our most important source of strength."