Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Last Thursday the High Court of Justice took another step toward weakening the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish expression. The court should be commended for doing so.
An expanded panel of justices ruled in an 8-1 decision that conversions to Judaism performed by rabbinical courts in Israel not aligned with the Chief Rabbinate must be recognized by the state. This means that non-Israeli nationals who convert in Israel in private rabbinical courts will be eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Until now, only converts approved by the Chief Rabbinate could receive automatic citizenship.
We welcome this decision as it weakens an institution that provides a living example of how power corrupts and a constant reminder of the dangers of mixing religion with politics.
Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a bunch of religious functionaries. They decide who can marry and who cannot; they decide who can divorce and under which conditions; they decide which food is kosher and which is not. And for too long now they have had control over a purely civil matter: who is eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and who is not.
Though the justices addressed conversions performed by Orthodox rabbinical courts, the decision should open the way for Reform and Masorati (Conservative) rabbinical courts to perform conversions as well.
Already in 1989, the High Court ruled that anyone who underwent a conversion to Judaism abroad – whether in an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative ceremony – was eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. It makes little sense to distinguish between a conversion performed abroad and a conversion performed in Israel, particularly since the High Court has just ruled that the Chief Rabbinate has no monopoly over conversion in Israel.
In coming weeks the haredi parties in the government coalition will likely push legislation that would bypass the High Court ruling. Haredi lawmakers have already vowed to try to pass a law that empowers the Chief Rabbinate with sole jurisdiction over conversion.
But this will set the government on a collision course with Diaspora Jewry – particularly in America where the vast majority of Jews are non-Orthodox.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is probably experiencing deja vu. During his first stint as prime minister in 1996 his government clashed with Diaspora Jewry over the “Who is a Jew” issue. To avoid alienating Reform and Conservative Jews, Netanyahu avoided passing legislation that would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive say over deciding who is a Jew.
No government since has dared to either.
We recommend that the present government maintain that policy of keeping the question of “Who is a Jew” out of the hands of a bunch of ultra-conservative, politically connected rabbis, at least with regard to citizenship. The State of Israel should not be governed by the religious dictates of religious extremists who represent just a fraction of the Jewish people.
The State of Israel was created to provide a national home for Jews of all kinds regardless of their affiliation or denomination. The State of Israel belongs to Reform and Conservative Jews no less than it belongs to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Those who attack the ruling seem not to understand that Judaism is infinitely bigger and more beautiful than the Chief Rabbinate. Judaism survived before there was a Chief Rabbinate. It thrives today in places where the Chief Rabbinate has no say. And it will continue to flourish when the Chief Rabbinate ceases to exist.
It is unfortunate that the High Court is forced to take action time and again to curtail the Chief Rabbinate’s abuse of power. Our political leaders should be the ones ensuring that the State of Israel remains a home for the entire Jewish people. But when our elected officials fail to perform their role as Jewish leaders it is reassuring to know that there are judges in Jerusalem who will fill in the vacuum.