On issues relating to Jewish identity in Israel, Diaspora Jews are not only
entitled but are obliged to be party to discussions.
However, the current
upheaval over the proposed Rotem conversion legislation has limited bearing on
Diaspora or American Jews as it relates only to conversions
Ironically however, the brouhaha from US Conservative and Reform
groups – while based on false premises – had a positive impact, forcing the
government to at least temporarily postpone the legislation.
one brief moment in 1998 when current Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman came close
to achieving a consensual agreement for conversions that would have been
consistent both with Halacha and accommodating the major requirements of the
Conservative and Reform Jewish organizations.
Regrettably, it was
ultimately sabotaged by hard-liners from both sides. Since then, it has been
clear that in the foreseeable future this issue will not be resolved by
legislation or fiat and will remain a matter of contention between opposing
But today we face an impending crisis that cannot await
the resolution of this issue.
Since their arrival, 350,000 immigrants,
primarily from the former Soviet Union, most having one Jewish parent, remain in
a nightmarish limbo.
On the one hand, they consider themselves Israelis
in every respect, attend Israeli schools, serve in the IDF and and are willing
to lay their lives down for their country. Yet due to historical circumstances
beyond their control they are not regarded as halachically Jewish.
consequence, 90,000 of them born here, who will soon be of marriageable age are
considered “ticking time bombs.”
They will become deeply alienated when
they discover that they are unable to obtain state certification for a marriage
ceremony or even be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
YET IT is not an
insolvable problem. There was an equivalent predicament with the Ethiopian
aliya, which in terms of Halacha was far more problematic. But due to the
foresight and creative intervention of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef the problem was
resolved within a halachic framework.
The proposed conversion legislation
introduced by MK David Rotem on behalf of Israel Beiteinu was intended to
resolve the problem by broadening the conversion authority to a cross-section of
rabbis including those more sensitive to the need to exercise maximum halachic
flexibility to those seeking to convert.
However, after Rotem naïvely
accepted the haredi amendments, the proposed legislation would in reality have
worsened the current intolerable situation and further institutionalized control
of the conversion procedure by the most extreme elements. Currently applicants
to local rabbinical courts requiring certification that they are Jewish
frequently undergo a draconian interrogation. Many are treated in the first
instance as if they were not Jewish and even obliged to provide birth and death
certificates and marriage contracts going back three generations – documents
which are frequently simply unavailable.
Currently, the majority of
rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate are programmed to dissuade potential
converts by imposing the most stringent barriers to conversion at a time when it
is in the national interest to encourage Israelis who are not halachically
Jewish to become part of the formal religiously sanctioned community. They
recently even took the unprecedented step of attempting to retroactively annul
15,000 conversions conducted by the unquestionably Orthodox Rabbi Haim Druckman
– a step unheard of in Jewish tradition. This is all the more bizarre because
the haredim themselves refuse to recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate,
which they hijacked merely to coerce the Israeli community to adhere to their
stringent standards of religious ritual observance.
Ish-Shalom, the founding chairman of the Joint Conversion Institute and Beit
Morasha, is recognized as one of the most devoted and committed Orthodox
intellectuals seeking to promote Jewish values and build bridges between
religious and secular Israelis. But even he concluded that the proposed law will
incur “more damage than good and set dangerous precedents with potentially
He maintains that the proposed legislation would
enable the centralized Supreme Rabbinical Court to control the placement of
rabbis and thus exclude any Tzohar or centrist rabbi who has a sympathetic
approach to conversion. The legislation would also require a beit din to be
composed of three municipal rabbis who could not appoint substitute rabbis –
making it practically impossible for such bodies to operate.
also points out that by providing for review of conversions by the Supreme
Rabbinical Court, the proposed law provides a green light to the annulment of
any previous conversion undertaken by the state which could inflict additional
suffering on converts.
It is noteworthy that Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas
MK, recently published a scholarly book promoting a more positive attitude
toward converts, especially children of Jewish ancestry who serve in the IDF,
which he claims in itself reflects a sincere intention of becoming part of the
Jewish people. However, none of the 34 current conversion judges appointed by
the state would concur with his position and the entire haredi establishment
bitterly attacked him, describing his work as “a mockery of Halacha,” but could
not fault the bona fides of his halachic approach.
The immediate problem
is the operation of the multimillion shekel state-sponsored conversion
enterprise controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which only converts a few hundred
immigrants each year. It should be dissolved and substituted by a process
whereby a broader range of Orthodox rabbis should have the authority to form a
beit din to process conversions, as has been the case in Diaspora communities
throughout the ages.
Those who consider that these conversions are
insufficiently stringent are not obliged to recognize them – a situation which
already prevails among many haredim, who would not accept within their families
those converted outside of their own immediate rabbinical circles.
are the religious Zionists in the Knesset responding to this? Some, without
adequately checking the facts, have foolishly endorsed the legislation and a few
However, the majority privately whisper that the
legislation is retrograde but lack the courage to speak out in opposition,
fearful of being castigated by the haredim.
If they remain silent on such
an important issue, it is high time for them to retire from politics. If their
one-dimensional obsession with settlements has led them to abdicating the
central religious life issues to haredim, they should become a straightforward
settlement party and cease claiming to represent the viewpoint of religious
Their deafening silence in this debate is cowardly. There is a
desperate need for religious Zionist activists who are willing to promote a
religious Jewish world outlook by example, not by coercion, and willing to
indulge in dialogue with other sections of the Israeli and Jewish world without
being intimidated by haredim.
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