When Chelsea Clinton met David Rotem

American Jewry must set aside its long-term goals and help the modern-Orthodox effort to convert communism’s survivors.

By
August 6, 2010 15:32
Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky wedding

Chelsea Clinton wedding 311. (photo credit: AP/Genevieve de Manio)

Hardly a month after Israeli lawmakers annoyed it with a bill that favored Orthodox conversions, American Jewry responded in kind, staging a spectacular intermarriage.

The pictures were striking: an American Jew, one Marc Mezvinsky, voluntarily wearing a tallit, donning a kippa and inviting a rabbi as well as a priest to preside over his marriage to a visibly euphoric Chelsea Clinton.

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To most Israelis the wedding pictures were bizarre at best, alarming at worst.

Observant Israelis were reminded of the biblical Zimri, the notable who paraded with a Midyanite woman in front of “the entire community of the sons of Israel,” including Moses, moments before a zealot summarily stabbed them both to death.

Secular Israelis, for whom the joint appearance of a priest and a rabbi is usually the beginning of a joke, were confounded by the groom’s clinging to Jewish symbols even while marrying a Gentile; here, after all, thoroughbred Jewish couples sometimes sail beyond the horizon to deliberately rid their weddings of all things Judaic. In America, they now learned, even Jews marrying out of the faith sometimes drag a rabbi to their canopy, and even a well-born shikse might seriously consider converting.

Yes, Israelis often fail to understand that in America, Judaism is universally respected, and religion in general is not a set of restrictions, dogmas and superstitions, but a source of guidance, inspiration and comfort. And true, just what will become of American Jewry remains to be seen, but for now Middle Israelis must admire its social success.

Who knows, the future may yet prove that thousands of partially Jewish Americans, of the sort that Chelsea Clinton may soon bear, will not constitute a loss to the Jewish nation but a gain; that even if they remain ignorant about Judaism, they might still produce more sympathizers with Zionism. And who knows, maybe between them America’s pro-Israeli Christians and semi-Jewish Americans are unwittingly giving rise to a new interfaith harmony from which mankind can only benefit? Maybe this is the emergence of Isaiah’s divine house on a mountain that “shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it”?



In short, we Israelis should think again before ridiculing an American Jew’s arrival for his own intermarriage sandwiched between a tallit, a kippa and a rabbi.

By the same token, American Jews should be equally humble before decrying Israel’s handling of its own semi-Jews.

THE CHALLENGE of semi-Jewishness arrived in two inverted forms: In America it’s about full Jews becoming half- Jews, while in Israel it’s about half-Jews becoming full Jews. The anguish of some 300,000 partial Jews – who arrived here voluntarily and have served in the IDF, often gallantly, only to learn they couldn’t marry here because of rabbinical nitpicking – must end. As Ariel Sharon once put it, someone who travels here from afar, fights with us and considers himself part of the Jewish people – is a Jew.

Obviously, this loose definition is a nonstarter from an Orthodox standpoint. Judaism never had the equivalents of Paul, Mohammed or the Reverend Moon; it never launched membership drives nor was it disturbed by the existence of other faiths. So disinterested was Judaism in its artificial expansion that it devised the demanding, complex and protracted conversion process that Israel’s partial Jews now face, and everyone except the ultra- Orthodox want to see eased.

This was the backdrop against which Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem last month introduced a bill that would disabuse prospective converts of the current obligation to convert through the local rabbi, no matter how narrow minded he may be, and allow converts instead to shop around the country for lenient rabbis, provided they are part of the Chief Rabbinate. The downside of this is that it means formally ruling out Conservative and Reform conversions as options for Israel’s semi-Jews; hence the American Jewish outcry.

THE WAY America’s Reform and Conservative movements see it, the battle over conversion in Israel is between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. Well it isn’t. Rather, it’s between ultra-Orthodoxy and modern Orthodoxy, and to join this battle, American Jewry must set aside its longer-term agendas and help Israel’s modern-Orthodoxy win this battle.

The modern-Orthodox are inspired by Rabbi Johanan Ben-Zakai, the sage who saved Jewish observance the morning after the Destruction by adjusting Jewish law to the absence of the Temple. One of his great amendments was the cancelation of the demand that a convert make an offering at the Temple. If not for his vision and courage, there would be no way for non-Jews to become Jews.

Ultra-Orthodoxy, at the same time, seems inspired by Shamai, the sage who according to the Talmud repeatedly and angrily turned down would-be converts who provoked him with unusual questions, while his great adversary, the tolerant Hillel, still converted them.

It should be said in favor of Shamai that, besides having been a working man (it seems he was a construction worker), he lived before the Destruction, and can therefore not be compared with Johanan Ben-Zakai, who survived the Destruction and was demanded to salvage his nation’s spirit from the Temple’s ruins. Today we know that Ben-Zakai rose to the occasion, because he lent his ear to history’s footsteps.

Now ours is also a historically unique moment, one in which thousands who survived a 70-year-long attack on Judaism arrived in our midst. To come to them now with magnifying glasses and make their conversion process a nightmare is not only absurd, inhumane and anti-Israeli, it is also dubious as far as Jewish law itself is concerned, since historically a convert’s observance was not reviewed once he converted.

Here, however, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have revoked modern-Orthodox conversions retroactively, evidently serving ultra-Orthodoxy’s sectarian interests, rather than serve the general Jewish interest, which is to welcome back any victim of anti-Semitism.

As Rabbi Benni Lau put it, Ruth, the role model for all converts, first said “your people is my people” and only then “your God is my God.” Israel’s partial Jews – by having endured communism and then joined us here, fought with us, and openly identified as Jews – have effectively said “your people is my people”; they can therefore not be treated as strangers who have just joined us out of the blue.

It would have been nice if Israeli non- Orthodoxy were sizable enough to confront ultra-Orthodoxy’s effort to make 300,000 Israelis Gentile, but the fact is it’s too small. Modern Orthodoxy, by contrast, is sizable, organically planted within the Israeli system, and eager to help Israel’s semi-Jews become Jews. What stands in their way is Binyamin Netanyahu’s strategic alliance with ultra- Orthodoxy.

It follows, that on conversion the Jewish nation right now needs a strategic alliance between modern Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. For this to happen, Conservative and Reform movements humbly concede that to reshape the Israeli conversion system they must first get more of their flock to live here. Until then, they would do well to let others handle Igor and Svetlana, while the rest of us leave it for them to handle Chelsea and Marc.

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