ACTIVISTS TAKE part in a demonstration in Jerusalem in July against legislation that would have strengthened the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Based on recommendations presented Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by former minister Moshe Nissim, a new conversion authority would be set up and have the power to approve conversions without needing to first receive input from the Chief Rabbinate.
“To my distress, the governments of Israel have sinned, since, from the beginning of the aliya [of Soviet Jewry], we should have thought about this problem,” said Nissim, who also happens to be the son of Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, the Sephardic chief rabbi from 1955 to 1972.
We couldn’t agree more. For too long, consecutive governments in Israel have decided to pretend that Israel does not face this problem. That there aren’t hundreds of thousands of Israelis who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return from the former Soviet Union and are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox Halacha. These governments have decided to ignore the fact that the country’s conversion policies have alienated millions of Jews from around the world who belong to progressive Jewish movements like Reform and Conservative Judaism.
While Nissim’s proposed bill would require that all conversions done in the state still be performed in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, it would, for the first time, formally recognize Reform and Conservative conversions done abroad for the purpose of aliya.
Unsurprisingly, the haredi political parties have rejected the bill, saying that they would vote against it. We can already predict the potential coalition crisis that will erupt if Netanyahu decides to move it forward through the Knesset’s legislative process.
Nevertheless, we would urge him to do so. It is time to stop letting a minority within the state hold the entire country hostage. While we respect haredim and their steadfast adherence to Orthodox Halacha, they do not have the right to dictate to others how to lead their lives.
Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman’s demand this week to close down Mahane Yehuda marketplace’s popular Jerusalem nightlife venues of bars and restaurants shows what happens when too much power is given to a minority. They begin to think they can control everything. Mahane Yehuda is already not open on Shabbat but Litzman now also wants it closed every weeknight. Why? Simply because he can.
Earlier this week, we came out strongly against recent insults to religion and particularly to the prayer ritual of Tefillin. But that does not mean that we think all Israelis need to don Tefillin. Everyone has the right to practice religion the way they want to or not at all.
Nissim’s proposal is a chance for Netanyahu to finally break free of the haredi stranglehold over matters of religion and state in Israel. He should also use the opportunity to finally push through the Kotel compromise that he cancelled a year ago despite approving it in his cabinet 18 months before.
It is true that this might lead to a breakdown of his coalition but the time has come to test the haredi parties. They too enjoy sitting in this coalition and reaping benefits like never before. Some politicians believe that they are a paper tiger – they threaten and yell but when push comes to shove, they will not risk all of the economic benefits they have gained – even if a new conversion bill is passed in the Knesset or an egalitarian plaza is formally recognized at the Western Wall.
Nissim is right that the time has come to end the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over all matters related to religious services. This should pertain to marriage and divorce, kashrut supervision and conversion. This is not because we would like to see the State of Israel become less Jewish but rather because we believe that the opposite will happen.
As we have argued in the past, dismantling the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly would likely lead to greater religious expression since it would enable freely chosen diversity.
Being called the “Jewish State” carries with it responsibility. That means that Israel belongs to all Jews and not just to the haredim or the Orthodox.
Now is an opportunity to prove that truth.
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