Haredi Soldiers 311.
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
In Israel we cannot expect the same radical separation of church and state that
characterizes western democracies. This is, after all, a state that
defines itself as both democratic and Jewish.
It is a state that was
specifically created to empower the Jewish people with political
self-determination, particularly after the Holocaust provided tragic proof of
the failure of emancipation without statehood. The profound ties of the Jewish
people to this particular sliver of land in the Mideast and the centuries of
yearning to return to it can never be fully appreciated without an understanding
of the Jewish people’s religious tradition.
This connection between state
and religion finds expression in legislation such as the Law of Return, which
guarantees automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jews, or laws that ensure all
marriages are conducted in a way that promotes Jewish continuity and prevents
NEVERTHELESS, WE must be vigilant in avoiding the many
pitfalls of mixing state and religion. Recent controversies surrounding
conversions are a case in point.
Over the past several months a fiery
battle has been waged in Israel among vying Orthodox factions on the backs of
thousands of IDF soldiers who converted to Judaism during their mandatory
On one side stand Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas and the most respected living
halachic authority for Sephardi Jews, who recently ruled that the thousands of
conversions undergone by IDF soldiers over the past decade are completely
On the other side stands the haredi Ashkenazi rabbinic
establishment, led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which rejects the conversions
performed by the IDF’s rabbinical courts because the court judges are
purportedly too lax in their conversion criteria.
A similar argument is
raging regarding Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora, particularly in
North America. An absurd situation has been created in which Reform and
Conservative conversions performed in America are immediately recognized for
Israeli citizenship, while Orthodox conversions, which are at least as rigorous
as the non-Orthodox variety, are not.
This is because the Interior
Ministry, presently controlled by Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, defers to the Chief
Rabbinate of Israel when vetting Orthodox converts who are candidates for
citizenship. One of the criteria is that the convert belong to a recognized
But the Chief Rabbinate is not in contact with many
Orthodox communities in America. The local Reform and Masorti leaderships, in
contrast, have excellent ties with all their affiliated communities.
there were a separation of religion and state in Israel, the internal splits and
power struggles taking place within Orthodoxy over the idiosyncrasies of Halacha
would not be the concern of the wider public. However, this is not the
The fate of thousands of Orthodox converts rests in the hands of
bickering rabbis. Whether or not an IDF convert will be allowed to marry in an
Orthodox ceremony here in Israel depends on which rabbi he or she approaches to
register for marriage. Whether or not an Orthodox convert from America will be
granted Israeli citizenship depends on the whim of the chief
The “Who is a Jew?” question thus depends on who is the
WHILE A Jeffersonian-style separation of religion and state is not
an option here, state-recognized religious authority must not be relegated
solely to the most stringent, narrow-minded version of Judaism. Instead, steps
should be taken to promote the expression of the beautiful diversity of opinion
on conversions that exists in Judaism, whether it be in connection with marital
law or citizenship eligibility.
At the very least, the Chief Rabbinate’s
monopoly over marriage registration, which too often has been hijacked by the
most extremist representatives of Orthodoxy, should be dissolved and the various
streams within Orthodoxy should be permitted to conduct marriages in any place
in the nation.
Ideally, recognized non-Orthodox streams – Reform,
Conservative and Reconstructionist – should be allowed to do so as well – as
long as they adhere to basic consensus tenets, such as matrilineal
With respect to Israeli citizenship, we wholeheartedly embrace
the initiative put forward by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky that his
organization, not the Chief Rabbinate, be responsible for determining whether a
Diaspora convert belongs to a recognized Jewish community or not.
challenge of maintaining the connection between Judaism and the state is one of
Israel’s unique challenges.
Giving voice to a broader, more inclusive
coalition of representatives of Judaism will make it easier for more people to
find their place among the Jewish people of Israel.