Free-market Judaism

Who is a Jew? There's more than one answer.

May 3, 2010 11:44
3 minute read.
Free-market Judaism

Rabbinate 224.88. (photo credit: Knesset Channel)


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The “Who is a Jew?” question threatens once again to drive a wedge of dissent between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,  especially North American Jewry. Leaders of the three major non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in America – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – issued a joint statement over the weekend to that effect.

“To explicitly connect conversion to a single religious stream,” wrote the leaders,  “while making no mention of other streams of Judaism... is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded and relies,  and would detrimentally affect the worldwide Jewish community.”

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The leaders were referring to a conversion bill proposed by MK David Rotem (Israel Beitenu). Rotem, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, hopes to make it easier for an estimated 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring who are not Jewish according to Halacha, to convert to Judaism.

Incorporating Orthodox rabbis with a more open-minded, lenient and welcoming approach to conversion will lead, Rotem hopes, to a rise in the number of conversions, which presently stands at about 2,000 a year.

However, non-Orthodox Jews are concerned that the bill, a product of political negotiations with Shas and United Torah Judaism, includes concessions to haredi interests that would extend to conversion the Orthodox monopoly that already exists over almost every aspect of religious authority – from marriage to divorce and to burial, from the funding of synagogue construction to the appointment of local rabbis.

At present, there is no law that gives the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions performed in Israel. A Supreme Court decision is pending on the matter. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the State of Israel must provide automatic citizenship to individuals who have undergone non-Orthodox conversions abroad.

For the first time in Israel’s history, Rotem’s bill states clearly that the Chief Rabbinate is authorized to “deal with” conversions. And haredi MKs want even more explicit language that would give the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over who can become a member of the Jewish people, at least in Israel.

PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu must be experiencing deja vu.

Back in 1997, when he was serving his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu faced an even more severe “Who is a Jew?” crisis. Haredi legislators in his government coalition were pushing for a law that would deny Israeli citizenship to non-Orthodox converts from the Diaspora. Non-Orthodox leaders were warning of a irreparable rift between the Diaspora and Zion.

At the height of the crisis, in November 1997, in a speech before the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis, Netanyahu sagaciously noted that legislation would never solve the “Who is a Jew?” controversy. He hoped that by bringing together Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders under the aegis of the Neeman Committee, the three streams would settle their differences. That did not happen, due primarily to the Chief Rabbinate’s intransigence.

Thirteen years later, Netanyahu’s observation still rings true: Legislation is not the solution. But the failure of the Neeman Commission proves that dialogue does not work either.

Instead, the question of “Who is a Jew?” should be opened up to the competing definitions of the major recognized streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

As in the Diaspora, potential converts in Israel should be permitted to operate as sovereign selves. They should be given the freedom to choose among the different streams of Judaism. They should be allowed to join the Jewish people in a way that feels right for them. The same holds true for other religious services presently monopolized by the Chief Rabbinate.

Free market forces, which Netanyahu so adeptly utilized as finance minister to strengthen the nation’s economy, should be used to invigorate religiosity.

Sociologists of religion such as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have found that in western countries where one official state religion enjoys a monopoly, people tend to be less religious and religious expression tends to stagnate. By contrast, in countries where religious diversity is highest, so too is religiosity. Competition among different denominations encourages dynamic leadership and breeds excellence.

Israel is a Jewish state and it should remain that way. But the means of Jewish expression are many and varied. These diverse means of expression should be encouraged and fostered, not restricted and legislated.

This will not only strengthen Jewish identity, it will also improve relations with our fellow Jews in the Diaspora, who will feel more at home here.

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