Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The recurring question of “Who is a Jew?” – which is really a question of “Who is a rabbi?” – has been a source of tension between Israel and the Diaspora for decades. Normally, the clash has played out between the Orthodox establishment in Israel and the non-Orthodox denominations in North America. Converts to the Reform or Conservative streams of Judaism are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate,which also has a monopoly over Jewish marriages performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are denied access to state funding and state-run institutions such as mikvaot or the Western Wall Plaza; non-Orthodox rabbis are not appointed to serve as chaplains in the IDF or as state-salaried rabbis of towns or neighborhoods.
However, in the latest chapter in this ongoing saga, Orthodox Jews in Israel are pitted against their Orthodox brethren in America.
Last week, state-salaried rabbis from the Orthodox Petah Tikva Rabbinate rejected the validity of a conversion performed by one of America’s most respected Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who has led Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun for decades.
Lookstein oversaw the conversion of a woman in New York who later became engaged to an Israeli. But in April when the two came to their local Israeli rabbi – the only religious functionary authorized to marry them in the Israeli man’s hometown – her Jewishness was not recognized and the rabbi refused to go ahead with the marriage.
It seems the rabbinate in Petah Tikva was unwilling to rely on Lookstein’s rabbinic authority.
This is hardly the first time a rabbi from the Chief Rabbinate has refused to recognize a conversion by a respected Orthodox rabbi from the Diaspora. However, this case received international attention because Lookstein also converted Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and officiated at her 2009 wedding to Jared Kushner, a Jewish businessman and investor who is helping Trump with his presidential campaign. If not for the Trump connection, the incident would probably have passed largely unnoticed.
The publicity that the Lookstein case has received should be leveraged to bring about a reform in the way state and religion are intertwined in Israel. The time has come for the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services to be dismantled.
The source of the problem in the Lookstein case and numerous other “Who is a Jew?” controversies is not so much the divisiveness of Jewish sectarianism. Jews have bickered among themselves for time immemorial and they will continue to disagree. Indeed, dissent is inherent to Jews’ DNA. The problems start when one group of Jews – in this case those who belong to a particularly conservative- minded stream of Orthodoxy – appropriate state powers to force their version of Judaism on another, in this case a woman who took the difficult step of embracing Judaism.
This is not to say that the rabbi who rejected the woman’s conversion should be judged negatively. The opinion of the rabbis in Petah Tikva is no less legitimate than Rabbi Lookstein’s. Rabbis should have the freedom to interpret Judaism the way they wish. A multiplicity of opinions and views stands at the core of Judaism. It is what makes Judaism so beautiful and interesting.
But we should not allow the State of Israel to be dragged into the religious wars waged among rabbis. No single group within Judaism should be permitted to use the powers of the state to enforce its unique interpretation of Jewish tradition.
This is not to say that the State of Israel should remain indifferent to Judaism. As the only Jewish state in the world, Israel has a vested interest in encouraging the flourishing of all forms of Jewish expression, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox. And the best way to do that is to create an atmosphere of freedom of expression in which no single stream of Judaism can exploit the powers of the state to force upon Israelis one version of Judaism. Rather, a free market of Jewish ideas and spirituality must be fostered in which all streams of Judaism are accorded respect and given an even playing field on which to compete with the others.
No single answer exists to the question “Who is a Jew?” and that is what makes Judaism so beautifully dynamic.
Attempts to confine Judaism to a single definition only stifle it. Nowhere more than in Israel is it essential that this not be allowed to happen.