I was once asked to speak about Judaism at a university interfaith conference.
Since it was winter time, I spoke about Hanukka and the historical background of
the Syrian-Greek religious oppression and the Jewish fight for political
sovereignty in Israel.
After the presentations, people milled about a
table of pastries and soft drinks, and a young man approached me and told me he
enjoyed my presentation. I thanked him and asked him what religion he
represented, to which he replied, “Oh, I just came here to watch. I believe in a
higher power but I despise any organized religion.”
While it is against
Jewish tradition to proselytize, I couldn’t help myself: “Then Judaism
definitely for you!” I responded. “We believe in God and you’ll never
religion that’s less organized.”
My point was reinforced this week with
the furor that erupted over a bill meant to organize the conversion
MK David Rotem’s original idea for conversion reform – that any
former or current city rabbi could organize a conversion court and
conversion – was widely supported inside Israel and in the Diaspora.
receive the full support of the coalition, a clause was added to the
designated the Chief Rabbinate as the titular figurehead of the
Through most of modern Israeli history the chief rabbis have
been Zionist visionaries who have been widely respected by a wide swath
Israelis and Jews worldwide. However, the recent trend of greater haredi
of the Chief Rabbinic Council and pressure by haredi parties to
election of the chief rabbis caused the bill to create a serious
Also, while conversion in Israel had always been conducted under
the auspices of the rabbinate, no stream of conversion was given
The Conservative and Reform movements in the US objected
to the bill which granted official authority over conversions to the
rabbis who have always been, and will be for the foreseeable future,
Since Conservative and Reform Jews make up a large majority of
American Jews, these concerns were brought to major international Jewish
organizations and a vociferous protest was launched saying that the bill
the danger of causing a split between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
with legitimate concerns raised by the Jewish organizations, the
was accompanied by wild speculation and misinformation from
sources. One e-mail, circulated by Conservative Jews said that the law
prevent Jews converted by non-Orthodox rabbis from making aliya. This
explicitly denied in the bill, which promised that no change would be
the Law of Return, which allows all Jews who are converted by a
rabbinic body to receive aliya benefits and be registered as Jewish
upon moving here.
Another e-mail claimed that a two-tier system was being
created, through which Israel would prevent any non-Orthodox Jew from
here. Nothing could be further from the truth. The law only relates to
wish to convert here, and is meant to level the field, so that all
born Jews can receive equal marriage, divorce and burial services,
Furthermore, Israel Beiteinu, the party which proposed and
pushed the bill, has always been known as the most ardent proponent for
aliya of all Jews, regardless of their religious practice or
The legitimate protests, as well as out-of-control rumors,
caused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make strong statements
bill, essentially ensuring that it would not progress to a first reading
Knesset. I agree with the prime minister that it is of vital importance
Jewish people to maintain cohesion and, under the current climate of
fury, the bill was untenable.
However, while the situation is given time
to cool off, it is of vital importance that we explain to all of the
opponents that their concerns can be addressed, and that we dispel the
rumors and hyperbole that surrounded the bill.
THE BILL did have some
ambiguity built in to make it more digestible, but it had not yet passed
reading. It is only after a bill is sent to committee after a first
it is fleshed out and clarified.
It is a shame that this could not
happen. MK Rotem had promised the Jewish organizations that they would
to take part in deciding the exact language before the bill was brought
final vote, but now the practical discussion of the issues of conversion
Knesset will not occur.
The initial complaint that the Knesset was
officially recognizing Orthodoxy over other streams of Judaism was also,
technically, not accurate. From a practical perspective, the Orthodox
on conversion here has led to the current bureaucratic nightmare, and
existed since the refounding of the state. Practically, the Reform and
Conservative movements would have no less say in conversion issues than
However, the worldlier and more concerned local rabbis would draw
potential converts to their courts and thus rise in influence in the
From an institutional perspective, there would also be no
difference, since, according to law, nothing prevents a Conservative
joining the rabbinate or becoming chief rabbi. Obviously, I know that
very unlikely to occur in practice, but in theory, granting authority to
Chief Rabbinate does not explicitly, legally, mean Orthodoxy, and as I
makes no difference in the practical realm from the current status quo.
am also afraid that as discussion of the haredi control of the Chief
fades from memory, once again the haredim will be able to exert more
the rabbinate, without media scrutiny.
The haredization of the rabbinate
will become a selffulfilling prophecy.
Lastly, but most importantly, we
must consider the reason that conversion reform is necessary.
thousands of Israelis in a bureaucratic purgatory while trying to become
the Jewish people. Jews here and abroad must sympathize with these
people and see the value of bringing them into our tradition. While the
practical implications of the bill would not have made any difference in
status of Diaspora Jews, it could have smoothed the process of
For their sake, we must redouble the efforts to work with
this bill outside the Knesset and come to an understanding with all of
I think that a compromise language will be easy to
achieve, with the forethought that conversion reform is needed to help
people and help them really soon.
As well, I think that anyone who takes
issue with the disorganized and ambiguous current system should
Rotem for working tirelessly on this project for nearly four years and
shying away from addressing this sensitive issue that other governing
have refused to seriously address.The writer is the coordinator of
Israel Beiteinu English Speakers and was a Knesset candidate for Israel
in the 18th Knesset elections. He blogs at electme.blogspot.com.