The media has reported the vehement opposition of the American Conservative and
Reform movements and Jewish Federations of North America to the conversion bill
proposed by MK David Rotem. I find their opposition puzzling.
framework of Halacha, the Rotem bill expands the scope of conversion, prevents
application of stringencies unjustified by Halacha and provides greater
convenience, leniency and flexibility in the administration of Israeli
conversion courts. It addresses many issues raised by Orthodox rabbis considered
liberal in the Israeli media, and has their strong support. It is strongly
supported by Israel Beiteinu, the secular party that represents Russian
The bill deserves unanimous support from everyone who genuinely
cares about the welfare of 300,000 non-Jewish Russian Israelis. But a
the leadership of Jewish Federations of North America and the American
Conservative and Reform movements unleashed an artificial firestorm of
opposition, soliciting e-mails from members and letters from the US
successfully delaying passage of the bill.
Opponents of the Rotem bill
claim that it radically changes the status quo, placing power for
state-recognized conversion in Israel in the hands of the Chief
is untrue. Government-recognized conversions to Judaism performed in
been under the control of the Chief Rabbinate since the founding of the
1948. The bill merely confirms long-standing practice in response to
seeking to challenge the status quo.
WHY DID leaders of these American
Jewish groups take action they knew would hurt many Russian Israelis?
to leverage their political power in the US to force Israel to accede to
parochial agenda – namely, granting Reform and Conservative conversions
official recognition accorded to Orthodox conversions.
This request might
appear reasonable to an American Jew. It is not. The context of Jewish
the US is very different from Jewish life in Israel.
intermarriage in the US explains in large part – though in no way
the push for relaxed conversion standards and the Reform movement’s
acceptance of patrilineal descent. Intermarriage is thankfully far less
problem in the Jewish state.
Moreover, despite strenuous efforts, the
Reform and Conservative movements have not taken root in Israel. They
reaction to post-Enlightenment pressure on Diaspora Jews. These
pressures do not
exist in Israel.
Non-Orthodox Israeli Jews may be more or less observant
(masorti) or even totally secular (hiloni), but they do not need the
identification with non-halachic movements to sustain their Jewish
identities. They speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people,
Jewish holidays and are closely bound to the collective fate of the
people, courageously serving in the IDF. Only 1 percent identify with
Very few non-Jewish Russian Israelis are interested
in a Reform or Conservative conversion, regarding them as inauthentic.
conversions are Diaspora transplants that have withered in Israel’s
and failed in its free marketplace of ideas.
RATHER THAN admit that their
lack of significant progress over the past 62 years is due to a flawed
Conservative and Reform leaders have chosen to blame the Chief
Ignoring democratic principles, they have improperly intervened on the
bill – a matter that affects only Israelis and not American Jews. The
no impact outside of Israel.
Principles are not a suit of clothes to be
donned and shed at whim. It is inconsistent for the Conservative
insist that Israel recognize Reform conversions performed without
or immersion in a mikve when they do not recognize such conversions when
performed in the US. The Reform movement, which argues for the absolute
separation of religion and state in the US, inconsistently insists on
recognition of its spiritual leaders by the government of Israel.
more puzzling is the position of the Jewish Federations of North
can its leaders justify spending funds raised for charitable purposes on
ideological issue? Moreover, when they have not significantly consulted
American Orthodox movements or their own Orthodox contributors, how can
purport to be represent the entire spectrum of American Jewry? Even
strategic threats to the State of Israel have been ignored by opponents
Rotem bill. A Reform Jewish leader was quoted in JTA on July 26 as
fact that the controversy has “even reached the US Congress, causing
all who love the Jewish state.”
What an extraordinary statement! The bill
did not simply drift onto Capitol Hill like a feather borne by a random
The Rotem bill came to the attention of Congress because of the
lobbying efforts of its opponents – the same people who now claim they
distressed by the damage to US-Israeli relations. US congressmen do not
spontaneously take an interest in internal Israeli religious issues.
despite the looming Iranian nuclear crisis endangering the very
existence of the
State of Israel, the bill’s opponents jeopardized Israel’s congressional
support, placing their movement’s narrow concerns above the security of
Jewish state. Ironically, they used coercive measures – a sin they
attribute to the Chief Rabbinate – to deny the democratically elected
the independent right to determine rules governing Jewish descent in
even though they independently decreed that patrilineal descent
Jewish identity in the US.
Finally, let us consider what would happen if
efforts to change the status quo are successful. The results would be
catastrophic for Jewish unity.
Non-halachic conversions could throw into
question the Jewish lineage and hence the Jewish credentials of
Jews. Orthodox Jews might be forced to maintain their own lineage lists
marry only within the Orthodox community.
This nightmare scenario is not
far-fetched. It has occurred several times in Jewish history, when
Jewish sects – which, not coincidentally, have disappeared – strayed
traditional practices relating to conversion, marriage and divorce.
self-evident, or should be, that Israel’s laws should be determined only
residents, who defend its security and bear its burdens. But permit me
suggest an ethical alternative to our Jewish brethren in the Diaspora:
All Jews are welcome: secular, Reform, Conservative and
They are our brothers and sisters, and we will greet them with
As citizens they would then legitimately be entitled to
struggle to transform their views into law.
Until such time, however,
they should stop opposing the Rotem bill and allow it to pass in
opposition already has caused great damage to tens of thousands of
Israelis who wish to join the Jewish people.
As the Day of Atonement
nears, all of us should pray for the unity of the Jewish people and ask
Almighty to forgive the sins of our callous hearts.The writer is the
Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel. This article first appeared on the