Middle Israel: Modern Orthodox rebels with a cause

The rabbinical mutiny this week against the Chief Rabbinate is about more than the conversion crisis that triggered it.

Shlomo Riskin
‘God,” said two of the Talmud’s sages, “exiled the Jews among the nations only so they will be joined by converts.”
Others saw things entirely differently, most notably the notoriously strict jurist Shammai, who chased away would-be converts whom his flexible and affable adversary Hillel welcomed.
Faced with our generation’s influx of semi-Jewish immigrants, the Chief Rabbinate, and with it the ultra-Orthodox establishment that had conquered it, have followed Shammai’s lead, so much so that of some 300,000 partially Jewish immigrants who arrived here in recent years, hardly one in 10 has been converted.
This week Hillel’s disciples declared mutiny, as a set of modern-Orthodox rabbis announced their establishment of a network of independent rabbinical courts that will convert non-Jews in disregard of the Chief Rabbinate.
Mixing law, politics and historic traumas, the clash that has now been blown open is not only about the Chief Rabbinate’s steady decline but also about Zionist Orthodoxy’s unfolding schism.
THE ISSUE of conversion may seem remote to many, but to thousands of Israeli citizens it is a pressing demand and an open wound.
People who came here from afar after suffering as Jews, and who then fought with the IDF and endured the hardships of absorption, only to be told that they are not Jews and by local law cannot marry here – feel humiliated.
Things would have been simple had the conversion process been simple, as it clearly was in previous centuries. Instead, in what other rabbis see as a departure from the historic conversion process, the rabbis the immigrants met snooped into their personal conduct, hassled and rejected many, and effectively convinced the critical mass to avoid conversion.
The rabbinate thus provoked a unique coalition that shared space in the previous government: the secular, Russian-speaking Right, represented by then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman; Modern Orthodoxy, represented by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett; and the secular mainstream, represented by then-finance minister Yair Lapid and then-justice minister Tzipi Livni, who were joined, respectively, by Modern Orthodoxy’s Rabbi Shai Piron, then education minister, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, then a lawmaker.
Eager to somehow change the situation, this team produced a reform whereby converts would no longer approach the Chief Rabbinate but their local rabbis, a decentralization that would have eased the conversion process, spreading it wider and thinner.
The current government last month canceled this reform, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised his ultra-Orthodox partners that he would do, back when he created with them the current coalition.
The previous government adopted this reform only as a resolution, not as legislation.
That is why it could be swiftly undone last month with no need for new legislation.
Yet what was easy to do procedurally will now prove difficult to undo religiously.
IN A PARADOXICAL reversal of roles, United Torah Judaism decried Modern Orthodoxy’s defiance of the Chief Rabbinate, and its representative, Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni, also suggested it might prove illegal.
Responding to that charge, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is part of the new initiative, was quoted warning that if the Chief Rabbinate will not wed the new courts’ converts, he will do so himself, even if that would mean going to jail.
Strictly legally speaking, the establishment of the new courts cannot constitute a felony, because the law does not place conversions exclusively in the hands of the rabbinate. This is besides the fact that in Jewish law conversions are not meant to be the state’s business or even a rabbinical act.
All a conversion requires is a court of three lay people.
Moreover, Judaism, unlike Christianity, has no dogmas, and demands no one, including converts, to state their belief in anything. And lastly, converts’ eventual observance was historically understood as their own business, not their converters’.
Yet these legal aspects are but the mechanics of what is really about Judaism’s response to its encounter with modernity.
Zionist rabbis made their move because, as they see Jewish history, the conversion crisis is an emergency situation that demands emergency action. To them, the immigrants are not typical converts, who lack Jewish backgrounds, but what former chief rabbi, the late Ben-Zion Uziel, called “the seed of Israel,” referring to their Jewish ancestries and marriages.
Seen this way, the immigrants are generally the products of 70 years of Soviet persecution, and as such must be treated as leniently as a shepherd embraces lost sheep. For Zionist rabbis this analysis comes naturally, both because they see the Jews’ national restoration as a value, and because they do not fear the secularism in which the arriving immigrants are wrapped.
Ultra-Orthodoxy does not value the Jews restoration, which it sees as God’s business, and it does fear all things secular. In fact, that fear is how Ultra-Orthodoxy came into being in the 19th century, as a response to the Jewish masses’ abandonment of observance.
That is why when ultra-Orthodox rabbis now face the recent immigration’s converts, they typically see not a phase in the Jewish people’s reassembly, as Zionist rabbis do, but a potent threat to the future of the Jewish faith.
Whether this is a valid concern is of course debatable, but there is no debating that the rabbinate was not established in order to promote this cause, even regardless of it being a minority view that is disagreeable not only to most Israelis but also to many rabbis.
Now, following this week’s dramatic announcement, Israeli Modern Orthodoxy has made it plain that as far as it is concerned, the Chief Rabbinate is occupied territory, the victim of a hostile takeover.
This view is shared by many and in fact follows a massive voting by the feet that has been developing for years, as Israelis have increasingly married outside the rabbinate, restaurants have turned to alternative kashrut supervision, and secular cemeteries have sprung up.
The Chief Rabbinate, in short, is losing relevance, and will likely continue to decline as long as it will be led by an Ultra-Orthodoxy that treats it with political cynicism and religious scorn while abusing it as a sectarian ax to grind. Yet the conversion mutiny is not only about what is happening between Ultra-Orthodoxy and the rest of Israel, but also about what is happening within Israeli Modern Orthodoxy.
RAISED TO RECONCILE religious observance with Zionist conviction and Western modernity, Israel’s modern-Orthodox young adults are steadily splitting between religious conservatives and modernists.
The issue where the camps differ most notably is gender. The modernists increasingly lower the synagogue’s historic partition, some by allowing women to say the mourner’s kaddish, others by abolishing the partition altogether and letting women lead the prayers as cantors and read the Torah. Women’s minyanim are abounding, as do Torah readings by bat mitzva girls.
The modernists have long abandoned the historic refusal to teach the Talmud to women, who now study in large numbers in proliferating women’s academies, which are beginning to ordain Orthodox female rabbis.
Similarly, Orthodox modernists flock to academic studies of all sorts in any discipline as well as to film, music, and drama schools and any other alley of modernity.
At the same time, other religious Zionists tilt toward Ultra-Orthodoxy, rejecting the modernists’ feminist revolution and shunning secular studies while remaining nationalists and also ultra-nationalists.
That this is a schism is apparent in the two communities’ increasingly separate schools, synagogues and neighborhoods.
Some say that effectively a large number of Orthodox Israelis are no longer such, and before long will assume a different label, the way American Jewry produced “conservative” as a category apart from Orthodox and Reform.
Historians will wonder to what extent this transition happened from above, by rabbinical initiatives, rather than from below, by popular demand.
This week’s conversion mutiny will be a case in point.
Joined by a variety of rabbis with different and also conflicting views about everything, from feminism and education to Greater Israel and peace, what this group shares is a concern for the Israelis beyond their own communities, and the willingness to cope with history’s demands.
After the Temple’s destruction, it seemed Judaism would no longer be able to convert non-Jews, because the conversion process required the convert to bring an offering to the Temple, which no longer existed.
Realizing history’s demands, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai abolished that stipulation, and thus salvaged from the Temple’s debris a non-Jew’s option to become a Jew.
Ben Zakkai was a disciple of Hillel, the sage who welcomed converts. Shammai, the sage who had no patience for the converts, died before the Destruction, but his disciples were among the anti-Roman revolt’s enthusiasts.
When it was over and the Jewish nation stared at Jerusalem’s ruins, Shammai’s school vanished. Having been convinced that God would deliver them victory, they did not know what to do when history refused to follow their script. Ben Zakkai knew.