Conversion conflict reflects wider religious war over nature of State of Israel’s Jewish identity

Because the national-religious rabbinic leadership has been unable to impose its will on the fate of Judaism in Israel for so long, a backlash has developed.

Religious Jews pray at the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Religious Jews pray at the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The intense battle waged in recent months over the conversion bill that was approved by the government on Sunday reflects a broader battle within Israel between competing perspectives on how to deal with the challenges that face Judaism in the modern Jewish state.
This battle has been brewing for many years and pits the more rigid, unyielding stance of the haredi world to protect Judaism from outside influence or dilution, against the desire within parts of the national-religious leadership to preserve traditional Orthodox Judaism as the mainstay of Jewish identity in Israel by utilizing the flexibility of Jewish law to accommodate difficult circumstances currently facing the Jewish people.
This national-religious leadership has, however, been frozen out of the reins of state authority over many of the most pressing issues for many years and it is the frustration with this situation that has led to some of the fierce fights we have witnessed over matters of religion and state in the last few years.
Because the national-religious rabbinic leadership has been unable to impose its will on the fate of Judaism in Israel for so long, a backlash has developed, led in large part by the Tzohar rabbinical association, against the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
This has been manifest in two arenas critical to Jewish identity and cohesiveness in the last three years. The first was a battle waged in 2011 between the Chief Rabbinate and Tzohar over the latter’s marriage program which it set up as an attempt to stymie the trend for secular Israelis to marry in civil ceremonies abroad.
The program became extremely popular with thousands of Israeli couples utilizing Tzohar’s marriage service. The Chief Rabbinate tried to protect its monopoly, however, and through a bureaucratic sleight of hand tried to block Tzohar rabbis from marrying couples in the large numbers that were approaching the organization.
The conflict became a national issue, however, and the Chief Rabbinate was forced to back down.
In a new setback for the mainstream national-religious rabbinic leadership, Tzohar’s founder and chairman Rabbi David Stav lost the election to become Ashkenazi chief rabbi to Rabbi David Lau, who was backed by the haredi rabbinic leadership and political parties.
This defeat notwithstanding, the viability of Tzohar’s marriage service was guaranteed when a bill abolishing marriage registration districts was approved in the Knesset in October last year. Despite the legislation, the Chief Rabbinate continued to oppose this decentralizing measure, albeit with little success.
The second major skirmish has taken place in recent months over the even more contentious issue of conversion. Tzohar seeks to ward off what it sees as a threat to the integrity of the Jewish people posed by intermarriage between Jewish Israelis and citizens who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
This issue was created during the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union made their way to Israel and were accepted as citizens under the Law of Return, but were not Jewish according to Jewish law.
There are some 330,000 citizens in this category, and the number is growing. As prominent national-religious leader Rabbi Benny Lau explained in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the secular and religious Zionist community saw the return of these people as the redemption of a lost part of the nation, whereas the haredi community saw them as casualties of Jewish history.
Moreover, national-religious leaders like Lau and Stav see within Jewish law the opportunity and flexibility to bring Israelis “of Jewish descent,” as they are described, fully back into the Jewish people, thereby warding off the threat of intermarriage.
At the same time, however, the haredi perspective, that accession to the Jewish people should be exacting and stringent, remained unchanged despite the closeness of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union to the Jewish people and despite the threat to the unity of the broader Jewish nation in Israel of intermarriage.
Once again, the solution devised by national-religious leaders has been the decentralization of authority from the Chief Rabbinate, and the empowerment of municipal chief rabbis, including those like Stav and others of a similar mindset, to conduct conversions.
This week saw another victory for the moderate national-religious camp and the cause of decentralization, but it is a victory tainted somewhat by the compromise which those leading the political fight were forced into in order to achieve the primary goal.
Although the law was indeed passed, it was not passed as legislation but as a government directive. Full legislation would have provided greater guarantees that the ability of municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions would not be overturned. The government directive is subject to the political whims and expediencies of coalition politics and could be reversed by a simple cabinet decision in the future. This could bring the legislation back to the table but there would be no guarantees for its passage.
Beyond this war within the Orthodox world is the broader battle of the non-Orthodox Jewish streams in Israel for religious pluralism and recognition which will only intensify in the coming years. For the Reform and Conservative movements, the well-intentioned efforts of the national- religious sector nevertheless preserve what they see as the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish identity and religious life in the country.
As the different streams within Orthodoxy battle it out, the non-Orthodox movements seek ever greater recognition and legal rights, along with the reduction of the powers of the established synagogue, in order to advance their perspectives and ideas for the challenges facing Judaism in the Jewish state.
What is certain is that the wars of religion in Israel will continue to be fought in the coming years by all the various protagonists and by all available means, legal, political and in the court of public opinion, over how to define and express Judaism in the State of Israel.