Tradition Today: Opening the gates

It cannot afford to remain in the dark ages when it comes to religion, imposing one version of Judaism as the only one.

311_gate  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Everything in Israel comes to a halt and has to wait until “after the holidays.” Well, today is “after the holidays” and the normal grind of living begins again. Unfortunately one of the things that will be resumed is the struggle concerning the Rotem bill which was put on the back burner while we first repented and then celebrated. There is much to repent for in the Rotem bill and little to celebrate.
The bill is schizophrenic. According to MK David Rotem, and I do not question his sincerity, the subject of the bill is the easing of conversion for thousands of non-Jewish Russians. But according to others, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the subject is the strengthening of the Chief Rabbinate and the exclusion of non-Orthodox religious movements not only from conversion in Israel but from existence here at all.
Rabbi Amar is quoted as having written, “Those who call themselves liberals and reformers” have brought us to “our spiritual low point,” in which violence is rampant, immodesty is acceptable and assimilation is at a high even in Israel. “They now have their claws in the nation of Zion and are trying to impose the lifestyle of other nations on us. [Their] purpose is to remove Torah from Israel.”
Is there anything wrong in Israel and Judaism for which we are not responsible? Is it any wonder that these movements oppose this bill? It should be made clear that the opposition is not to the easing of conversion, but only to the strengthening of the Chief Rabbinate and the exclusion of other movements. Divest the bill of those dangerous features and there would be no opposition.
As a matter of fact, if Rabbi Amar is so interested in encouraging the conversion of these non-Jewish Russians, why does he not do something about it himself? Has he no power over the way the Israeli rabbinate now converts? Could he not appoint more understanding courts than now exist and instruct the dayanim to observe the true halachic laws of conversion instead of the severe regulations they now use that have absolutely no basis in Jewish law? There would be no need for the Rotem bill or any other if the Chief Rabbinate and its courts were to act properly and show a real interest in solving the terrible situation that they themselves have created.
As for the attempt to portray these streams as the destroyers of the Jewish people and a foreign import, there is nothing new in these libels. Yet many Orthodox rabbis themselves have admitted that these movements – even if they disagree with them – have played and do play an important role in the preservation of the Jewish people. Without them we would be in greater peril than now. As for being imports, what is not an import in Israel? Was not Chabad imported from Brooklyn? Where do the other various hassidic groups come from? And what about the “Lithuanians” among the haredim? To say nothing of the influence of Moroccan Jewry here. The question is not where it originated but what value it has.
I can only speak for my own movement, Masorti. Our organizational roots are in Europe, where our founder, Rabbi Zachariah Frankel, left the early Reform movement because he felt it had abandoned Hebrew, love of Zion and the nationalethnic components of Judaism as well as too many of the “ritual” observances. Its aim was not to destroy Judaism, but to preserve it which is why it adopted the name “Conservative” in America and later Masorti (traditional) in Israel and the rest of the world. Its attitude toward Reform was best summarized by Solomon Schechter when he called it “His Majesty’s loyal opposition.”
I do not expect the chief rabbi to admit it, but the best thing that could happen to Judaism in Israel would be for the various Jewish movements to flourish and thereby strengthen religious affiliation. All too many Israelis are still in the outmoded mind-set that if they cannot believe in one of the variations of Orthodoxy, then they must reject the Jewish religion and live a totally secular life. Unfortunately too many representatives of Orthodoxy have encouraged this attitude. The result is ignorance of Judaism and a decline in observance among those who are not Orthodox.
There is nothing better for business than competition. There would be nothing better for Judaism than the free market of ideas and competition among the streams. There is room for all. Let the playing field be made level. Deprive the Chief Rabbinate of its monopoly and see what would happen.
Israel is a modern, democratic nation. It cannot afford to remain in the dark ages when it comes to religion, imposing one version of Judaism as the only one. It must open the gates if it wants to remain truly democratic and, more importantly, if it wants Judaism in all its wonderful variety to flourish in the only Jewish state we have.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.