In February, Ashdod Rabbinic Court judge Rabbi Avraham Atia issued a ruling that shocked many outside the rabbinic establishment. Basing his verdict on the fact that a woman who came to him seeking to divorce her husband was not observing Shabbat and the laws of ritual family purity, Atia annulled her 15-year-old conversion, retroactively ruling her and her till-then Jewish children non-Jews, and automatically annulling the marriage. In his decision, Atia also attacked the state Conversion Authority and its courts, which operate under the formal direction of the widely-respected Rabbi Haim Druckman. "These 'courts' permit 100 percent gentiles to marry into the Jewish people," Atia wrote. "And they cause many people to sin terribly. They have turned conversions into a joke. The judges are nothing less than blasphemers and evildoers. And since the judges are criminals, none of the conversions they perform should be recognized." The conversion conflict has intensified over the past several months. Just last week, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski called on the Israeli government to recognize non-Orthodox conversions, claiming that a failure to do so would pose an impediment to Western aliya. The vicious attack on one state religious institution by Rabbi Atia, a member of another - which came to light through The Jerusalem Post's Matthew Wagner in May - has highlighted once again the immense tension underlying the activities of the state rabbinic and conversion systems. These institutions have become a battleground for different schools of thought that compete over the most important questions of Jewish identity, pitting religious Zionist, haredi, secular and the smaller non-Orthodox streams against each other in a winner-takes-all battle for the Jewish soul and the character of the state. One of the most important figures in the debate over the character of Israeli Judaism is Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, director of the state's Institute for Jewish Studies, commonly known as the Joint Institute, which gives non-Jewish olim the requisite 10 months of Jewish studies ahead of their conversion. A devoutly Orthodox scholar of modern Jewish thought and founder of the Beit Morasha institute, which deals with modern issues through the lens of the Jewish bookshelf, Ish-Shalom spoke to the Post about the catastrophic direction in which Israeli Judaism is headed because of the blindness and even halachic ignorance of men such as Rabbi Atia. At stake, he believes, is the very notion of a Jewish society in Israel; the rabbinate's actions are inadvertently causing its dissolution. ISH-SHALOM DOES not like to speak to the press, and sitting down with the soft-spoken scholar in his south Jerusalem office, which is lined with centuries-old Talmuds and well-worn works on Jewish philosophy and history, took some convincing. He came to public attention most recently when he decided in late March, after years of frustration with the conversion courts' inability to make the conversion process a "welcoming" one, that the Joint Institute would no longer put its potential converts through the "humiliating" conversion process in the current court system. He even went so far as to call for the establishment of a parallel conversion court system that would carry out the conversion process according to proper halachic requirements, rather than the arbitrary whims of judges who do not understand the magnitude of their responsibility and thereby cause a terrible and damaging hilul hashem (desecration of God's name). He's even lined up some 40 Israeli Orthodox rabbis who are willing to volunteer as conversion judges and could theoretically replace the entire conversion system. Where, the Post asked, is all this leading? The root problem is well-known. As Ish-Shalom explains, "The State of Israel absorbed a million olim from the Former Soviet Union during the 1990s. By every measure, this aliya was a blessing. It's a fulfillment of the Zionist vision, of the generational dream of the Jewish people. It made an immense contribution to the State of Israel. We know what economic strength this aliya brought, what revitalizing force in art, science, culture. We also know the importance of this aliya for the demographic situation. Absorbing aliya lies at the core of Israel's purpose." But, he continues, that welcome wave also brought some 300,000 non-Jews, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, mostly family members of the intermarried and largely assimilated Jews, the product of long decades of cultural repression and enforced secularism under Communist rule. Currently, some 2,000 of these non-Jewish olim convert each year, a figure too low to convert the large mass within a generation. What is at stake if these Hebrew-speaking Israeli non-Jews are not converted? "There are two processes that could take place. First, they could develop a sense of alienation, bitterness, even anger at the majority population that doesn't accept them, and against the State of Israel," which, though bad, seems to be the less terrible of the two possible endings for Ish-Shalom. "Alternatively," he warns, "Israeli society will accept them without making any distinction. They speak Hebrew, serve in the army, study with Jewish Israelis in school and university, and are like us in every way. But this will break down when it comes to marriage. Many families in Israel still want halachic weddings, and suddenly there will be tragedies, with couples either breaking up or choosing to live without marriage, which happens today in the hundreds of thousands. A divide will form in the Jewish people between halachic and non-halachic Jews - what we call overseas intermarriage. Suddenly, for the first time in the State of Israel, after we've been telling Jews in the Diaspora for generations to come to Israel if they want to guarantee their grandchildren will marry Jews, there will be two Jewish peoples: one that's halachically Jewish, and another that's Jewish by language, identity, ethnicity, citizenship, but not by Halacha, and can't marry Jews. Today, religious and secular Jews can marry. And Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews can marry - not necessarily their converts, but the born Jews are undeniably Jewish. We'll be creating a split that will deny fellow Jews familial closeness." And this problem, Ish-Shalom insists, is eminently soluble. "Not all the 300,000 are targets for conversion," he explains. "Some don't want to convert. Some are elderly, so it's not critical for the future generation that they convert. We think the relevant population - young parents, young families with children, mainly women who define the Jewish connection, students, soldiers, teenagers - comes to some 100,000 people. If we allow a friendly, welcoming, encouraging conversion process, we can quadruple or more the number of converts each year. Over 10 to 15 years, converting this 100,000 is doable." THE PROBLEM isn't Halacha, according to Ish-Shalom. In fact, the Israeli conversion court rulings generally oppose the overall trend of halachic reasoning over the centuries. "The main discussions of this issue come from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, in Maimonides's rulings and in the [authoritative halachic codex] Shulchan Aruch. There's a very rich literature of responsa on this, of course, but the basis is in those three sources. And there it says clearly that if a man wishes to convert, the court must ask him, 'Why? Don't you know the Jews are hunted and oppressed? There are pogroms, inquisitions, anti-Semitism. Why do you need this?' If he replies, 'I know the situation, and nevertheless I am unworthy of membership in the Jewish people,' then we teach him some commandments, their rewards and punishments - Maimonides includes teaching the main articles of faith - and we convert him immediately. That's the Halacha," he said. The issue, for Halacha, is the convert's intent, and not, as in today's court system, the level of observance. "If the court believes this person honestly wishes to be part of the Jewish people, not out of financial considerations, you accept him." In the Israeli context, where these olim are already eligible under the Law of Return for the full oleh benefits package, money is not a motive for conversion. Does this mean observance is not relevant to the conversion process? Not quite. "Converts need to know that membership is membership," says Ish-Shalom. "It includes commitment to the Torah, acceptance of the requirement to observe Halacha. When I say I'm a Jew and want to join the Jewish people through a halachic conversion, with a circumcision and dipping in the mikve, it means I accept the authority of Halacha." But, crucially, "after the conversion he's like every other Jew. Halacha doesn't recognize, for conversion, Conservative or Reform or secular. There's no discussion of this question. It only recognizes the Jew, along with the requirement to observe Halacha. As with every other Jew, we hope he'll be more observant. He only fulfills some of the commandments? Lots of Jews only keep some of the commandments." Indeed, "some are very strict on what [food] enters their mouths, but not on what [words] leave their mouths." How does a court, which seeks to create a Jew who will observe the commandments, guarantee that the conversion is honest even if that Jew becomes non-observant? "We need to demand that they keep the commandments," Ish-Shalom, Israel's official conversion teacher, agrees, but not as preconditions for conversion. "We can educate for this, but we must recognize that this population comes from a different cultural background. You can't expect that everyone will become religious in the sociological sense, with the dress code, social behavior, moving to certain neighborhoods and sending their kids to certain schools. You can't demand, as a condition for conversion, that girls who convert not wear pants." HALACHA IS no simple mathematical question-and-answer affair, but a millennia-old web of vociferous debate and legalistic argumentation. If the conversion judges don't base themselves on mainstream halachic sources, what authorities, living or dead, do they rely on for, for instance, 15-year-old annulments of conversions? Ish-Shalom reacts to the question vehemently. "There is no such thing as a retroactive cancellation of conversion," he insists. "It only exists in the exceptionally rare cases where the court that carried out the conversion finds clear and specific evidence that the person who it converted had lied and cheated intentionally and egregiously. Otherwise, there's no possibility to annul. What would you base the annulment on? Non-observance? Every Jew has freedom of choice, and a convert is no different halachically." Asked for a specific example, Ish-Shalom tells of the ruling of the great American haredi posek, or religious decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, found in his book Igrot Moshe. "There's a question there about a woman who converted in an Orthodox court, and then married a non-observant Jew. After the conversion, she, like her husband and their Jewish friends, were not observant. Some rabbis sent Rabbi Feinstein a question: Do we cancel this conversion? Rabbi Feinstein replied that it's impossible to cancel the conversion. He based his ruling on a passage in Tractate Shabbat about a non-Jew who converts but continues to live among idol-worshippers, doesn't keep Shabbat and even participates in idolatry. The Talmudic question is a side point in a debate over whether someone who forgot about Shabbat is responsible for every individual infringement of Shabbat laws or for one overarching infringement. In this context, with the example of a convert among idolators, the Gemara rules he's still a convert. "What was Rabbi Feinstein's reasoning? That she wanted to join the Jewish people and be like all Jews. Like which Jews did she want to be? Like those non-observant ones she knows. So" - since the intent was valid - "the conversion is valid." But Rabbi Feinstein was challenged on his opinion. She was clearly taught that she would have to observe the commandments, the original complainers argued. "He answered them by saying that she didn't know she had to keep the commandments. They said, 'But she was taught this by the rabbis!' Yes, he said, 'but she didn't believe the rabbis. She just thought this is the job of rabbis - to demand observance.' "So that's how he understood her mind. She thinks it's the rabbi's job to tell her to keep the commandments, but she doesn't think failing to obey makes her a bad Jew. She sees lots of unobservant Jews, and they're good Jews. So the conversion is valid because her desire was to join the Jewish people. This comes from a haredi posek, who I'm certain would not have converted her had he known she would not keep the commandments. However, this refusal would not have been due to the validity of the conversion, but just because he wouldn't want more non-observant Jews. But since he understood the Halacha, he wouldn't cancel a conversion." THEN ON what legal principles do Israeli rabbinic court judges rely? According to Ish-Shalom, they rely on no authority, living or dead, but rather on the general mind-set found in the Talmudic school of Shamai. "The problem [of their halachic basis] is complex. As you know, in every issue in Halacha there are different perspectives, schools of thought. The Talmud is a culture of disputation. In this continuum of possibilities in Halacha, there are strict and lenient positions. In conversion, there is the famous story of a non-Jew who comes to Shamai, asking the great sage to convert him, saying, 'Teach me all the Torah while I stand on one leg.' Shamai pushes him away. The same man goes to Hillel and says, 'Teach me all the Torah while I stand on one leg,' and Hillel tells him, 'What is hateful to you, don't do unto others - that's the whole entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.' Hillel converted him immediately." The difference represented in this story is not merely one of personality or attitude. "If someone says, 'Convert me while I stand on one foot,' he isn't being funny. He wants to know the essence, the main point. The Hebrew regel, or foot, is in Latin regula, principle or measuring unit. The [Hebrew] word sargel [ruler] comes from the same root. The man is asking after the essence, the core principle. Shamai replies, 'There's no such thing. It's all or nothing.' Hillel says, 'There is such a thing, and it is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.' Basically - and [not all judges are] the same - these conversion judges are saying Shamai's point: Either you become completely religious, or we don't convert you" - and even non-halachically annul a completed and honest conversion. Ish-Shalom is not unsympathetic to the impetus for the strict interpretation. They're coming "first of all out of the honest desire to do things in an optimal and ideal way," he says. "They're placed in charge of conversion, they feel, so they want the conversion to be the best possible, to extract the most out of the convert. This is legitimate. The convert should study Torah, keep kashrut, send his kids to a religious school. As much as he is able - this is the ideal. But in this frame of mind, they sometimes forget that reality is complex, not ideal. You can challenge and encourage the convert to do better and try harder. That's fine. But to make this a precondition for conversion makes it impossible for this population to undergo the process. If the highest standard becomes the minimal entry requirement, there's a very serious problem for tens of thousands of olim," and by extension, for the whole Jewish people. BEING FORCED to be creative when dealing with the problem posed by conversions is not necessarily a bad thing, Ish-Shalom insists throughout the interview. It is part of Halacha's general need to deal creatively with all the problems posed by modernity, a challenge that is critical to the survival of Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The rabbinate, he explains, is preventing halachically-observant Judaism from carrying out this mission. "Many questions arise from the establishment of a Jewish sovereign state, questions that never arose in the Diaspora," he notes. "How do we build a national economy? On what values do we base our national budget? The rabbinate has no view on this. We have an army now, we deal with counterterrorism, fighting in the middle of a civilian population, facing situations of kidnapped and missing soldiers, roadblocks. What are the ethics a Jewish army should have? How much should we pay for [kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl.] Gilad Schalit's release? "Judaism doesn't have an opinion on this? Of course it does! But the rabbinate is silent. Or social justice - Judaism has nothing to say about social justice? Of course it does! But the rabbinate doesn't say it. Should Israel conduct foreign relations with dictatorial regimes? Is Israel permitted to supply weapons to certain countries, according to Judaism? Is there room for moral considerations in all this? Of course there is. But the rabbinate doesn't deal with it. "How do we relate to the reality of a secular Jewish people whose secularism isn't a passing phase and who aren't [in the halachic category of] tinokot she'nishbu [children who were captured by gentiles and are therefore ignorant of Halacha], or merely potential observant Jews? How do we relate to this 200-year-old reality? What about the education system? What about aliya, intermarriage, mixed families, conversion? "There are many more questions connected to the meaning and structure of a Jewish state, for which the rabbinate could have been the intellectual and spiritual resource that inspires [us] and to which we turn to hear Judaism's opinion on legislation, policy, and such. Not merely an enforcing body on marriage, divorce, mikvaot and kashrut. But all these great and important national questions aren't heard in the rabbinate." And this has been a major factor in the rabbinate's current irrelevance, he adds. The secular public doesn't turn to the rabbinate, nor does the rabbinate attempt to speak to the secular public. The haredi public, meanwhile, has its own Torah leaders, primarily Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, among others. And, notes Ish-Shalom, "since the chief rabbis come from the haredi world and are loyal to haredi masters, the institution isn't important to the religious Zionist public either, who see as their leaders Rabbis Avraham Shapira, Mordechai Eliyahu, Shlomo Aviner, Moti Elon, Yuval Sherlo, Benny Lau and many others - but not the chief rabbinate." SO IF THE chief rabbinate is ignored by all parts of the Israeli public, and doesn't deal with the great, relevant questions on the national agenda, why not dismantle it? "My good friend Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once said that rabbis in America have no power, but they have influence. Rabbis in Israel have immense power, political power, but no influence. If the rabbinate fulfilled a positive role as a unifying halachic entity that brings Halacha and the Jewish sources of inspiration into the national debate, it would be important to allow it to continue. But this hasn't happened, and I'm forced to agree with this view. "The existence of the rabbinate in its current form and the rabbinic courts as they exist and function today not only doesn't help, but causes harm. Judaism isn't a religion, but it has a religious dimension. And the representatives of that dimension are driving away many Jews who want to come close to it, to come to synagogue on holidays, conduct bar mitzvas and other life-cycle events, and to connect to a rabbi as a wise and knowledgeable guide. I think non-observant Israelis want this rabbi [as much as religious Israelis do], someone who visits people in the hospital, comforts grieving families, helps a family that's collapsed financially, or talks to a 17-year-old who's fighting with his family or broke up with his girlfriend. Many situations in life don't require a psychologist, but do need a helping hand, empathy - a rabbi." American readers may recognize in these gentle words their own revolutionary idea, specifically the critique that the Jewish "established church" in Israel, as some have called it, is fueling secularism as clearly as European national churches contributed to today's virtually post-Christian Europe. And this is coming from a man who was and is part of the Orthodox establishment in Israel. "The fact that this criticism is shared by Reform or Conservative Anglo-Saxon Jews must not prevent us, as Torah-observant Jews in Israel who care about the future of the Jewish people and Israel, from looking inward and critiquing ourselves. In a place where there is hilul hashem, one is forbidden to pay honor to the rabbi. That's a halachic principle. Criticism must be said. "I'm not Conservative and not Reform. I'm eighth-generation Israeli on my mother's side, and the child of a father who alone survived the Holocaust out of a very large family. I live the Israeli life in a deep and identifying way with all parts of Israeli society - religious, traditional, secular. I don't want my issue-based criticism to be rejected because you can tack on the label of 'Reform' or 'Conservative.' I speak from inside [Israeli Orthodoxy], and I have said this for years. "I say the same thing to everyone, out of pain, worry and loyalty. If the halachic rabbinic institutions say they have no solution to halachic problems at the national level - no answer for shmita [the sabbatical year in which working the land is forbidden], since we don't trust the [halachic] sale permit of Rabbi [Abraham Isaac Hacohen] Kook and so buy vegetables from the Palestinians instead of strengthening Jewish farmers, causing the collapse of thousands of Israeli farmers; no solution to the marriages of 300,000 olim who can't marry in the rabbinate; no answer to thousands of agunot; and no solution for conversion - then Halacha is declaring itself irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel. Halacha has nothing to say to the challenges and goals of modern Jewish sovereignty." Remember, too, Ish-Shalom implores, that the aliya from the FSU is not unique in bringing non-Jewish family members. "In all the Jewish world, intermarriage is above 50%. Every other marriage of a Jew is to a non-Jew. If we can't deal with this aliya, we have no solution to all the future aliyot, including from the wealthy nations. If we don't want to absorb the Jewish people as it is, with its intermarried families, we're giving up on Diaspora Jewry. We become an Israeli people. We're saying that the State of Israel isn't open to the Jewish people." AT THE END of the day, Ish-Shalom is optimistic. "When I talk about religious-secular dialogue," he relates, "my sons ask me what I'm talking about. I have six sons, five of them right now serving in combat units and the sixth still in high school. One son, in the paratrooper commandos, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with secular Israelis from the kibbutzim. He says to me, 'We're all there together, there's no difference between us!' When you're in that situation, living with the rest of Israelis, recognizing the goodness and beautiful human qualities of all this mosaic, then these differences are obscured. Not everyone has to be the same." Israeli Orthodoxy, he concludes, has much yet to give the Jewish people. The crisis can lead to a reform that will revitalize a movement brought down partly by politicization. "I hope and believe, really believe, that out of this crisis, out of the weakness of religious Zionism, of Israeli Orthodoxy as an institution, will develop a great message of a more authentic, more united and interdependent Jewish life, without commitment to an institution or party or political mechanism. "Maybe at the end, we'll all benefit from this. The channels and circles in which young people meet from all these different groups give us hope that a new Judaism will grow here that's much more Jewish, rooted, authentic, tolerant and comprehensive, that's based on a shared life and shared creativity of religious and secular, until these categories lose their meaning. The discourse will become real, because the religious institutions, the rabbinate, will stop defining identity. Life - the cooperative and shared lives of Israelis - will define these identities."