Civil fights: Wanted: A true religious Zionism

2,000 years ago Jewish law had to make the change from a code designed for sovereignty to a code designed for exile; it must now make the same change in reverse.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Much attention has focused recently on when Ehud Olmert will vacate his position and who will inherit it. But there is another job, no less important, which is already vacant, yet for which there seem to be no contenders at all: the job of a functioning religious Zionist movement. Granted, the position is still nominally occupied. But in its response to last month's conversion scandal, the current religious Zionist movement effectively declared bankruptcy. The scandal began when the Rabbinical Court of Appeals retroactively annulled every conversion ever performed by a special court headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman - thousands of conversions in all. To add insult to injury, the verdict was also larded with personal attacks on Druckman, a leading religious Zionist rabbi. Then the Prime Minister's Office's joined in, dismissing the 75-year-old Druckman as head of the government's Conversion Authority. Olmert's excuse - that he was obeying a Civil Service Commission dictate to dismiss a man long past retirement age, not appeasing the ultra-Orthodox parties that dominate the official rabbinate - was transparent nonsense: Had he truly cared about proper governance rather than appeasing the ultra-Orthodox, he could have asked the commission for an extension so as not to leave the post vacant while he sought a replacement; the commission would surely have acceded. Nor has he rushed to find a replacement since: It took him weeks just to form a search committee. THE RELIGIOUS Zionist establishment thus had multiple incentives to respond vigorously. First, of course, was the human tragedy: thousands of converts and their children suddenly cast into religious limbo. Second were the national consequences: Assimilating some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants is a vital national interest; yet why would these immigrants undergo an arduous conversion process if their conversions can be undone at any rabbi's whim, even decades later? Third was the hillul hashem (literally, desecration of God's name): The judges claimed that divinely ordained law had mandated their sweeping (and halakhically dubious) rejection of thousands of converts of whose individual circumstances they knew nothing; a suitable religious response was thus necessary to rescue God's honor. And finally, if all that were insufficient, there was the blatant personal insult to Druckman - and, by extension, to the entire religious Zionist establishment. Yet the religious Zionist silence was deafening. Few prominent Zionist rabbis even raised an outcry. The movement's religious leadership did not convene to formulate a Zionist alternative to the increasingly non-Zionist official rabbinate; only one prominent rabbi, Benny Lau, even publicly urged such a step. Nor did its nine-member Knesset faction hold urgent discussions on reforming the rabbinate via legislation. But the last straw was a June 5 petition to the High Court of Justice against the verdict. The main petitioner was a woman whose conversion had been overturned, but she was joined by several leading religious Zionist organizations, such as Emunah and Ne'emanei Torah v'Avoda. And the religious Zionist establishment applauded: Amnon Shapira, former secretary-general of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, for instance, termed the petition "the first time the religious Zionist public has told the ultra-Orthodox outright that they have gone far enough." NO CLEARER declaration of bankruptcy is imaginable: The religious Zionist establishment publicly announced that it has no religious solution for such quintessentially religious Zionist problems as the role of conversion in assimilating non-Jewish immigrants or the official rabbinate's role in the state; instead, it is begging a nonreligious court to solve these problems for it. Religious Zionism has been fading into irrelevancy for so long that one might wonder why it even matters. Yet in fact, a flourishing religious Zionism is crucial to the Jewish state's survival. A Jewish state need not be religious, but it must have some Jewish content. Otherwise, it would be just another Western democracy, distinguishable from the rest only by greater military threats and a lower standard of living. Such a state would clearly have trouble either retaining existing citizens or attracting new ones. However, Jewish content can only come from Judaism, the religion that preserved the Jews as a people for millennia. Thus, should Israelis become convinced that Judaism is incompatible with the needs of a modern state - that Israel can survive only by severing all ties with Judaism - that would sound the Jewish state's death knell. Unfortunately, some current Jewish practice is incompatible with the needs of a modern state - not because Judaism and statehood are inherently incompatible, but because for 2,000 years of exile, halakhic development necessarily focused on enabling the Jewish people to survive that exile. And the requirements of survival in exile, where issues such as defense, economics and immigration are simply irrelevant, differ vastly from those of survival in one's own state. Thus, just as 2,000 years ago Jewish law had to make the wrenching change from a code designed for sovereignty to a code designed for exile, it must now make the same wrenching change in reverse. And only those committed to halakha and statehood alike can realistically effect this change. Ironically, a new poll shows that secular Israelis instinctively understand this need. The poll, commissioned by the Absorption Ministry, found that 60 percent of secular Israelis worry that the influx of non-Jewish immigrants will lead to assimilation. Astonishingly, however, 74 percent said the best solution to this problem is for the immigrants to undergo Orthodox conversion. Granted, they attached a rider no Orthodox rabbi could accept: that such conversions be divorced from acceptance of Jewish law. But the very fact that they chose Orthodox conversion as their preferred solution shows an instinctive realization that the state's problems must be resolved within the framework of Jewish tradition if it is to remain Jewish. This task is enormously difficult, but it should not be impossible: After all, Jewish law was created for life in a sovereign state. Nevertheless, this is the greatest challenge Judaism has faced in 2,000 years. And meeting it will require the brightest, most creative and boldest religious Zionism possible - not a cowardly so-called religious Zionism that offers nothing but a choice between abdication to the ultra-Orthodox and abdication to the secular courts.