Guest Columnist: Good intentions, wrong solution

The international battle over the Rotem conversion bill can only end with Israel instituting the ‘freedom of religion’ principle.

After months of fierce international battle over the David Rotem conversion bill, a new angle is hitting a nerve. It involves the doubt cast on the thousands of conversions of new immigrant soldiers, mostly from the former Soviet Union, performed by the Orthodox IDF Rabbinate.
In a special session of the Knesset State Control Committee last week, this issue, as well as the refusal of some city rabbis to marry such converts, was hotly debated. There is no doubt in my mind that the Knesset members who spoke about this contentious issue mean well, but the solution will not be found in court rulings forcing municipal rabbis to accept the Jewish status of these converts, nor in the attempt of MKs to force a comparable solution through political and legislative channels.
The solution lies elsewhere. It is to be found only if Israel were to return to its own founding promise of “freedom of religion and conscience,” recognize that no rabbi – strict or lenient – should be empowered by the state to force his religious standard on all Jews, and instead, institute full acceptance of all conversions performed by rabbis of Judaism’s major religious streams, as well as allow for freedom of choice in marriage by establishing civil marriage along with legal recognition of marriages performed by non- Orthodox rabbis.
I wish the “consensus” route that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is hoping for, through the committee headed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, could provide a mutually agreed upon solution to the conversion debate. But after decades of personal involvement and study of the topic – I sadly conclude that one has to be very naïve to think that such a consensus will be found. Not only is it highly unlikely that Rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Shlomo Amar will agree on a formula acceptable to the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, but Orthodoxy itself is sharply divided on these issues to the point of not being able to provide a sensible and acceptable formula for the conversion of the new immigrants.
SOME SERIOUS people still mistakenly believe that there is one absolute and unequivocal “halachic” standard for conversion. They therefore view as scandalous and criminal the actions of such rabbis as Avraham Sherman of the Rabbinic Court of Appeals who retroactively nullified Rabbi Haim Druckman’s conversions, or the growing number of city rabbis who refuse to marry such converts, whether converted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate or the IDF rabbinic courts. Many are holding that such rabbis act in breach of Halacha. Nothing of the sort! This is not about deviating from a “universally” accepted standard of Halacha but about the fact that within Halacha one finds divergent – often radically so – views about such matters as conversion.
Under normal circumstances this would have been welcomed as a reflection of the dynamics of religious life. We should have wholeheartedly endorsed Thomas Jefferson's astute observation that “in religion, unlike in politics, divided we stand, united we fall,” or the talmudic principle “eleh v’eleh divrei elohim hayim” (These and those are the words of the living God).
Instead we have established religion, and expect state rabbinic functionaries, who hold monopolistic religious authority, to meet the needs of a widely divergent population. Even if such hope held any merit in the earlier years of the state, the current trend is clear: the haredim control the selection of the Chief Rabbinate, the dayanim and some key cabinet ministries.
Recent examples of such inevitable clashes include the debate over the emergency room in the Barzilai Medical Center, the Emmanuel school, the gender segregated buses and the refusal to teach the “core curriculum” in the haredi education system. Such views are not contrary to Halacha; they are just another interpretation of Halacha. When Sherman revoked Druckman’s conversions, he chose to follow a more rigid school in Halacha, represented by such luminaries as the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
When the city rabbis of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Rishon Lezion etc. refuse to allow converts to marry, they do so because they choose to follow the halachic view that we are to accept converts only if they genuinely commit to full (Orthodox) religious observance, and that if they break their promise, their conversion is retroactively null and void.
EVEN OVER the past few days we have been hearing both from important Orthodox figures expressing dismay over the fact that anyone dares cast doubt as to the halachic validity of the military conversions, and from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbinic authorities who voice the opposite view: This week, after Rabbi Amar came out in seeming defence of the IDF conversions, he now faces fierce assault by Yated Ne’eman, accusing him of disregard for major halachic rules.
Similarly, Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef, the son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, declared that “all conversions done in the IDF are worth zero, even if the soldiers sacrifice their lives for the state... this does not make them Jewish. This is also the position of my father – all military conversions to Judaism are hucha v’itlula (joke and mockery).”
At the Knesset hearing there were some who denied that this view truly represents Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s position, they may be expressing their wishful thinking, as we only have to see Yosef’s own recent published response: “When it is clear that they come to convert out of faith and desire to observe the commandments of the Torah out of love – we accept them... [but] if the gentile comes to convert not in order to observe the commandments... the conversion is invalid, and whoever marries such a ‘convert’ marries a gentile, and the children born to such a ‘convert’ are not Jewish at all.”
Yosef clearly alludes to MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem’s recent lenient statements: “It is unacceptable that some frivolous man would come along and say that in his view, from now on, we should accept as Jewish someone who is willing to serve in the IDF and accept some commandments as symbols. Anyone hearing this would laugh at him, as there is no entry into Judaism without proper acceptance of conversion.”
WHILE I strongly reject this stringent view, and subscribe to lenient positions as those presented by Maimonides and such luminaries of previous generations as Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (the successor of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer as head of the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin) and Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (first chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel), shared by a handful of visionary and courageous rabbis today, I equally reject the attempt to label the views of the more stringent school as being “against Halacha.”
The halachic process is very different than the democratic legislative and judiciary one. The civil court system is based on binding rulings and hierarchy. Supreme Court rulings are binding on all other courts. If the Knesset feels that a law has outlived its usefulness – it can change it by a simple majority. This is not the case in the world of Halacha. The divine law cannot be changed by human authority, the decisions of the Chief Rabbinate and the rulings of the Rabbinic Court of Appeals are not binding, and any other rabbinic courts or rabbis may follow their own religious conscience and halachic interpretation.
In religion this is a good thing. Forcing the city rabbi of Ashdod to register someone for marriage whom he does not consider Jewish is as objectionable as religious coercion is. The answer is therefore not in having the court or the Knesset, or even the Chief Rabbinate, force such rabbis to act against their religious convictions, but rather to recognize that the time has come for a far more serious radical treatment: No rabbi should be empowered by the state to rule over all Jews and impose his interpretations. All rabbis should exercise their authority only over those who voluntarily accept them.
The state should be supporting religious services and choices of all Jews (and non-Jews), just as it supports cultural and educational services, but should not impose one religious school of thought over others, so long as they comply with the civil law and public order.
Israel should fully and equally recognize all conversions and marriages performed by the major religious streams as well as allow for civil marriage. There is no other worthy solution, and the sooner we recognize that, the better.
The writer is a rabbi, and attorney and the executive director of Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality.