Reality Check: Where was Eli Yishai when the Book of Ruth was read in shul?

The biblical story's message of inclusiveness is one that passes him by entirely.

jeff barak 88 (photo credit: )
jeff barak 88
(photo credit: )
Shas leader Eli Yishai could not have chosen a more ironic time to launch his latest demagogic attack on the Reform movement. On the eve of Shavuot, following the High Court of Justice's recent ruling that the state allocate resources to institutions affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism which perform conversions, Yishai scandalously declared: "There are hundreds of foreign workers and Palestinians who will take advantage of the Reform conversion to gain Israeli citizenship." As interior minister, Yishai should know better. In 2004, the Reform movement made, and subsequently kept, a commitment to then interior minister Avraham Poraz not to convert any person who did not have the right to be resident in Israel. At the time, Reform leader Rabbi Uri Regev said he had given this undertaking because he was aware that some people, even if they were living here legally, might want to convert to stay here and enjoy the material benefits of the Law of Return. But hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good sound bite? It seems that Yishai and his spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have no rivals when it comes to mixing xenophobia with a hatred of their fellow, progressive Jew. The message of inclusiveness of the Book of Ruth, which was read in synagogue on Shavuot last week, is one that passes them by entirely. Today, if a non-Jewish woman (Ruth was a Moabite) would first of all marry a Jewish man (as did Ruth) and only after he died pledge allegiance to the Jewish people (or, in the words of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi: "For where you shall go, so shall I go. Where you shall dwell, so shall I dwell. Your people are my people and your God is my God."), the chances of her conversion being accepted by a rabbinical court headed by the likes of Yishai and Yosef would be zero. Indeed, in a despicable decision last year that even had the modern Orthodox world up in arms, the rabbinical court under the aegis of the haredi Chief Rabbinate retroactively struck down conversions performed by an Orthodox beit din under the auspices of Rabbi Haim Druckman, heartlessly putting the personal status of thousands of new immigrant converts in doubt. In a thought-police style ruling, the original court which annulled an Ashdod woman's conversion argued that as the convert did not follow the Halacha post-conversion, there had not been a genuine conversion process at the time of her actual conversion. This court decision was then extended to all those converted by Druckman's special conversion court. In a dramatic move, the High Court last week gave the dayanim of the Higher Rabbinical Court 90 days to explain why they had revoked these conversions. IT IS clear, then, that the issue of conversion in Israel is in a mess, even within the Orthodox world, but it is important to take religion out of the High Court's recent ruling. The argument over government funding of conversion courses run by non-haredi institutions has nothing to do with issues of Halacha and all to do with fairness and equality. The High Court's ruling makes it clear that the state has no right to discriminate in terms of funding between the different streams of Judaism. As Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote: "All streams of conversion have the same purpose - the cultural and spiritual incorporation of Israeli citizens and residents into the society and community in Israel." One could of course argue that this is not strictly accurate because haredi conversions do not lead to the cultural incorporation of citizens into the wider Israeli society, due to the haredi refusal to serve in the army and the tendency of many haredi men to avoid working for a living. This quibble aside, the High Court's ruling is an important blow against the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism, for it makes it clear that the state has no right to determine that one form of conversion process is more kosher than another. It is unfortunate that this ruling cannot be extended to end the unfair monopoly the Orthodox rabbinical courts hold on other issues of personal status, such as marriage and divorce. Worryingly, instead of looking to loosen the grip of the strictly Orthodox on these issues, the government is reportedly seeking to expand the rabbinical court's authority on financial and administrative issues related to divorce, following haredi pressure. Given the rabbinical court's track record in terms of discriminating against women - the case of a developmentally challenged couple being granted a "quickie" divorce at the request of the husband's father, without the wife being informed of what was happening, being the starkest example of the medieval ways of this court - allowing them to decide on such crucial issues as property issues would be disastrous. With the country's attention being focused on the Iranian nuclear threat and US President Barack Obama's imminent and much-awaited Middle East speech, important domestic issues get swept under the carpet. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak takes great pride in the way Labor helped shape the state budget and neuter Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's original plans; now, to continue to justify his joining the government, Barak must now ensure that the rights of the secular public are not sold out to Shas and the other religious coalition partners through the strengthening of the rabbinical courts. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.