A place among the Jews

The challenge of maintaining the connection between Judaism and the state is one of Israel’s unique challenges.

Haredi Soldiers 311 (photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Haredi Soldiers 311
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
In Israel we cannot expect the same radical separation of church and state that characterizes western democracies. This is, after all, a state that defines itself as both democratic and Jewish.
It is a state that was specifically created to empower the Jewish people with political self-determination, particularly after the Holocaust provided tragic proof of the failure of emancipation without statehood. The profound ties of the Jewish people to this particular sliver of land in the Mideast and the centuries of yearning to return to it can never be fully appreciated without an understanding of the Jewish people’s religious tradition.
This connection between state and religion finds expression in legislation such as the Law of Return, which guarantees automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jews, or laws that ensure all marriages are conducted in a way that promotes Jewish continuity and prevents assimilation.
NEVERTHELESS, WE must be vigilant in avoiding the many pitfalls of mixing state and religion. Recent controversies surrounding conversions are a case in point.
Over the past several months a fiery battle has been waged in Israel among vying Orthodox factions on the backs of thousands of IDF soldiers who converted to Judaism during their mandatory military stint.
On one side stand Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas and the most respected living halachic authority for Sephardi Jews, who recently ruled that the thousands of conversions undergone by IDF soldiers over the past decade are completely kosher.
On the other side stands the haredi Ashkenazi rabbinic establishment, led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which rejects the conversions performed by the IDF’s rabbinical courts because the court judges are purportedly too lax in their conversion criteria.
A similar argument is raging regarding Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora, particularly in North America. An absurd situation has been created in which Reform and Conservative conversions performed in America are immediately recognized for Israeli citizenship, while Orthodox conversions, which are at least as rigorous as the non-Orthodox variety, are not.
This is because the Interior Ministry, presently controlled by Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, defers to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel when vetting Orthodox converts who are candidates for citizenship. One of the criteria is that the convert belong to a recognized Jewish community.
But the Chief Rabbinate is not in contact with many Orthodox communities in America. The local Reform and Masorti leaderships, in contrast, have excellent ties with all their affiliated communities.
If there were a separation of religion and state in Israel, the internal splits and power struggles taking place within Orthodoxy over the idiosyncrasies of Halacha would not be the concern of the wider public. However, this is not the case.
The fate of thousands of Orthodox converts rests in the hands of bickering rabbis. Whether or not an IDF convert will be allowed to marry in an Orthodox ceremony here in Israel depends on which rabbi he or she approaches to register for marriage. Whether or not an Orthodox convert from America will be granted Israeli citizenship depends on the whim of the chief rabbinate.
The “Who is a Jew?” question thus depends on who is the rabbi.
WHILE A Jeffersonian-style separation of religion and state is not an option here, state-recognized religious authority must not be relegated solely to the most stringent, narrow-minded version of Judaism. Instead, steps should be taken to promote the expression of the beautiful diversity of opinion on conversions that exists in Judaism, whether it be in connection with marital law or citizenship eligibility.
At the very least, the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage registration, which too often has been hijacked by the most extremist representatives of Orthodoxy, should be dissolved and the various streams within Orthodoxy should be permitted to conduct marriages in any place in the nation.
Ideally, recognized non-Orthodox streams – Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist – should be allowed to do so as well – as long as they adhere to basic consensus tenets, such as matrilineal descent.
With respect to Israeli citizenship, we wholeheartedly embrace the initiative put forward by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky that his organization, not the Chief Rabbinate, be responsible for determining whether a Diaspora convert belongs to a recognized Jewish community or not.
The challenge of maintaining the connection between Judaism and the state is one of Israel’s unique challenges.
Giving voice to a broader, more inclusive coalition of representatives of Judaism will make it easier for more people to find their place among the Jewish people of Israel.