Converts and the court

For decades the State has tried to avoid answering the question of who is a Jew.

givat ram students 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
givat ram students 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Who is a convert? This is the question facing the High Court of Justice, thanks to a petition brought this week by the Israel Religious Action Center to have the state recognize non-Jews converted in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis as Jewish. It is a matter the state must face now only because it has tried for decades to avoid answering the question of who is a Jew, thereby preventing factional battles within the worldwide Jewish community. "Who is a convert" is also a question that leads to other questions - questions that the entire Jewish people, and not just the Jewish state, must face with both honesty and urgency. Until now, Israel has applied contradictory criteria in regard to Jewishness. One criterion, applied primarily for matters of immigration and the Population Registry, is based on the non-halachic Nuremberg laws. The other, applied primarily for conversion and life cycle events such as marriage, divorce and burial, is entrusted to the Chief Rabbinate and based on Orthodox views of Jewish law. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union and non-Jews living in Israel who seek conversion expose the flaws in this approach. What is the state to do with people who qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to Halacha? Since conversions that are performed abroad by non-Orthodox movements are recognized outside of Israel, why can't conversions in Israel be recognized by the state, as well? In essence, the Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Israeli branches of the Reform and Conservatives Movements, is challenging the near monopoly of the official rabbinate over religion in Israel. It is not clear that it is the court's job to break this monopoly, which is a cornerstone of the religious-secular status quo. But it is also not clear why the Knesset, which has legislated on such matters, should pretend that maintaining the rabbinate's monopoly is the solution to the genuine problem of differing standards of conversion. There have been efforts in the past by the major streams of Judaism to agree on joint standards for conversion that will be upheld and recognized by all. Here, the Neeman Commission produced a process by which the educational program leading to conversion would be multi-denominational, while special courts appointed by the rabbinate would finalize the conversion. Since then, joint conversion institutes have graduated hundreds of potential converts, but the system has not grown enough and the rabbinate has not done its job of expeditiously affirming these clearly legitimate conversions. Moreover, the overarching problem of differing standards between the movements and between Israel and the Diaspora remains. We must face the fact that the Jewish people, though growing within Israel, is shrinking globally due to low birth rates, high intermarriage rates and assimilation in the Diaspora. Rivalries between denominations and between Israel and the Diaspora are a luxury we can no longer afford. The challenge of continuity and survival, within which Israel's future is surely wrapped, must be a joint project of the entire Jewish people. Accordingly, we welcome Rabbi Eric Yoffe's rededication at the Union of Reform Judaism's biennial conference last month to the goals of the late Alexander Schindler, who 27 years ago advocated actively encouraging non-Jewish spouses of Jews and anyone sincerely interesting in joining the Jewish people to become a Jew by choice. Our official rabbinate, for its part, must not continue to spurn legitimate converts with one hand and defend its monopoly against other Jewish streams with the other. How does such an approach, in this day and age, advance the interests of the Jewish people? This newspaper has called for disbanding the official rabbinate which, as mired as it is politics and suspected of corruption, has lost its moral authority and arguably retards the advance and development of Judaism within the Jewish state. If this rabbinate, nevertheless, wants to demonstrate some positive relevance, it should be leading discussions with other movements to develop joint standards for conversion, and facilitating many more conversions in Israel. No court decision can substitute for initiative and creativity by Jewish leaders and communities. The fact that these struggles are being fought in the courts and in the Knesset is a sign of abdication of this leadership, which collectively has shown little sense of urgency in addressing the Jewish future.