Don't fracture the Jewish people

However well-intentioned, Rotem's conversion bill was doomed to failure.

Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
The original intent of Israel Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem conversion reform bill was honorable. He hoped to alleviate a nearly untenable situation in which full rights as an Israeli citizen in an ostensibly secular Jewish state are dependent on a kosher stamp of approval from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
Rotem’s idea was to make it a little easier for non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union to get that stamp by streamlining the Orthodox conversion process.
After the disintegration of Soviet Communism, about a million immigrants arrived in Israel, one-third of whom are considered non-Jews according to Halacha. Though their mothers were not Jewish, these immigrants received automatic citizenship under the Law of Return because their fathers or grandparents or spouses were.
Rotem reasoned that if these non-Jewish Israelis could be converted in an Orthodox ceremony, they would not have to travel abroad to marry but could do so in institutions controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; they would not have to be buried in separate cemeteries but could be interred along with their Jewish fellow citizens; they would not represent an intermarriage threat to Jewish Israelis but would be knowledgeable about Jewish heritage and practice; and they would feel comfortable on Jewish holidays celebrated nationwide such as Pessah, Succot and Yom Kippur.
As an Orthodox Jew himself, Rotem was also understandably motivated by a desire to maintain the Orthodox monopoly over religious ceremony and services. He realized that if some 350,000 non-Jews and their offspring were not allowed to marry or be buried with fellow citizens who happened to be Jewish, pressure would eventually build to dismantle the Orthodox monopoly.
However well-intentioned, Rotem’s solution was doomed to failure. It is sheer naivete to think that tens of thousands of agnostic FSU immigrants will undergo a religious transformation even if shepherded by the most moderate, open-minded and friendly Orthodox rabbi.
The decision to convert is an inherently personal religious act that should not become a condition for the receipt of full citizenship rights, such as the right to marry.
Now, due to the meddling of Shas and United Torah Judaism, what began as an attempt to streamline the conversion process has turned into a major standoff between Jews – and this at a time of the year when the mistake of baseless hatred, the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple, should be particularly prominent in the Jewish consciousness.
On one side are conservative elements who define Jewishness in its most narrow sense, as someone born to a Jewish mother or who converted in an Orthodox ceremony.
On the other side are liberal-minded Jews who are seeking a more inclusive definition of Jewishness that can find room for the sincere convert to non-Orthodox Judaism and for the FSU immigrant born to a non-Jewish mother who speaks Hebrew without an accent, is willing to die for his country, and sees his future in Israel with the Jewish people.
THE DISPUTE between these two camps may never be resolved. But Israel Beiteinu’s behavior in recent days is only making things worse. By insisting on ramming through legislation that grants the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate “responsibility” for conversions, it risks upsetting the fragile status quo and is forcing to the forefront differences between liberal and traditional Jews that, bitter experience has shown time and again, are best left unspoken.
This is a crisis of vast potential consequence for the Jewish people worldwide – a crisis that, as was seen when it began to play out along similar lines during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first prime ministership, threatens to deepen rifts between different streams of Judaism, and between Israel and the Diaspora.
The closest our fractured people came to finding a viable solution to the conversion dilemma was in the framework diligently and lovingly hammered out by the Neeman Committee 12 years ago, with the involvement of representatives the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. Under this framework, non- Orthodox rabbis and teachers would play a role in preparing candidates for a halachicly recognized conversion. To their abiding shame, this Solomonic arrangement was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate, and a historic opportunity to further Jewish unity was lost.
Given that the schisms that doomed this initiative have all-too-evidently not healed in the years since, the present status quo strategy of intentional ambiguity is the only way of preventing the further fracturing of the Jewish people. Netanyahu staved off a similar crisis in the late-1990s. He urgently needs to intervene again today.