On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Ministry must recognize conversions undertaken by non-Orthodox rabbis for purposes of the “Law of Return” and Israeli citizenship. As might be expected, the ruling generated intense controversy. Orthodox politicians and rabbis condemned the ruling, while liberal rabbis and politicians applauded it. Sadly, as is frequently the case in our day and age, the verbiage that filled the media was neither instructive nor constructive. Not only were the waves of blather unhelpful, they actually obscured some critical questions raised by the ruling.
I would like to highlight one of these, by invoking an insight of the late Prof. Jacob Katz. Katz, who also served as the rector of Hebrew University, is acknowledged to have been one of the greatest Jewish historians of the second half of the twentieth century. He specialized in the impact of the emancipation and modernity on the Jews and Judaism, including the rise of assimilation, Zionism, Reform, Orthodoxy and antisemitism. His work led him to address the question of Jewish ethnic and religious unity and sustainability.
On more than one occasion, both in print and in lectures, Katz emphatically maintained that fatal schism never comes to the Jewish people due to disagreements over questions of religious observance (or the lack thereof), belief, political opinion or anything else. Schism, the irreparable departure of Jews from the Jewish people, ONLY occurs when one group ceases to abide by the basic definition of Jewish identity (‘Who is a Jew’): matrilineal descent or halachic conversion. That is precisely the reason there was a permanent schism with the Karaites (outside of Egypt), Sabbatians, Frankists and now a large number of Diaspora Jews who adhere to patrilineal descent and non-halachic conversion.
Reform and Conservative spokesmen address the issue as one of pluralism and personal choice. That is only part of the story, and is frankly deceptive. Conversion is not simply a matter of Jewish self-expression. It impacts the entire Jewish people, including countless future generations thereof. Israel cannot afford such a schism, as it is the tribal unity of the country which holds us together and sustains us in the ongoing effort to fortify our lives here. That unity is indelibly predicated upon the ability to marry one another, and to go back and forth in their observance and affiliation on the broad spectrum between non-observance and ultra-Orthodoxy.
Multiple, non-halachic conversions will create a deep, irrevocable gap between the Jewish community of the State of Israel.
This is not an issue of pluralism or of freedom of religious self-expression. No one denies that Reform and Conservative Jews are Jews (if they are born to a halachically Jewish mother or have had a halachic conversion) and or that they can worship as they wish. (I, for one, am 100% in favor of the establishment of the egalitarian section at the Western Wall, known as Ezrat Yisrael).
Many bear responsibility for the situation in which we now find ourselves. The rabbinate, the government, the Knesset, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Reform advocates and the Supreme Court all bear a measure of blame for the irresponsible and blithe manner in which they addressed (or, in most cases, did not address) so sensitive and fraught an issue as this.
That, however, is not the major point now. There are halachically legitimate ways to make halachic conversion more accessible and which can provide almost universally recognized entry to the Jewish people for those who desire it. That is the direction we must go, even as we must have the courage to stare down opposition from both extremes. Otherwise, we are looking at the fraying and undermining of the fabric of Jewish society in the Land of Israel.
The writer teaches in the Talmud Department at Bar-Ilan University, and received semicha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University.