A call for state-sanctioned religious tolerance

That the government has allowed conversion to be hijacked by its most retrograde and stringent interpreters is perplexing.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As I write these words in the hours before Tisha Be’Av, I feel a sense of great sadness. As a lifelong Zionist devoted to the State of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, I am filled with sorrow regarding recent developments that threaten to undermine both the liberal and democratic ethos of its founding leaders and the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
The arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah scroll publicly at the Western Wall last week as she participated in the Rosh Hodesh prayers held monthly by “Women of the Wall” as well as the proposed Rotem conversion bill that would have granted a Haredi Chief Rabbinate exclusive oversight over all conversion matters had left hundreds of thousands of Jews with feelings of sorrow and anger. These acts were tantamount to a declaration of war by zealots in governmentally sanctioned positions of power against liberal religious Jews in particular and Diaspora Jewry in general.
Admittedly, my gloom has been in part lifted by the tactical decision of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky to delay consideration for the time being of the Rotem bill in the Knesset.
The outrage of passionate Diaspora Zionists as well as the vast majority of Israelis themselves who refuse to surrender to fundamentalist control over the Jewish State has awakened the leaders of Israel to the potentially destructive impact this bill would have on the fate of the Jewish people.
Those guiding Israel’s future clearly understand that Israel is not only under attack from so many external enemies but that it faces another danger as well: the disquieting reality that the presumed continuity of American Jewry’s faithful support of the state is challenged by an emerging generation of young Jews increasingly distanced from or disinterested in a State of Israel that they perceive as not fully committed to democracy and free religious expression.
WHY ARE we distressed by Hoffman’s ignoble detention? It is not simply because so many of us view her act of carrying the Torah and engaging in Jewish prayer with her sisters at the Wall as completely consistent with an egalitarian Jewish religious viewpoint. Our anger has arisen because her arrest runs completely counter to a democratic ethos enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence that proudly proclaims, “The State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex” and asserts that Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion” and “conscience” to its inhabitants.
Her seizure challenges the sense many of us have that the State of Israel champions religious freedom and unfortunately confirms what is undoubtedly true – the Western Wall is not actually the most potent historical symbol of the national sovereignty of the Jewish people in our historic homeland.
Rather, it is essentially a Haredi synagogue and all Jewish persons of religious conviction who do not share their ultra-Orthodox beliefs must be prepared to surrender their own as a pre-condition should they wish to worship there.
In the case of the bill proposed by MK Rotem, I do not doubt that he is well-intentioned in his desire to offer a bill that seeks to resolve the heartbreaking dilemma confronted by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live as Jews in the Jewish State while being ineligible for marriage because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Rotem is rightfully concerned about the decision issued several years ago by the highest Haredi legal authority in Israel to annul conversions conducted under Orthodox authority in Israel itself – a judgment that places the conversion to Judaism of more than 40,000 Israeli converts in a state of limbo and makes the alternative of conversion to Judaism on the part of hundreds of thousands of other non-Jews now living in Israel virtually impossible.
AS A scholar of Orthodox Judaism, I am perplexed that the government has allowed a rabbinic tradition of such openness and flexibility on the issue of conversion to be hijacked by its most retrograde and stringent interpreters. Sadly, I believe it is due to the corrupting enmeshment of religion and state.
As a result, Rotem’s “so-called solution” was and is not a solution at all. His bill only exacerbates the problem by tightening the control the haredim have over matters of Jewish status. The bill completely disenfranchises liberal streams in the Jewish religious tradition by denying their rabbis as well as most Modern Orthodox rabbis the authority to perform legally recognized conversions and withdraws even the limited legal gains that the non-Orthodox streams have made on this matter by overturning a Supreme Court ruling that all Jews converted by rabbis from all streams of Judaism are eligible for citizenship.
For Jews in both the Diaspora and in Israel who are committed to Israel as both a democratic and a Jewish state, these episodes call into question whether the state itself actually possesses those commitments. The impediments and restrictions placed before non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism by the Israeli government are matters of serious concern because they reveal that the State employs coercion and imposes a limited range of acceptable practices on Jews who have diverse conceptions of Jewish religious authenticity.
This struggle for Jewish religious freedom is a principled fight for justice that expects the state to be impartial in defining authentic religious Judaism. It is high time that the legitimacy and authority of different branches of religious Judaism be affirmed in Israel. This will surely enhance and strengthen the commitment significant numbers of American Jews feel towards the Jewish state.
This desired outcome needs to be impressed with all candor upon those who are our Israeli sisters and brothers, and divisive fights such as those brought on by the Rotem bill should be avoided at almost all cost just as room for the type of religious expression Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall seek should be protected by the government as the State of Israel strives to fulfill its mandate as a democratic and Jewish nation.
The writer is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.