Converging on conversion

The Rotem bill could have have smoothed the process of conversion for many Israelis.

Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
I was once asked to speak about Judaism at a university interfaith conference. Since it was winter time, I spoke about Hanukka and the historical background of the Syrian-Greek religious oppression and the Jewish fight for political sovereignty in Israel.
After the presentations, people milled about a table of pastries and soft drinks, and a young man approached me and told me he enjoyed my presentation. I thanked him and asked him what religion he represented, to which he replied, “Oh, I just came here to watch. I believe in a higher power but I despise any organized religion.”
While it is against Jewish tradition to proselytize, I couldn’t help myself: “Then Judaism is definitely for you!” I responded. “We believe in God and you’ll never find a religion that’s less organized.”
My point was reinforced this week with the furor that erupted over a bill meant to organize the conversion process here.
MK David Rotem’s original idea for conversion reform – that any former or current city rabbi could organize a conversion court and oversee the conversion – was widely supported inside Israel and in the Diaspora. However, to receive the full support of the coalition, a clause was added to the bill which designated the Chief Rabbinate as the titular figurehead of the conversion authority.
Through most of modern Israeli history the chief rabbis have been Zionist visionaries who have been widely respected by a wide swath of Israelis and Jews worldwide. However, the recent trend of greater haredi control of the Chief Rabbinic Council and pressure by haredi parties to influence the election of the chief rabbis caused the bill to create a serious crisis.
Also, while conversion in Israel had always been conducted under the auspices of the rabbinate, no stream of conversion was given official legal authorization.
The Conservative and Reform movements in the US objected to the bill which granted official authority over conversions to the chief rabbis who have always been, and will be for the foreseeable future, Orthodox. Since Conservative and Reform Jews make up a large majority of affiliated American Jews, these concerns were brought to major international Jewish organizations and a vociferous protest was launched saying that the bill created the danger of causing a split between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Along with legitimate concerns raised by the Jewish organizations, the disagreement was accompanied by wild speculation and misinformation from less-informed sources. One e-mail, circulated by Conservative Jews said that the law would prevent Jews converted by non-Orthodox rabbis from making aliya. This was explicitly denied in the bill, which promised that no change would be made to the Law of Return, which allows all Jews who are converted by a recognized rabbinic body to receive aliya benefits and be registered as Jewish citizens upon moving here.
Another e-mail claimed that a two-tier system was being created, through which Israel would prevent any non-Orthodox Jew from moving here. Nothing could be further from the truth. The law only relates to those who wish to convert here, and is meant to level the field, so that all converts and born Jews can receive equal marriage, divorce and burial services, without question.
Furthermore, Israel Beiteinu, the party which proposed and pushed the bill, has always been known as the most ardent proponent for the aliya of all Jews, regardless of their religious practice or affiliation.
The legitimate protests, as well as out-of-control rumors, caused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make strong statements against the bill, essentially ensuring that it would not progress to a first reading in the Knesset. I agree with the prime minister that it is of vital importance to the Jewish people to maintain cohesion and, under the current climate of exaggerated fury, the bill was untenable.
However, while the situation is given time to cool off, it is of vital importance that we explain to all of the bill’s opponents that their concerns can be addressed, and that we dispel the vicious rumors and hyperbole that surrounded the bill.
THE BILL did have some ambiguity built in to make it more digestible, but it had not yet passed a first reading. It is only after a bill is sent to committee after a first reading that it is fleshed out and clarified.
It is a shame that this could not happen. MK Rotem had promised the Jewish organizations that they would be able to take part in deciding the exact language before the bill was brought for a final vote, but now the practical discussion of the issues of conversion in the Knesset will not occur.
The initial complaint that the Knesset was officially recognizing Orthodoxy over other streams of Judaism was also, technically, not accurate. From a practical perspective, the Orthodox monopoly on conversion here has led to the current bureaucratic nightmare, and has existed since the refounding of the state. Practically, the Reform and Conservative movements would have no less say in conversion issues than before. However, the worldlier and more concerned local rabbis would draw attention and potential converts to their courts and thus rise in influence in the rabbinic hierarchy.
From an institutional perspective, there would also be no difference, since, according to law, nothing prevents a Conservative rabbi from joining the rabbinate or becoming chief rabbi. Obviously, I know that this is very unlikely to occur in practice, but in theory, granting authority to the Chief Rabbinate does not explicitly, legally, mean Orthodoxy, and as I stated, makes no difference in the practical realm from the current status quo.
I am also afraid that as discussion of the haredi control of the Chief Rabbinate fades from memory, once again the haredim will be able to exert more pressure on the rabbinate, without media scrutiny.
The haredization of the rabbinate will become a selffulfilling prophecy.
Lastly, but most importantly, we must consider the reason that conversion reform is necessary.
There are thousands of Israelis in a bureaucratic purgatory while trying to become part of the Jewish people. Jews here and abroad must sympathize with these good-hearted people and see the value of bringing them into our tradition. While the practical implications of the bill would not have made any difference in the status of Diaspora Jews, it could have smoothed the process of conversion for many Israelis.
For their sake, we must redouble the efforts to work with this bill outside the Knesset and come to an understanding with all of the interested parties.
I think that a compromise language will be easy to achieve, with the forethought that conversion reform is needed to help real people and help them really soon.
As well, I think that anyone who takes issue with the disorganized and ambiguous current system should congratulate MK Rotem for working tirelessly on this project for nearly four years and for not shying away from addressing this sensitive issue that other governing parties have refused to seriously address.
The writer is the coordinator of Israel Beiteinu English Speakers and was a Knesset candidate for Israel Beiteinu in the 18th Knesset elections. He blogs at