Conversion and marriage: A call for civil disobedience

The Chief Rabbinate has been grabbed away from the national religious community.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Over 1,000 people took part in a support rally for Rabbi Haim Druckman early last month. It was the first, and certainly the largest, religious Zionist rally for an issue other than the Land of Israel. Something, without a doubt, is happening among the knitted kipot (skullcaps) Jewish community. They sense they are fighting for house and home. The Chief Rabbinate - established by their own fathers, who also set its tone - has been grabbed away from them. The haredim are taking over! You knitted types are out. Any day now you'll also be disqualified from testifying in religious courts. But there's no making light of the sense of dread among religious Zionists. They have good reason to worry. Given Israel's current legal structure, in which religion is interwoven with politics, the revocation of Rabbi Druckman's conversions has serious repercussions. Thousands of converts whose Judaism has been revoked will not be able to marry through the rabbinate. In other words, they will be prevented from registering their status as "married" in the State of Israel - a nation that chose to grant a monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate for every matter related to personal status. It is tempting to needle the leaders of the religious Zionist movement by reminding them that, when the power was in their hands, they acted with the same lordship over the Conservative and Reform movements. But that is not the point. Religious Zionism has a large constituency, and its concern for the People of Israel as a whole - not just for those sporting knitted kipot - is heartfelt and genuine. We must all hope that, at this historic moment, they will act responsibly, according to the dictates of their conscience. It will require rabbinical courage to bring about the creation of religious Zionist courts that operate parallel to the Chief Rabbinate. THE ESTABLISHMENT of a religious Zionist court that performs conversions according to its standards, and whose rabbis marry converts in adherence with the religion of Moses and Israel, would be a revolution in Israel. Early on, granted, couples married in this manner will not be able to change their martial status officially at the Interior Ministry. But when tens of thousands of couples follow suit, the law will change. Revolutions can also begin from the ground up. Today already, 20 percent of all "Jewish" couples marrying in Israel do not do so via the Rabbinate. The majority, to the dismay of all of us, do not even marry in a Jewish wedding. Modern Orthodoxy, which can amplify the outcry of "rejected" couples for all to hear, has the strength to steer this unfortunate trend in another direction. Yes, this is a form of civil disobedience. A rabbi who marries a couple outside the bounds of the Chief Rabbinate risks criminal charges. Reform rabbis and Conservative rabbis have been taking this risk for years. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King taught us lessons in the ways of civil disobedience. The theoretical essence of this concept has deep roots in Jewish heritage. Religious Zionist leaders can learn from the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refused to kill male infants when ordered to do so by the king of Egypt; from Queen Esther, who disobeyed the king's edict and appeared before him without being called to do so; and, reaching back still further, from Abraham, who dared to ask, to demand, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?" The time has come for this sort of civil disobedience, for the sake of the People of Israel. There are religious Zionist leaders who have taught Israelis that, in certain situations, non-violent civil disobedience is a necessary evil in a democratic society. They did not hesitate to use it as a weapon in the struggle for the Land of Israel. Let's see them now use it in the struggle for the People of Israel. Rabbi Barry Schlesinger is president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. Atty. Yizhar Hess is executive director of the Conservative Movement in Israel.