Converted to the conversion bill

Even if the bill was flawed, I suggest that all who care for Judaism announce ‘victory’ and support it.

Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
I’m a moderate, traditional Jew. I’ve been following and supporting the progress of Natan Sharansky’s efforts to find a solution to our society’s conversion issues for more than a decade, and was very excited when the Neeman Commission proposed its conversion courts. Here was a moderate, practical, halachic forum to move quickly ahead to enable the conversion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (and others!) who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish people by coming to live in (and defend, and die in) the Jewish state.
Over the past two weeks, I have given talks at and spoken to Jewish leaders and communities in eight cities across America – and I am quite frustrated at the misunderstandings rampant, and even more so at the unnecessary wedge being driven between non-Orthodox Jews abroad and Israelis (of all sorts).
Even if the Rotem conversion bill was perhaps flawed before the recent excising of the section affecting the Law of Return – and I’m not sure it was all that bad – at this point I suggest simply that all who care for Judaism and Israel simply announce “victory” and support it.
ALL OF us – Reform and Conservative rabbis and leaders in the US, modern Orthodox leaders there and in Israel, and all the rest of us who crave a “normal,” classical approach to Judaism – can feel satisfied that, with the amendment separating this internal-affairs bill from any treatment of conversions abroad and the “who is a Jew” issue regarding the Law of Return, this is an effective and long-overdue bill.
Personally, I wish Rotem would have waited until Sharansky (now head of the Jewish Agency and specifically tasked by the prime minister recently to help iron out an agreement) had been allowed to negotiate a solution.
Politically, Rotem deserves our wrath.
But the bill is a good one, one which actually promotes the kind of more open, welcoming, tolerant Judaism and a cessation of control by the haredim which the non-Orthodox streams have been supposedly seeking for years.
I’m not sure Sharansky’s efforts wouldn’t have led to the same law, or one very similar.
Those Diaspora leaders declaring that this law is “divisive” should be told in no uncertain terms: They are the ones who are causing a potential “schism” in the Jewish people, rather than blaming this law for it.
They were successful in removing the offensive elements of it – now it’s time to declare victory and move on.
A close reading of the bill (which it appears many Reform and Conservative leaders have not done, if judged by their rhetoric) demonstrates it does exactly what it’s supposed to: enable local, community rabbis to streamline the conversion process and to make it more welcoming and, while halachic of course, easier.
The bill, while codifying certain elements of Israeli practice already in place, allows much more freedom for more “modern” rabbis like Shlomo Riskin and the Tzohar moderate rabbinical movement to move ahead with the conversions of immigrants who want them.
This can – and in practice will – break the monopoly over conversions of the haredim.
The Jerusalem Post editorial (July 20) was inaccurate; it said the bill would give “the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate ‘responsibility over conversions.’” It already has that, even if not codified in law.
Of course we should support the bill – it’s (part of) what we’ve been working toward for decades. (Yes, it’s a partial solution, but it’s a beginning. And mainly, it’s finally an answer to the issue of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who aren’t Jewish and want to be but either won’t convert through the Chief Rabbinate or who aren’t being accepted by it.) MOREOVER, WE must understand the significance of rhetoric and the language used in debates like these. Those abroad who suggest that this law would be “divisive” or “destructive” (as did the Post editorial) are mistaken, as it does nothing to affect conversions abroad. It is they who are stoking the fires of division and a crisis in Diaspora-Israel relations.
These leaders are making this a discordant issue when in fact they should be celebrating it as the first step toward liberalizing Judaism in Israel ever, and toward eliminating the control of the haredim over our Judaism.
We – all of us who look to a more moderate version of Judaism which is open and liberal (dare I use that term, as an “Orthodox” Jew practicing what some might call “classical” Judaism?) – should simply claim victory with the recent amendment. We should explain to the liberal streams abroad just why this is a good bill, even for them and their interests.
The SF Jewish newspaper, The J Weekly, wrote that the bill puts more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox- dominated rabbinate. This is incorrect, that power exists there today and it is strangling the Neeman and Druckman – and Riskin and Tzohar rabbis – approach to conversions. This bill will enable local rabbis to take the power away from the haredim, including the more modern, tolerant rabbis.
The Diaspora leaders who’ve led this fight, for years – Reform, Conservative and otherwise – can be justifiably proud of it, and of their success in removing the one, small, admittedly mistaken clause which was offensive.
I propose we declare victory with the recent changes, support the bill and its liberating effect on conversions in Israel and its ending of haredi control and coercion – “we” including the Diaspora leaders who can now climb on board, communicating this clearly, and as forcefully as they’ve opposed it – to their flocks.
The writer is director of MediaCentral ( and was an adviser to Natan Sharansky as Diaspora affairs minister