On issues relating to Jewish identity in Israel, Diaspora Jews are not only entitled but are obliged to be party to discussions.
However, the current upheaval over the proposed Rotem conversion legislation has limited bearing on Diaspora or American Jews as it relates only to conversions here.
Ironically however, the brouhaha from US Conservative and Reform groups – while based on false premises – had a positive impact, forcing the government to at least temporarily postpone the legislation.
There was one brief moment in 1998 when current Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman came close to achieving a consensual agreement for conversions that would have been consistent both with Halacha and accommodating the major requirements of the Conservative and Reform Jewish organizations.
Regrettably, it was ultimately sabotaged by hard-liners from both sides. Since then, it has been clear that in the foreseeable future this issue will not be resolved by legislation or fiat and will remain a matter of contention between opposing Jewish groups.
But today we face an impending crisis that cannot await the resolution of this issue.
Since their arrival, 350,000 immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union, most having one Jewish parent, remain in a nightmarish limbo.
On the one hand, they consider themselves Israelis in every respect, attend Israeli schools, serve in the IDF and and are willing to lay their lives down for their country. Yet due to historical circumstances beyond their control they are not regarded as halachically Jewish.
As a consequence, 90,000 of them born here, who will soon be of marriageable age are considered “ticking time bombs.”
They will become deeply alienated when they discover that they are unable to obtain state certification for a marriage ceremony or even be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
YET IT is not an insolvable problem. There was an equivalent predicament with the Ethiopian aliya, which in terms of Halacha was far more problematic. But due to the foresight and creative intervention of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef the problem was resolved within a halachic framework.
The proposed conversion legislation introduced by MK David Rotem on behalf of Israel Beiteinu was intended to resolve the problem by broadening the conversion authority to a cross-section of rabbis including those more sensitive to the need to exercise maximum halachic flexibility to those seeking to convert.
However, after Rotem naïvely accepted the haredi amendments, the proposed legislation would in reality have worsened the current intolerable situation and further institutionalized control of the conversion procedure by the most extreme elements. Currently applicants to local rabbinical courts requiring certification that they are Jewish frequently undergo a draconian interrogation. Many are treated in the first instance as if they were not Jewish and even obliged to provide birth and death certificates and marriage contracts going back three generations – documents which are frequently simply unavailable.
Currently, the majority of rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate are programmed to dissuade potential converts by imposing the most stringent barriers to conversion at a time when it is in the national interest to encourage Israelis who are not halachically Jewish to become part of the formal religiously sanctioned community. They recently even took the unprecedented step of attempting to retroactively annul 15,000 conversions conducted by the unquestionably Orthodox Rabbi Haim Druckman – a step unheard of in Jewish tradition. This is all the more bizarre because the haredim themselves refuse to recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which they hijacked merely to coerce the Israeli community to adhere to their stringent standards of religious ritual observance.
PROF. BINYAMIN Ish-Shalom, the founding chairman of the Joint Conversion Institute and Beit Morasha, is recognized as one of the most devoted and committed Orthodox intellectuals seeking to promote Jewish values and build bridges between religious and secular Israelis. But even he concluded that the proposed law will incur “more damage than good and set dangerous precedents with potentially disastrous results.”
He maintains that the proposed legislation would enable the centralized Supreme Rabbinical Court to control the placement of rabbis and thus exclude any Tzohar or centrist rabbi who has a sympathetic approach to conversion. The legislation would also require a beit din to be composed of three municipal rabbis who could not appoint substitute rabbis – making it practically impossible for such bodies to operate.
Ish-Shalom also points out that by providing for review of conversions by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, the proposed law provides a green light to the annulment of any previous conversion undertaken by the state which could inflict additional suffering on converts.
It is noteworthy that Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas MK, recently published a scholarly book promoting a more positive attitude toward converts, especially children of Jewish ancestry who serve in the IDF, which he claims in itself reflects a sincere intention of becoming part of the Jewish people. However, none of the 34 current conversion judges appointed by the state would concur with his position and the entire haredi establishment bitterly attacked him, describing his work as “a mockery of Halacha,” but could not fault the bona fides of his halachic approach.
The immediate problem is the operation of the multimillion shekel state-sponsored conversion enterprise controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which only converts a few hundred immigrants each year. It should be dissolved and substituted by a process whereby a broader range of Orthodox rabbis should have the authority to form a beit din to process conversions, as has been the case in Diaspora communities throughout the ages.
Those who consider that these conversions are insufficiently stringent are not obliged to recognize them – a situation which already prevails among many haredim, who would not accept within their families those converted outside of their own immediate rabbinical circles.
How are the religious Zionists in the Knesset responding to this? Some, without adequately checking the facts, have foolishly endorsed the legislation and a few have disapproved.
However, the majority privately whisper that the legislation is retrograde but lack the courage to speak out in opposition, fearful of being castigated by the haredim.
If they remain silent on such an important issue, it is high time for them to retire from politics. If their one-dimensional obsession with settlements has led them to abdicating the central religious life issues to haredim, they should become a straightforward settlement party and cease claiming to represent the viewpoint of religious Zionists.
Their deafening silence in this debate is cowardly. There is a desperate need for religious Zionist activists who are willing to promote a religious Jewish world outlook by example, not by coercion, and willing to indulge in dialogue with other sections of the Israeli and Jewish world without being intimidated by haredim.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post