The Real Road to Jewish Unity

The proposed Israeli conversion-reform legislation known as the Rotem Bill – now on hold for several months – became a sort of Rorschach test for many Jews’ fears.

The bill was introduced by Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalistic and not infrequently anti-religious political party representing a largely secular immigrant constituency. The legislation’s essential aim is to ease the conversion process for non-Jewish Israelis – like thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union – allowing them greater choice of religious courts than they currently have.

To advance the bill, Yisrael Beiteinu garnered the support of Israel’s haredi, or so-called “Ultra-Orthodox,” parties. What allowed the religious parties to back the conversion reforms was the bill’s formalization of part of the decades-old religious status quo, placing conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country’s official Chief Rabbinate. That, the religious parties reasoned, would ensure that the bill’s reforms would not result in a conversion free-for-all.

When the bill it passed its first procedural hurdle, a hue and cry rose up from Reform and Conservative leaders in America, who contended that it could potentially lead to a change in the definition of “Jewish” regarding qualification for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. (Currently, any convert to any Jewish religious movement is registered as Jewish for civil purposes.) The bill’s sponsors vehemently deny that any such change could be effected by the legislation.

The lion’s share of fear-mongering, as usual, has the haredim themselves as the bogeymen. Rabbi David Stav, the head of a liberal Orthodox group in Israel, strongly supports the bill, and warns that non-Orthodox opposition to it, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “plays directly into the hands of the haredi political leadership.” Even as he touts the legislation, he sees a haredi plot: The dastardly haredim crafted parts of the bill “as a means to incite the anger of the Reform and Conservative communities.” Once again, it seems, the haredim are the Jews’ Jews. At least he doesn’t accuse us of poisoning the Knesset water supply.

And on July 16, the New York Times featured an op-ed that began with the baseless image of a “small group of ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, rabbis” deciding that “almost no one” is Jewish; smeared haredi religious authorities by associating them with a disgraced rabbi; called unnamed haredi rabbis “demonstrably corrupt”; and fantasized how, should the Rotem bill become law, a Jewish Israeli walking down the street could be suddenly summoned to a court and have his Jewishness revoked.

Vying a few days later for the Best Insult Award was a respected Jewish columnist for the Forward, who characterized Israeli religious courts as a “rabble of rabbis… a counterfeit product, pretenders to a piety they daily demean.” And that’s before he even got to the “arrogant hypocrisy” part.

Both writers are personal friends of mine (something I know will be true even beyond this writing). But their harsh words made my recent Tisha B’Av – when Jews mourn the toll taken by intra-Jewish ill will – particularly, painfully poignant.

My friends, of course, would defend their hysterics by claiming that the heat emanates from a deep desire for Jewish unity, a concept they seem to understand as requiring the Orthodox to sit back and watch quietly as the Jewish People becomes a gaggle of “Jewish Peoples.” They fail to perceive Jewish unity’s real mandate here.

What most violates the ultimate oneness of the Jewish People are multiple definitions of the word “Jew” – what results from a smorgasbord of conversion standards.

When the heterodox Jewish movements first appeared on the scene, Jews who remained stubbornly faithful to the entirety of the Jewish religious heritage decried the abandonment of the Jewish mission and warned of the dreadful toll that would result from “conversions” lacking halachic validity. The decrying was roundly condemned as impolite (or worse) and the warning dismissed as the death rattle of an expiring obsoleteness.

But commitment to Jewish religious law hasn’t gone away, and it won’t ever. What is more, in Israel, polls have shown that the majority of G-d-believing Jews in Israel – haredi, Modern Orthodox and merely “traditional” alike – consider halacha to be the arbiter of Jewish personal status issues like conversion. That is why, for all their prodigious efforts and funding, the heterodox movements have not really taken hold in the Holy Land.

Which fact fuels the frustration and even anger in parts of the non-Orthodox world. So apoplectic are some at the prospect of halacha continuing to govern conversion in Israel, they have apparently taken the disturbing step of asking members of Congress to interfere in another sovereign state’s internal consideration of a piece of legislation.

Thought Experiment: Imagine Israel embracing a multiplicity of standards regarding conversion. In a generation or two, the Jewishness of every convert and convert’s child in the country would be suspect to all halacha-respecting Jews. What is more, and more tragic, descendants of non-halachically converted women in Israel who became observant (it has happened, you know) would painfully come to discover that they are suddenly not Jewish by the measure of their own beliefs. They (and, if they are themselves women, any children they may have had in the interim) would have to undergo a halachically valid conversion. Worse still, women among them engaged to cohanim would discover that they cannot halachically marry their fiancés. Even greater soul-wrenching challenges would result from multiple standards in other Jewish personal status issues.

All of that, sadly, is already happening here in the United States and elsewhere. Orthodox Jews can no longer assume the halachic Jewishness of those presenting themselves as non-Orthodox Jews. And newly Orthodox young people have discovered that their parents’ or grandparents’ choices have inadvertently left them in terrible straits.

Whatever one thinks of the Rotem Bill, it raises an important, if uncomfortable, question: Is exporting American Jewish chaos to Israel really a road to Jewish unity?


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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