6/11/08

Haaretz: Orthodox Rabbis Gone Wild Spawns Conversion Crisis

Out of the blue, from nowhere, Orthodox rabbis have suddenly gone on a mad rampage, nullifying the validity of their own past conversions of people to Judaism.

Rabbis gone wild. There is no other way to describe this. A grab at extortion of money and power by a gang of misguided mullahs.

Misguided because:
A. We urgently need more Jews in the world.
B. We obviously cannot do business with people who do a deal one day and then undo it the next.

A writer in Haaretz is more kind in assessing the situation, for reasons that escape me.
An obsolete monopoly
By Alexander Yakobson

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis who currently control the Rabbinical Court of Appeals are probably not especially upset over the wave of protests aroused by their latest outrageous decision, which threatens thousands of converts to Judaism with the retroactive annulment of their conversions. Instead of preaching to these rabbinical judges in the name of humanist, social and national values that they do not accept, they should simply be told: You don't stand a chance of getting what you want.

First of all, the ruling will most likely be overturned when the issue comes before the High Court of Justice. But beyond that, the basic worldview that underlies the ruling is doomed to failure - namely, the Orthodox establishment's pretension that it holds the sole key to entry into the Jewish people. The demand that anyone who becomes Jewish must become Orthodox, rather than secular or traditional, implies that Orthodoxy is the "standard" of Jewish identity, and any other version of Jewish culture can perhaps be tolerated if absolutely necessary, but is not legitimate - and is certainly not of equal value.

This is indeed the perception of the Orthodox establishment - not only among the ultra-Orthodox, but also among religious Zionists, who want to make things easier for converts, but who nevertheless insist on the principle that joining the Jewish people means becoming a religiously observant Jew. That is why the religious parties demanded for years that the Law of Return be amended to stipulate that only conversion in accordance with halakha (rabbinic law) be recognized by the State of Israel.

This struggle failed, and efforts to amend the law have ceased. A person who underwent a Conservative or Reform conversion abroad is considered a Jew in Israel for purposes of the Law of Return. Inside Israel, the Orthodox retain their monopoly on conversion - but not a monopoly over de facto entry into the Jewish people.

In the wake of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, something that was already true has become even more obvious: There is no need for any religious rite, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, or for any rabbinical kashrut certificate in order to join the Jewish people. A large number of people who are non-Jewish according to halakha, but have Jewish relatives, have come to Israel and received citizenship under the Law of Return. A minority are children of a Jewish father, and many of these already had a well-formed Jewish consciousness. But many others are the spouses of Jews, or people who have only a distant family connection to Jews, and were devoid of Jewish consciousness when they came here.

The integration of this large population into Israeli society is no simple challenge. However, despite a few exceptions, some of them grave, the overall picture is positive. The vast majority of this public aspires to integrate, and over time, it is indeed integrating successfully into Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jewish society, in a process that has come to be termed "sociological conversion." This is exactly how joining a sovereign nation is supposed to be accomplished: immigration and the acquisition of citizenship, adoption of the nation's language and culture, integration into the country and identification with it.

The religious establishment is able to harass these people, especially because of its monopoly over personal status issues, which people must go all the way to Cyprus to bypass. However, it does not have the power to make them into a Russian national minority. Such a minority will not be created in Israel. These people belong, and their children belong even more clearly, to the same nation to which the Israeli Jewish majority belongs.

Halakhic Judaism - the traditional Jewish culture - is today only one variant of Israeli Jewish culture. It is an important, influential variant that is dear to the hearts of many people, and one can only regret what some of its spokesman and representatives are doing to it. Anyone who adopts Jewish culture in its religious variant is rightly considered, even by most secular people, to have joined the Jewish nation. However, this is not the only way to join. In the current situation, there is not a complete separation between the Jewish religion and Jewish national identity, but neither is there a complete overlap, and there is no chance that anyone will succeed in forcing such an overlap.

Israeli society is influenced by Jewish tradition, but it is a free society to the very marrow of its bones. Contrary to the fashionable cliche that describes Israel as a local version of the ayatollahs' regime, in most areas, the religious establishment's ability to impose its will has decreased rather than increased over the past few decades.

3 comments:

John D. Enright said...

The article says:

"That is why the religious parties demanded for years that the Law of Return be amended to stipulate that only conversion in accordance with halakha (rabbinic law) be recognized by the State of Israel.

This struggle failed, and efforts to amend the law have ceased. A person who underwent a Conservative or Reform conversion abroad is considered a Jew in Israel for purposes of the Law of Return. Inside Israel, the Orthodox retain their monopoly on conversion - but not a monopoly over de facto entry into the Jewish people."

I understand that the Orthodox would like to claim a monopoly on determining the question of who is a Jew. I wonder, however, what is the status of non-rabbinic traditions such as Karaite Judaism? If an American converts to Karaitism in America, can he invoke the Law of the Return?

bryce said...

"Out of the blue, from nowhere, Orthodox rabbis have suddenly gone on a mad rampage, nullifying the validity of THEIR own past conversions of people to Judaism."

The word "their" was not chosen wisely.

"We urgently need more Jews in the world."

We do? I believe we urgently need more /sincere and committed/ jews in the world.

John D. Enright said...

Ah, c'mon guys! Inquiring minds want to know!