The Conversion Conundrum

By Yehudah Mirsky
Monday, July 26, 2010

Late last week, narrowly averting a looming crisis within world Jewry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a postponement, possibly indefinite, of prospective Knesset legislation making the Chief Rabbinate the arbiter of conversion in the Jewish state and thus of who may be eligible for citizenship under Israel's foundational Law of Return. The measure has stirred impassioned debate in and between Israel and the Diaspora, much of it a depressing if also revealing exercise in talking past each other.

The Knesset bill itself was introduced by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose chief constituency is Israel's large group of recent Russian immigrants—a population forcibly alienated from Judaism for generations. Some 300,000 of these are not certifiably Jewish by religious criteria, and it has not been easy to settle on a conversion process attractive to them.

For its part, the Chief Rabbinate, in recent years increasingly the property of ultra-Orthodoxy, has been notably unwilling to relax any of its standards; two years ago, it retroactively annulled some 15,000 conversions performed by more moderate, Religious Zionist rabbis. The Interior Ministry, charged with immigration policy (and controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party), also seeks a tightly-regulated conversion system for reasons of its own.

The new legislation would, for the first time, have allowed presumably less dogmatic local rabbis to perform conversions, so long as they did so in partnership with Rabbinate-designated religious judges. By this somewhat more inviting measure, Rotem hoped to bring relief to at least some of his constituents. But even before the bill was rewritten and made more stringent in committee, complications abounded.

The idea of legislating conversion is itself a major departure. Until now, conversion, along with other flammable religious issues, has been dealt with through a longstanding status quo that has made the Supreme Court the final arbiter, as it was in 1988 when it ruled that non-Orthodox converts would be considered Jewish under the Law of Return if they were part of a recognized community abroad.  Engraving conversion in law, and granting jurisdiction to the Chief Rabbinate, could imperil both that decision and the Court's authority in this realm.

These were the key factors stirring much of organized American Jewry into vehement opposition to the bill. For, no matter what, the new law would necessarily have rendered conversions performed by the Reform and Conservative movements, emphatically unrecognized by the Chief Rabbinate, irrelevant to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Orthodox opinion is a story of its own. In Israel, some moderate Orthodox bodies, regularly at odds with the Chief Rabbinate on a host of issues, but sharing its aversion to Conservative and Reform, acquiesced in the bill. Tzohar, an organization of younger Zionist rabbis, announced its support in the hope that passage would enable its members to perform Rabbinate-recognized conversions. In the U.S., the modern-Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America acted likewise. The International Rabbinic Fellowship, a growing body of liberal Orthodox rabbis, is making efforts to mediate among the parties.

But this leads to a larger feature of the conversion imbroglio, namely, the very different social and religious configurations of, on the one hand, Israel's Hebrew-speaking majority as a whole—whether religious or not—and,  on the other hand, the masses of liberal-minded American Jews on whom Israel relies for material, moral, and political support.

To the ultra-Orthodox who run the Chief Rabbinate, as to their Religious Zionist adversaries, whether they supported the bill or not, the basic question is a familiar one and its terms have been set for decades: in the chaos of modernity, is Judaism best served by uncompromising adoption of the strictest interpretation of religious law, and by the dismissal of all who fall short of it, or does Jewish survival require both a strong commitment to people and nation as well as to religion and a principled willingness to engage in the endless negotiation between tradition and change? Metaphysical considerations have a role as well. For ultra-Orthodoxy, converts, in assuming their new ontological identity, also assume responsibilities for which they and the Jewish people will be held strictly to account in divine judgment. For Religious Zionism, the fragmentations of Israeli society, regrettable as they are, nevertheless reflect a larger, redemptive whole.

Such disagreements aside, America's Reform and Conservative movements speak another language altogether: a language of religious diversity, pluralism, personal autonomy, and open-ended spirituality that is unintelligible not only to Israel's ultra-Orthodox rabbinate but also to many Religious Zionists—and that, into the bargain, is very foreign to the Israeli public at large. In Israel the Reform and Conservative movements enjoy virtually no constituency to speak of, and are reliant on the courts for the meager rights they possess. It is their ironic good fortune to have, in Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister who, however removed from their generally liberal politics, understands the realities of Diaspora Jewry and feels tied to it. 

If the disposition of non-Orthodox American Jews is one twist, another derives from the very particular predicament faced by the masses of Russian Israelis. In a famous case from 1962, the country's Supreme Court ruled that a Jewish-born Carmelite monk who had converted to Christianity while hiding from the Nazis could not claim citizenship under the Law of Return. Though still considered Jewish under Orthodox law, he had so visibly left the Jewish nation that, as far as Israeli law was concerned, he was no longer a Jew.

The assumption then was that peoplehood and religion were obviously and inextricably entwined. But now this very assumption is being challenged from two directions: by Russian Jews who, living in Israel and serving in the army, have undeniably thrown in their lot with the Jewish people whether or not they are technically Jewish according to religious law, and by a significant current in American Judaism that has increasingly decoupled religious and spiritual life from a strong commitment to nation and people.

In brief, the various worldviews evident in the conversion debate reflect some of the deepest conundrums of Jewish identity in our time. What then? At the very least, Diaspora Jewry needs to be honest with itself about why its urgent concerns simply do not resonate even with much of the non-religious Israeli public. Beyond that, in the time made newly available by the postponement of a vote on the bill and by Netanyahu's appointment of a commission to consider options, perhaps a few things can be rethought. 

The Law of Return reflects Israel's starkest reason for being: the need to guarantee the safety of any Jew.  It has never been clear just how religious, if religious at all, one need be in order to claim citizenship under this Law. Perhaps, then, Jewishness for the purposes of citizenship can be conceived as its own category, encompassing its own set of qualities. Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, an independent-minded Shas parliamentarian, has suggested a little-used but traditional term, "seed of Israel," to capture the peculiar status of many who are already living in Israel and undeniably sharing its burdens and destiny. Another alternative, proposed by the American liberal Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, is to re-formulate the traditional requirements of religious law itself with a principled openness to converts who may not become fully Orthodox in their observance but are firmly committed to Jewish ethics and peoplehood.

As for the Chief Rabbinate and its related apparatus, these historically arose from three factors: the Ottoman system of state-sanctioned religious institutions, religious Zionism's desire to build governing institutions paralleling those of secular or "state" Zionism, and David Ben-Gurion's hope that by granting official status to religion he would be better able to control it. The Ottomans are long gone, Ben-Gurion too, and the Rabbinate's agenda is by now the opposite of its creators' vision; indeed, the institution is by now destructive.

Too many interests are invested in the Rabbinate for it to be abolished any time soon, but efforts to minimize its deleterious effects on Israeli and Jewish life are a vital first step.

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