|No Knesset legislation ruling can resolve the fact that the Jewish nation includes differing streams. |
I have written and rewritten this column half a dozen times in the last few days, amending and reworking it each time I spoke to another of the protagonists.
I don’t remotely claim to have identified a formula that can fix the crisis that again risks fracturing the global Jewish nation – the latest eruption of intra-Jewish warfare surrounding Israel Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem’s conversion bill.
There is, unsurprisingly, no readiness on the part of the ultra-Orthodox leadership for any dialogue with Reform Jewish leaders on the issue. By contrast, among some of the other factions involved – including Orthodox rabbis, politicians and leaders, and non-Orthodox rabbis, politicians and leaders – there is at least a purported will, and quite possibly a genuine desire, to resolve the matter via constructive interaction. However, there is also an acute sensitivity and communication deficit.
Rotem credibly claims to be motivated primarily by the interests of 350,000-400,000 Israelis, mainly from the former Soviet Union, who were Jewish enough to gain citizenship under the Law of Return, but are not halachically Jewish.
They cannot therefore get married, divorced or buried here under the monopolistic aegis of the Chief Rabbinate. And, he says, they largely want to.
They want to be part of the Israeli Jewish mainstream; they have thrown in their lot with Zion; they serve in the army and, heaven forbid, if they die in that service, they want to be buried with the rest of the nation for which they gave their lives; they want their children to be recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish and therefore not to encounter difficulties when they try to get married.
Their problem was supposed to have been solved within the framework of the State Conversion Authority, the outgrowth of Yaakov Neeman’s Solomonic efforts to defuse the incendiary conversion issue when it last erupted more than a decade ago.
To his immense credit, Neeman secured the agreement of the leaders of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to a process in which they would have input in the education of would-be converts, but not the final say on their conversion.
Simultaneously, he was able to maintain Orthodox support because the final conversion authorization would remain under the purview of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
The Conversion Authority was established, with the highly regarded Rabbi Haim Druckman at its head. The shattering legislation of the day was put aside; the crisis with the Diaspora was averted.
In practice, however, the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate indeed oversaw but never formally accepted the arrangement. And relations between the various streams in the tripartite educational process were fraught, with Orthodox sources asserting that Reform and Conservative representatives sought exaggerated influence, and Reform and Conservative sources protesting that they were marginalized and that it was made plain to would-be converts that they should not acknowledge non-Orthodox connections if they wanted to clear the conversion hurdle.
In practice, too, the hopedfor streamlined and widened process of conversion proved elusive – in part because the rabbinate constricted it, and in part because the very nature of an Orthodox conversion entails at least a purported commitment to a highly particular lifestyle to which not all potential converts would be amenable.
And so, more than a decade on, only a few thousand of those ostensible hundreds of thousands of non-halachically- Jewish, would-be-converted Israelis are making it through the apparent bottleneck each year, and the rest remain in limbo.
PLAINLY, FOR all its advantages, the Conversion Authority Neeman brought about is a less than perfect creation, in a less than perfect Israeli Jewish world. The haredi Beit Din Hagadol has actually moved to retroactively annul its conversions – although the Chief Rabbinate has intervened to rectify that. More practically, some particularly harsh and stringent city rabbis do not recognize its conversions either.
Rotem – whose bill aims to outflank those rabbis by empowering any current or former city rabbi to oversee conversion, and to minimize the likelihood of any retroactive annulment – has been working on the legislation while engaging in dialogue with the key players in all streams of Judaism, at home and abroad.
But however well-intentioned the effort, it has broken down. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky remarked on Wednesday, the original bill was fine. But amendments imposed by ultra-Orthodox legislators – to anchor in law the current de facto Orthodox responsibility for conversions in Israel – derailed it. And misrepresentation of its content by some in the non-Orthodox leadership deepened the rift.
Some leaders of non-Orthodox Judaism are now so profoundly mistrustful of Rotem and his motives as to entertain the notion that his initiative is part of his party leader Avigdor Lieberman’s prime ministerial ascent, for which haredi support will be essential. They are concerned that the status not only of their converts, but of their very movements, is being threatened.
Passions have escalated. So have the rhetoric and the threats. As Binyamin Netanyahu, who presided over the late-’90s installment of the crisis in his first term as prime minister, told his ministers on Sunday, Rotem’s bill, in its current form, “could tear apart the Jewish people.”
In the background is a pending High Court ruling on the legitimacy for citizenship purposes under the Law of Return of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel – a ruling the non-Orthodox establishment may reasonably believe will go its way, and which Rotem’s legislation is plainly intended to preempt. Against that, however, is the certainty that any such court ruling would prompt immediate pressure on Netanyahu for legislation to circumvent it – legislation that, given the current constellation of the Knesset and in contrast to the current version of Rotem’s bill, could well emphatically outlaw non- Orthodox conversions here.
In the Knesset canteen on Wednesday, our religious affairs reporter Jonah Mandel and I moved between two tables populated by leaders on both sides of the conversion divide. Various Knesset members, rabbis, aides and spokespeople dropped in intermittently on both groups – but the two sides, who have conversed in the past, did not merge their tables and talk to each other this time.
In our separate conversations with them, we heard anger and bitterness and frustration.
We heard accusations that Rotem had dismayed and disappointed the non-Orthodox leadership by presenting his legislation to the Knesset Law Committee – where it narrowly won approval last week – before their dialogue had been completed. It was stated that the amended versions of his proposal were plainly skewed in favor of the Orthodox establishment and that Rotem had lost credibility with the non- Orthodox streams as a consequence, even though he was now apparently ready to backpedal somewhat.
We heard counter accusations that the non-Orthodox leadership had mounted a mass campaign that deliberately misrepresented the legislation, and that it ought to be eagerly embracing a proposal that would have no impact on the status in Israel of non- Orthodox conversions performed abroad and would not explicitly give the Orthodox Rabbinate a monopoly over non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel either.
The arguments are complex and nuanced, and are being distorted by a mutual sense of slight and grievance. Across this Jewish divide, each side insists that what it wants is more dialogue (but that the other side doesn’t). That what it seeks is a Solomonic solution.
And that what it needs is more time.
THE KNESSET went into summer recess on Wednesday for three months, with Rotem’s legislation not coming before it, as had earlier been threatened.
So the two sides do now have time.
Ideally, they’ll use it to find a compromise that maintains the current, evidently necessary, conversion ambiguity – under which the ultra-Orthodox legislators would withdraw their demand for Knesset- backed “responsibility” for conversions, while the non- Orthodox would drop their High Court petitions.
There can be no solution that resolves a reality – a healthy reality – in which Judaism has developed down the generations in multiple directions with different emphases. And no Knesset legislation or High Court ruling can resolve the fact that the global Jewish nation includes differing streams that exercise conflicting criteria for admission to the faith.
The genteel, lawyerly, Orthodox Neeman came extremely close, in the late 1990s, to finessing the particular dilemma that has sent pulses racing again now – finding a framework that could provide for a pathway into Judaism, tolerated by the various streams of the faith, for those hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the former Soviet Union who would have been Jewish enough to be murdered by the Nazis but aren’t Jewish enough to marry, divorce or die within the formal embrace of the Jewish state.
But the task was, and is, almost impossibly complicated.
Complicated because, in contrast to the Diaspora, and to the abiding despair of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and all those – this writer included – who seek a more pluralistic Israel, those life cycle events in Israel enjoy monopolistic Orthodox oversight.
And this will remain the case for the foreseeable future, in the absence of a mass influx of non-Orthodox Jews or drastically enhanced public pressure for pluralism.
Complicated because, to the abiding inconvenience of the increasingly narrow-minded Orthodox rabbinical establishment, Israel happens to be the homeland of all the Jews. It is the sovereign state, too, of the Conservatives, the Reconstructionists, the Reform and the secular – and must not allow itself to become an alienating enclave of religious fundamentalism.
WHAT WE are facing is an explosive global crisis over Jewish identity – a huge, snow-balling disaster that is ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations.
But it has erupted over a very particular dilemma that, in our particular context, simply may not be solvable through legislation or court decision.
Personally, I am not at all sure there is a mass demand among the fabled 350,000- 400,000 for the kind of streamlined, but still halachic conversion process that Rotem says motivates his incendiary effort at legislation.
Which, given the bitterness it is causing, brings renewed meaning to the Jewish injunction against senseless hatred.
And which makes me wonder, in turn (to adapt Winston Churchill’s assessment of democracy as a form of government), whether Yaakov Neeman’s imperfect creation is the worst form of conversion framework for Israel...except all those other forms that have been considered from time to time.