The Jewish community seems divided about the Israeli conversion bill. As individual Jews living in the Diaspora, what should we be paying attention to or responding to? How are the denominations responding?
Interesting question. We should be paying attention to all of the bill, as Jews interested in everything that happens in Israel, and we should be responding only to the parts of the bill that affect the Diaspora.
The good new is that MK Rotem has removed that part of the bill after realizing its implications.
Before addressing the second question, you should know that this bill does not divide along denominational lines. There are many Orthodox, in Israel and outside Israel, who are not happy with it.
The bill addresses the crucial issue of what to do with the 350,000 or so Russian Jews whose status as Jews is unresolved. The Neeman Commission tried to address this matter, the Rotem bill is a further initiative.
As to the denominations, my own feeling is that this was not our finest hour. I was not a happy camper when approached by a reporter of a leading national newspaper to comment on this. Why do we have to make this a public issue? Not everyone went to the secular press, but it became another opportunity to embarrass Israel.
Every denomination, and I mean every denomination, needs to ask whether its reaction was in the best interests of their own denomination, or in the best interests of Israel. We cannot abide the continual threats of withdrawal of support for Israel, no matter where they come from.
If Israel cannot rely on the unconditional support of the Jewish community, then we are in bigger trouble than we realize.
Your question is about an extremely important issue.For starters, we should be following and responding to all things that happen in Israel, as it is our Homeland and central to the future of the Jewish people. I disagree with those who suggest that our role as hovivei tzion, as lovers of Zion, is to publicly support whatever Israel does in the political, military, legal, or socio / religious realm. True love of Israel obliges one to support a political / religious agenda that reflects his / her vision of Zionism.The Rotem Bill threatens a more open, pluralistic environment that can give expression to diverse expressions of Judaism.In my opinion, those of us who believe that the founders of Israel intended to build such an open society have a moral obligation to fight any movement that encroaches on this vision.There is nothing more Zionist than that.
So why the fuss over this bill?The situation in Israel is quite complicated with regard to the question of ‘who is a Jew.’As of now, there are two different spheres in which this question is formally asked and answered: the civil and the religious.In the civil sphere, the question is directly related to who can automatically become a citizen of the State of Israel under the Law of Return.The answer has always been anyone with a Jewish grandparent on the maternal or paternal side.This law was formulated on the basis of the Nuremberg Laws, which institutionalized anti-Semitism in Germany and defined someone as Jewish enough to be persecuted if s/he had one Jewish grandparent.Israel thus extended automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent, a powerful reaction to the horrors of German anti-Semitism.
However, in Israel, there is not a separation of religion and state.All questions of marriage, divorce, and burial are defined by the Rabbinate.The Rabbinate defines a Jew as one who is born to a halachically (legally) Jewish mother or undergoes a valid halachic conversion.If a citizen does not fall under this definition, s/he cannot be married or divorced by the State of Israel, since the Rabbinate performs the only legally recognized life cycle events in Israel. As a result of this, there are hundreds of thousands of citizens of the state who are not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate, and who therefore cannot get married by the State.Many of these citizens are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
To complicate matters a bit more, there are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis within the rabbinate who have been undoing the conversions performed by government sanctioned Orthodox rabbis who were not Haredi.This has led to a profoundly problematic situation in which people who were formally converted by the state (through the rabbinate) have now had their Judaism “revoked” by the state (through these Haredi elements in the rabbinate), an unprecedented move in Jewish history (the Talmud itself teaches that one may not undo a halachically valid conversion!).
Now, onto the Rotem Bill.The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteynu, a secular party that represents the large Russian immigrant population, gives authority to more localized non-Haredi Orthodox rabbis to formally convert Jews, thus opening the door to solve the problem of hundreds of thousands of citizens who have a difficult time converting because they are not Haredim.What do the Haredim get out of this?More power.The bill gives them the power to become the sole arbiter for the State on all things Jewish.This bill seems to be a political trade between the government and the Haredi leadership.It solves one problem but to many of us, it creates another one.
The reason more liberal Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations are upset about this is because this newfound power for the Haredi community could potentially lead the State of Israel down a path in which the only people who will be granted citizenship are those considered Jewish by the Haredi community.Essentially, all conversions by non Orthodox rabbis and some by Modern Orthodox rabbis may be unrecognized by the state of Israel, and as such, these individuals will not be able to become citizens of the State of Israel.World Jewry is left to guess whether or not this will happen, and from a Conservative Jewish perspective, this is too important to leave to “trust.”It is for this reason that so many “movements” have been upset by this bill.On a positive note, it is because of the reaction of Diaspora Jewry that this bill was temporarily tabled.This is a promising sign that suggests that we have a voice about what happens in the Jewish State.It certainly complicates matters from a domestic perspective, but if the State of Israel is really a state for all Jews, then the fact that the government “listens” to the feedback of Diaspora Jewry is hopeful to those of us who live here but care so deeply about the future of Israel.
News of the bill's impending submission prompted the Union of Reform Judaism and 14 other organizations to write a letter of concern to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday. URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Vice President Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and others expressed their “dismay” at the advancement of the bill.
“(We) are deeply disappointed to hear that the bill will now be presented in a new and even more problematic format,” the writers said. The rabbis noted that they had been involved in discussions with Knesset members for some months, and were under the impression that Reform and Conservative groups would be consulted for input before the bill received further consideration.
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