The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serous time.
Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire”. Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.
And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.
Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi’s essay summarized it best. See https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-desecration-of-israel/) The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.
And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.
It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many America Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.
There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.
If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel’s right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holy days are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.
Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.
Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement runs a national conversion programme reaching out to over 200 gerim per year. Their conversions are recognized by the State of Israel for registration purposes. We are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called “secular” Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.
Of course, many people don’t like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren’t that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn’t stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.
I hope many of you will feel that this is a message that you can share with others.
Rabbi Michael Chernick
In 1776 , in Germany, a young man named, Isaac, son of Eliezer Neiburg of Mannheim, was engaged to marry Leah, daughter of Jacob Guenzhausen of Bonn. In the week leading up to the wedding, Isaac seemed pre-occupied exhibiting some strange behavior. The wedding, however, took place in the groom’s home town with much celebration, on the 8th of Elul 5526, August 14, 1766, and all seemed to bode well.
A week later, on Saturday night, after they had spent several days in Bonn, Isaac Neiburg told the community rabbi, that his life was in danger and that he must leave Bonn immediately, but in order not to leave his young wife an agunah, he wished to give her a divorce. He did admit that he had not found the bride to his liking, but noted that he was not divorcing her for this reason, rather because of the mortal danger threatening him. Rabbi Copenhagen’s attempts to dissuade him were to no avail, and therefore it was agreed by both sides that Isaac Neiburg would divorce his wife. Financial matters were agreed to, including payment of expenses by the husband, and Isaac consented to everything. Since there was not a recognized rabbinical court in Bonn, it was decided to turn to the rabbinical court in Cleves, a city on the border between Germany and Holland.
The rabbi of Cleves, Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz, met with both parties, and sanctioned the divorce and also a written monetary agreement, determining that Isaac was firmly resolved to give his wife a divorce, and that if it were not done on the spot his wife might be left an agunah.
Several weeks later it became known to the father of the groom that his son had divorced his wife and left the country. The father was incensed both because in his opinion his son had been forced to give a get, despite, in his words, “his delicate emotional state, and because the financial arrangements were to his disadvantage.” He turned to Rabbi Tevele Hess, who then turned to the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, a large and highly esteemed community, headed by Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau, both of whom ruled that the get was indeed invalid.
What ensued was a 2 year heated and acrimonious debate that put two rabbinical bodies at odds with one another, with both Leah and Isaac, caught in the middle. Leah’s status kept changing, depending on the rabbinic ruling, from “divorced” to “possibly married,” and later to “certainly married.” And Isaac, at times was determined to be “of sound mind and therefore able to grant the get, and at other times, emotionally disturbed, and unable to authorize the writ of divorce. The fierce controversy was accompanied by accusations, insults and name-calling.
The battle did not subside until over two years later, with the death of the head of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, Rabbi Abraham Abusch.
Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of disheartening and unjust stories of aggunot, women who are chained to unwanted marriages, of open cases that have found no resolution.
The source, for the procedure of divorce is found in our parsha. The Torah: (Devarim 24:1) says:
א כִּי-יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה, וּבְעָלָהּ; וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא תִמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינָיו, כִּי-מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר–וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ, וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes because he has found some unseemly thing, then he writes her a bill of divorce and gives it to her in her hands and sends her out of the house.”
The Torah places the power to decide to divorce solely on the husband. And in fact, during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud it was possible to divorce a woman against her will. Recognizing the inequity that a woman could be forcefully thrown out of her own home Rabbenu Gershom living in the 10th century enacted a takkana, a decree that prohibited divorcing a woman against her will. A woman must accept the get in her hand in order for the get to be valid. The takkana of Rabbenu Gershon sought to protect the rights of women, however, there was one major flaw. Although a man can initiate a divorce, there is no parallel right for her to do so.
Therefore, if a woman demands a divorce and her husband refuses, her only hope is for the beit din, a court to compel him to divorce her, as stated in the gemara, Tractate Yevamot (106b): “Pressure is put on him until he says he is willing [to divorce his wife].”
For me, here in lies one of the problems. Much like Leah and Isaac, we too must rely on the halakhic wisdom and compassion of a beit din, a court of judges to dissolve the marriage and force the husband to give a get. And therefore, the Get of Cleves, as it has become to be known by scholars, is indicative of a deep flaw of the rabbinic court system.
It is true, the laws surrounding the circumstances of giving a get are quite complex. In our case, the issue at hand was whether Isac was of “sound mind” at the time of the get. And since the Get of Cleves, and even before that, Rabbinic authorities, aggunah activists, and academics have sought to find solutions to solve the aggunah crisis. Many solutions have in fact been found and written about, and Rabbi Chernick outlines several possibilities. I will briefly lay out a few:
The most commonly accepted solution is the halakhic pre-nup, which stipulates that a husband must monetarily compensate the woman for each day that he refuses to give her a get. Today, most Modern Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at a wedding unless the couple agrees to sign a pre-nup.
Another solution is creating a kiddushin tanai, or conditional wedding ceremony, where the couple signs a document saying that if the couple should civilly divorce, and a get is given within 6 months, then the kiddushin, the marriage is valid. But, if the get is not granted within 6 months of the civil divorce, then the marriage is not considered valid, and a get becomes unnecessary.
Yet another solution is kiddushin ta’ut, a marriage entered into under mistaken assumptions, including lack of knowledge of a defect in the husband that pre-existed the marriage. A beit din may declare this marriage to have never been validly established, so the need for a get to end the marriage does not apply.
Another solution worth mentioning is Hafka’at Kiddsuhin, where the marriage is rendered invalid because of a technicality, such as witnesses who is not considered to be kosher. Here again, a get is rendered unnecessary.
With each of these solutions, there are challenges. What does it say about the sanctity of marriage, of kiddushin, if one is creating a condition for eventual divorce, or poking around for technical reasons to negate the marriage entirely. But, with healthy debate, I do believe that the solution exists.
So why then, are so many women still aggunot? Why can we not once and for all, solve the aggunah crises?
Much like the Case of the Get of Cleves, the many existing rabbinic batei din cannot agree on a universal solution, let alone publicly accept the solutions available to them. But what stands out about the Get of Cleves, is the seemingly arbitrary force and power with which the beit din forces its rulings.
The rabbinical court in Frankfurt, brought its full weight to bare in order to impose its position and invalidate the divorce, even though the event did not take place within its area of jurisdiction and the Cleves rabbinical court was not subordinate to it. In addition, contrary to accepted practice, the court was unwilling to publicize the any of the testimonies it had taken, or the halakhic arguments for invalidating the get.
The Cleves Get episode rocked the Jewish and rabbinic world of 18th-century Europe, having far reaching ramifications in the rabbinical court systems of Germany, England and Poland. Each court, each rabbi, digging in their heels, and refusing to collaborate to find a solution, and save a young couple from pain, hurt, and public humiliation.
Something has to change.
The founding of the International Beit Din (IBD) is helping. Made up of courageous Orthodox rabbis who bring to bare an expertise in the halakhic analysis as well as deep compassion for women, and men, who are struggling through a potentially acrimonious situation. It is a court that has deep integrity and sense of justice, devoid of corruption. And on a case by case basis, they work to apply one of the available solutions to not only free each and every aggunah, but to prevent women in the future from ever becoming chained to their unwanted husbands. That, is the first step.
An essential ingredient to sustaining such a beit din, is gaining community wide acceptance. Through advocacy work, we must commit to finding 100 community rabbis and scholars to support the decisions of IBD, to trust their public decisions of when to dissolve a marriage, and when to grant a get. We must support rabbis who will honor the gittin performed and agree to officiate at a women’s 2nd marriage. Who will accept the children into their schools and synagogues.
We have already come so far. The Torah’s principal of allowing a husband to willfully divorce his wife against her will was mitigated by the takkana of Rabbenu Gershom a millennium ago. It is now time to extend Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana one step further, by supporting the IBD and it’s decisions.
If the batei din of Frankfurt, Cleves, England and Germany in the 18th century had worked together towards accepting one another’s solutions, much heartache and distress would have been avoided. And then, the intention of Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana, of protecting the rights of women and families, will truly be upheld.
Let’s pray that the Leah’s of our world will once and for all be free from unwanted marriages.
Originally posted on Times of Israel blogs:
The latest escalation in the attacks upon women praying as a group at the Kotel on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Adar is as remarkable as it is perverse. Senior rabbinic figures summoned hundreds of dati leumi (religious Zionist) teenage young women from their high schools to the Wall to protect its sanctity from women performing a religious act of quiet devotion.
I don’t think this has been done before in the religious Zionist world, to set women against women, by drowning out the voice of the prayer group with their own. In the laws of prayer, we have a principle that shtai kolot lo mishtamei – 2 voices can’t be heard so that a prayer leader must be of one voice. Applied here, we can be astonished at the implication that God will hear only the protesting, bused in girls’ voices. Are not their voices also drowned out by din and roar of their own opposition?
The perversity is of course deeper. This is the month in which we follow the story of Esther who emerged to save all Jews and began with calling upon all to fast and pray. Esther is classically celebrated as performing all her daring do with great tzniut (modesty). And I’m sure that is how these young women certainly have been raised and taught. Tzniut is always understood as going beyond the notions of what body parts are to be concealed. It is an all-encompassing stance, in which one does not put themselves first or shine a light upon their own performance. No Jewish ethical system can condone this mad Purim inversion of tzniut to mean infringing upon other women’s space to intimidate, shame, or frighten. And tzniut education has never meant to cause hatred. Senior rabbinic figures who ordered these girls to perform shamelessly do not allow the same girls to costume themselves as men for Purim fun. By what right do they order their students to don “manly” garb to attack women at prayer? Shame!
And the men leading the whistles and jeers at the women at prayer, way beyond the noise they create upon hearing the name “Haman” during the Megilah reading? Aren’t they commanded with the same tzniut? Of course, and every yeshiva curriculum teaches that quality intensively. I suppose they are more interested in the quality of their gevurah (heroism). But they really need to think about this. Jewish male heroism is expressed in several ways, especially: learning intensively, working and supporting a family, defending our country in battle. If they are bothered by women praying as a group then let them go back to the Beit Midrash, join the army, or go to school and get a job. Or all of the above. At the least they should consider the fourth definition, as found in the teachings of the Rabbis: “Whoso is a Gibor (hero)? One who conquers his passion,” and recognize the not so latent sexual obsession revealed by their violent responses to women.
As an Orthodox Jew, I have prayed individually and in a minyan in a wide variety of locations – valleys and hilltops; on a New York subway car headed to Brooklyn, in which someone needed to say Kaddish; resolutely seated during Kedushah in an El Al seat even though the other 9 wanted me to stand (but our teacher the late Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach maintained that one should not stand and inconvenience the other passengers and staff). I have prayed in a few Young Israels with record ear shattering decibel chattering. All Orthodox Jews, and others, have the know-how – keep your eye on the text, and your heart fixed on God. So, young, religious Zionist women, you know better than to let your teachers force you to act in a non-tzniut fashion like bratty boys. And young men, if disturbed by the women, just calmly walk away. You don’t really want to throw a hissy fit, now do you?
Originally posted on the Jerusalem Post HERE
A new study released Thursday morning reveals that 74 percent of Israel’s Jewish public is interested in having an egalitarian wedding ceremony, with an exchange of rings that carries mutual and equal obligations between spouses. Just 26% are in opposition.
The survey, conducted by the Smith institute for the NGO Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, interviewed a sample of 700 people by telephone. The report specifies that the survey questions were regarding personal preferences and not theoretical support regarding egalitarian marriage.
Ninety-two percent of secular respondents and 81% of traditional expressed interest in an egalitarian ceremony. Though 69% of religious respondents were against such a ceremony, that means 31% were in favor. More surprising is the fact that 51% of Bayit Yehudi voters, a far-right nationalist party, would like an egalitarian ceremony, likely due to the party’s high percentage of non-religious voters. Overall, 100% of the left responded that they would like an egalitarian ceremony, 95% of the center, and 58% of voters on the right.
In response to the findings, Hiddush’s Rabbi Uri Regev said, “The survey shows how the Jewish community, including a growing percentage of religious people, are moving away from the Rabbinate’s rigid institution. The public is clearly saying that we no longer want ceremonies that are irrelevant and anti-egalitarian. Many want a Jewish ceremony, but one that matches their values and their way of life; namely an updated, egalitarian ceremony. The Chief Rabbinate and the religious politicians who back it are the number one enemies of Judaism, and they breed hatred against the Jewish public.”
Regev decried the way that traditional Jewish ceremonies confine men to active roles and women to passive (mostly silent) ones. In traditional ceremonies, he said, a man is a temple to the woman, he buys her and takes her as his property. Regev noted that it is on Tu Be’av, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s day, that Hiddush chose to examine the demand for ceremony options sans discrimination.
According to Regev, “The obvious solution is to demand that our civic bodies pass civil marriage and divorce laws. Unfortunately, right now we have a government which sets new records in submitting to Ultra-Orthodox blackmail, and the opposition is making great efforts to win the favor of religious parties. We must not accept a continuation of the situation in which Israel is the lone western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry as they wish. As long as the Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce is not ended, we should take matters into our own hands and get married in equal ceremonies, even if such ceremonies in Israel are not yet recognized by the State.
Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post HERE
Leading Israelis, quite properly, have been paying increased attention to recognizing the importance of Mizrahi (Sephardi) music, poetry, culture and overall contributions to Jewish life. Both the Education Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry have created new committees and prizes to stress the significances of Mizrahi contributions to all aspects of Israeli life, and to Jewish life throughout the world.
All of this is wonderful – and surely deserved. But think for a moment about another community, ironically generally Ashkenazi, that has also for years been subject to neglect and even scorn. I refer to American Jews, half the Jewish population of the world.
American society is pulsating with Jewish life, culture and scholarship.
Yet Israeli government ministers, with impunity, refer to large numbers of American Jews as clowns or dogs. And what happens then (if anything)? Perhaps an exceedingly gentle slap on the wrist. Can you imagine what would happen if the same government officials made the same comments about Mizrahi Jews? Are American Jews, largely Conservative and Reform and historically so supportive of the State of Israel, the only ones upon whom it is permitted for Israeli officials to heap abuse and disdain? What a wonderful Jewish history there is in America. Jews first arrived in America after the expulsion from Spain, but the largest movement occurred between 1880 to 1935. Two million Jews (yes, two million) emigrated from Europe to the US. That is the largest wave of immigration in Jewish history. For the sake of comparison, in exactly the same years, the first to fifth aliyot (waves of immigration based on the Zionist ideal) arrived in Palestine; altogether, they numbered 300,000 (and a considerable number of them went back to their land of origin). Our Israeli education system, quite rightly, taught us about the individual characteristics of each and every one of these five waves of immigration. That is how these mass movements became legendary.
But that same education system patronizingly largely ignored the “mass aliya” and grouped all the Mizrahi Jews together under one wave of immigration. Today, therefore, the promotion of Mizrahi Jewish culture to a distinguished place in the educational syllabus is truly the correction of an historical wrong.
But has the cultural heritage of only one diaspora been ignored? While most American Jews remained in America, Masorti and Reform Jews are no longer an insignificant minority in Israel. More than seven percent of Israeli Jews today describe themselves as Masorti and Reform (about the same number as call themselves Haredi). Polls clearly show that a majority of Israelis want to see government recognition of Masorti and Reform and acceptance of their rabbis, conversions and marriages.
If Israel is, indeed, the national homeland of the Jewish people, can half the Jews in the world be ignored? Why is it more legitimate to be excited about a Tunisian hymn that has been lost, and then found, than to remember fondly the grace after meals from Camp Ramah or the tunes of the wonderful singer Debbie Friedman, a cantor on whose tunes half the Jewish people grew up? Why are the moderate, learned judgements of Mizrahi rabbis worthy of investment, and not the egalitarian religious revolution which enabled women to become rabbis, and has changed the Jewish people for generations? This is no accident. This is an intentional cultural rejection of half of the Jewish people, simply because in North America there grew a form of non-Orthodox Judaism that is both religiously committed and liberal; a form of Judaism that, heaven forbid, has proven that there is more than one way to be a Jew.
And what have we missed? Goodness, so very much. Rich, Jewish culture, with music, instructive literature, amazing rabbinical judgements, revolutionary attitudes toward religion, which have written a significant chapter in the dialogue between man and God (and at the same time saved the Jewish people from assimilation); but, most of all, we have missed the substance of the State of the Jews. The national home of a people is a place that knows, that must know how to respect and to appreciate the culture, the customs and the heritage of all Jews.
Otherwise it is not a national home.
Yes, the “American Jewish Community” is also a worthy ethnic group.
It might sound funny, but it most assuredly is not.
When Rav Amar, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, pushed his way into the egalitarian section by Robinson’s Arch, he also spoke out about Conservative and Reform Jews being ‘Reshai’im’ (evil ones). Yet the Talmud defines a Rasha as one who says ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.’ Apparently this is the thinking of Rav Amar with regard to the Kotel. On January 31, 2016, the government signed an agreement with us regarding the egalitarian section. The government has failed to implement the agreement. So we are now demanding that if an egalitarian section is not created in keeping with the agreement, then we are entitled to a third prayer area in the main section of the Kotel. What happened on June 16, 2016 in the Kotel Plaza sends a message to the Prime Minister that he must respect his agreements with us, that he cannot continue to deny us and give in to the Zealously Orthodox.
Iris and Anna, citizens of Russia, met in 2006 and fell in love. As same-sex marriage is not an option in Russia, they tied the knot in Denmark in 2013 when it became legal for non-citizens to marry there. With one dream accomplished, Iris felt ready to fulfill her calling to live as a Jew in Israel. Anna, who is not Jewish, agreed and the couple decided to make aliyah in 2015.
In 2014, IRAC secured immigration rights [LINK] under the Law of Return for non-Jewish partners in same-sex marriages, equal to the rights of married heterosexual couples. So if Iris and Anna were Danish citizens, their immigration application would have been granted without a fuss. But because Russia does not recognize Iris’ and Anna’s Danish marriage license, the Interior Ministry claimed that the 2014 regulation IRAC fought for did not apply to them. Instead of recognizing the status of the immigrants who were legally married in another country, the Ministry preferred to side with the country that was denying them their rights.
IRAC’s Legal Aid Center for Olim (LACO) appealed the decision, claiming that Anna had the right to new immigration status because she is Iris’s wife. The Interior Ministry was willing to grant Anna a temporary, one-year working visa, but we were not satisfied and appealed the decision again. When the Interior Ministry didn’t respond, we petitioned the Supreme Court in February 2016.
Last Thursday, the Interior Ministry informed the court that instead of opposing our petition, it would apply the 2014 policy to same-sex couples, like Iris and Anna, whose wedding is not recognized in their country of origin. **This means that now, **finally**,** ALL same-sex couples who marry overseas before making aliyah will be recognized by Israel as married under the Law of Return.*
Same-sex couples still cannot get married in Israel. But victories like these are welcome steps in the right direction. With this year’s Jerusalem Pride less than a month away, we have good reason to celebrate.
If you will be in Jerusalem on July 21, mark your calendars to come march with IRAC at Jerusalem Pride. Details will follow in the coming weeks.
P.S. We welcome yesterday’s court decision sentencing Yishai Schlissel to life in prison plus 31 years for stabbing marchers and killing Shira Banki at last year’s Jerusalem Pride march.
I read with great interest RRFEI’s coverage (May 2, 2016) of Dr. Netanel Fisher’s paper on conversion in Israel.
As a conversion advocate and activist, and he who originally envisioned Giyur Ke-Halakha, Israel’s network of independent Orthodox conversion courts, I’d like to offer a few observations.
First and foremost, Dr. Fisher’s analysis of the challenges is quite accurate. His recommendations for addressing the challenges are also sound in theory. That said, the gap between theory and practice is wide, making many, if not most, of his recommendations of limited value given the realities of the situation, as I shall explain below.
Further, a number of important points relating to Israel’s conversion conundrum are not raised as they do not fall into the scope of the paper.
And with one point I sharply disagree. Perhaps with this point we shall begin.
Dr. Fisher refers to the approximately 400,000 members of the cohort he addresses as “non-Jews”. It is with this very point that the current conundrum begins. In fact, Israel’s rabbinic establishment views personal status as a clear dichotomy: Jew or non-Jew, with nothing in between. As such, the conversion process for a person born to a Jewish father, and who was, in fact, raised with no identity other than Jewish, faces a conversion process identical to that of a visitor from China who knows nothing of Judaism.
But in fact, a study published in 2014 revealed that at least the second generation of this group is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of their Israeli cohorts, from a cultural, sociological, and national perspective, and even in terms of their basic religious beliefs and practices. While Jews, as a result of nearly 2,000 years of exile, are accustomed to viewing assimilation as a threat to Jewish continuity since a minority generally assimilates into the majority, the reality in Israel, where Jews are the majority, is quite the opposite. As a result, the second generation has already fully assimilated into Jewish Israeli society, with no conversion whatsoever. It is therefore inaccurate, in my opinion, to refer to members of this group as non-Jews. They are, in fact, Jews from every perspective other than Halakha. A more accurate term might be “non-Halakhically Jewish Jews”.
The question might then be asked, why should Israeli society care whether or not these non-Halakhically-Jewish Jews convert?
The answer is, in my opinion, that those who do not see Halakhic status as an important element of Jewish identity should not care at all. And in fact, another study published in 2014 shows that a majority of Jewish Israelis already view the members of this group as Jewish to one degree or another, and are not staunchly opposed to marrying them with no conversion at all. Among self-defined secular Jews, that number is 75%. It is for this reason, in addition to more pressing existential and moral problems facing Israel, that neither the Israeli public nor its politicians is mobilized to address the conversion challenge. And it is for this reason that Dr. Fisher’s recommendations are largely irrelevant. From the perspective of most Israelis, we are not facing a problem at all, or at least not a serious problem justifying the time, energy, financial resources, and, most importantly, political will necessary to implement the solutions recommended by Dr. Fisher.
It is true that members of this group cannot get married in Israel. But for this problem, Israelis, who are generally characterized by creative thinking, have found multiple solutions, including any combination of civil marriage abroad, common law marriage, and traditional Jewish marriage through a conversion and wedding ceremony outside of the Chief Rabbinate, whether Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox.
For the minority of Israelis who view Halakhic status as a critical element of Jewish identity, the only solution that might prove effective on a large scale, given the relative unimportance of the issue to the majority of Israelis (including the potential converts), is to perform conversions for this group in a process that requires an hour or two, a process which is not acceptable to Giyur Ke-Halakha, nor to the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel. Yours truly may be the only rabbi of any denomination in Israel prepared to convert a member of this group by requiring nothing more than immersion in a mikveh for the purpose of becoming a convert and joining the Jewish religion, as well as hatfat dam brit for males, the vast majority of whom have been circumcised. The Halakhic basis for such an approach can be found in a draft article I hope to complete and publish in a leading Halakhic journal (though this particular question is not the focus of the article, the content points to the approach I suggest), as well as in an article written by Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, formerly of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, in 1991, and which proved to be truly prophetic.
In summary, Dr. Fisher’s article is insightful and accurate in a reality which views Halakhic status as a critical element of Jewish identity. In a reality which largely does not hold that view, the paper addresses a relatively unimportant issue which, from the perspective of the majority of Israeli society, does not justify the time, energy, financial resources, and, most importantly, political will necessary to implement Dr. Fisher’s recommended solutions.
The author is an Orthodox rabbi and member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. This article represents his views only. He can be reached at email@example.com
Many in Israel are working toward a return to halakhah as intended by our tradition, and not as a political gambit to secure power in the Jewish State.
We have heard in past weeks from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who is working for a rational and traditional standard of kashrut that does not coerce Israelis into paying exorbitant fees or discriminating against other religions: a kashrut that is about food and not about politics. [link]
We heard from Rabbi Michael Chernick about those groups working to reform the marriage laws in Israel, so that the hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Israelis excluded from marriage in Israel by the Chief Rabbinate will be able marry the person they love in the land of their citizenship and the land they serve. [link]
This week we are sending the booklet of halakhic statements [download here] collected by Rabbi Chuck Davidson of Jerusalem concerning historical positions important rabbis have taken on gerut. Hiddush staffer David Bogomolny has done us the favor of translating Rabbi Davidson’s introduction to his hoveret into English for ease of reading (see below). We know your time is precious, and thought an English translation might save a few moments. There follows over 170 statements of rabbinic opinions, some from rabbis you know and some less famous, who have defined conversion as a process of joining the Jewish people for those who sincerely seek membership in Am Yisrael.
You will see that Rabbi Yisrael Be’eri, who was the Chief Rabbi of Nes Tsiyona, contended that the intention to be a Jew who acknowledged that Judaism has mitzvot, even though the convert did not intend to keep those mitzvot, was sufficient for conversion. In other words, to convert to live a Jewish life as other contemporary Jews live as Jews in our time suffices.
As long as the convert accepts the authority of the Torah and the punishment for not observing the mitzvot, some would say l’hathila and some would say b’diavad, that person is accepted as a Jew. Historically conversion was not intended to build up and sustain a particular interpretation of Judaism. Rather, for many rabbis, it’s to build up the Jewish people in its entirety with true believers who accept the mitzvot as incumbent upon them, whether they perform the mitzvot or not.
From the writings of Shlomo Zalman Urbach we see that the issue, built on a p’sak from the 13th century, is that the ger accept becoming a Jew entirely of his own free will, without any coercion. The ger must desire to be Jewish. Rabbi Urbach wrote that the critical issue is to ask the potential ger if he wants to convert, and that acceptance constitutes acceptance of the commandments.
And see Rabbi Yehoshua ben Meir’s statement about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s opinion that joining the Jewish people is doing what others in the Jewish community do as normative in the community, in Israel including serving in the IDF as the other members of the community do, but not necessarily living according to the demands of halakha.
I hope you will peruse the piskei din. I found them surprising, and delightfully refreshing. Clearly there is much here that would unite the Jewish people in practice. Perhaps we could find a way for the different streams to come much closer in interpretation to what it means to live a Jewish life. Reading these opinions I became truly hopeful, and I’d love to hear from you what your opinion is.
I want to thank Rabbi Davidson for his superb work, and for sharing that work with us, his colleagues.
In this article by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo [click here] you’ll see the claim that halakha intends to make us a moral people. I need remind no one of Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule in Shabbat 31a, or the questions about entering heaven also found there, the first of which is whether the person conducted his affairs honestly. Halakha’s intention is clearly to refine the soul and bring us closer to God, regardless of the movement we happen to represent. Rabbi Cardozo’s warning, I feel certain, is near to all of our hearts, as we watch Israel seclude itself behind a wall of religious chauvinism. We see we have many allies in the Jewish world.
Please see our Facebook page for RRFEI here: [click here], and I’d love to get your feedback.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Israel has been privileged to receive more than one million Olim from the former USSR. This Aliya has continued for over two decades, blessing the State of Israel in many ways, including economically, academically, technologically, demographically and culturally. These Olim share a great desire to contribute to their new home, including serving in the IDF’s combat units in larger percentages than the general population. The second generation has been successfully absorbed into the country, and are no different from their Sabra peers who were born in Israel.
On the one hand, the successful absorption of these Olim has been a blessing to the whole country, and on the other hand it has presented significant challenges to Israeli society. This is a result of the approximately 300 thousand adult Olim who immigrated under the Law of Return, which grants the right of return to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent (provided they have not chosen another faith), who are not Jewish according to Halacha. Another 80 thousand children and adolescents who were born or raised in Israel are not Jews according to Jewish law. Of these 380,000, who are officially classified as “having no religion” according to the Ministry of the Interior, most consider themselves Jews in all respects.
Additionally, almost all of these Olim are considered “Zera Yisrael” (the seed of Israel), descendants of Jews, who themselves are not considered Jewish according to Halakha. Unlike the conversions of non-Jews, conversions of “Zera Yisrael” are considered a mitzvah of “bringing back the lost ones,” i.e., bringing back into the Jewish fold those that were lost to the Jewish people, which is especially true for Jews of Soviet ancestry who were cut off from all things Jewish by force of the communist regime for more than seventy years. And so, the Halakhic requirements for converting those who are “Zera Yisrael” are significantly less stringent than the requirements for converting those who have no Jewish roots.
This blessed Aliyah resulted in a number of challenges, including:
Today, the pathway to government recognized conversion through the Ministry of Religious Services and the Chief Rabbinate requires those who are converting to convince the rabbinic conversion courts that they intend to live a Halakhic lifestyle as do Orthodox Jews, which most of them do not plan to do. Even most of those who do manage to complete this conversion process don’t actually live out this commitment. Therefore, the government’s conversion program actually puts the majority of this population off from pursuing conversion at all.
This booklet I have compiled addresses the critical question of the above mentioned population’s future, as well as the continuation of Halakhic Jewish status for an increasing number of Israeli citizens who have Jewish identities, but are not considered Jewish according to Halakha.
The booklet introduces the reader to more than 170 rabbinic citations on the matter of Jewish conversion over the centuries and millennia. The quotes have been shortened in order to present the material in simple and accessible language. However, the exact references are noted on every page, and in any case, the selected quotes represent the rabbis’ final opinions on this matter, to the best of my understanding.
The opinions included in this booklet only represent lenient Halakhic rulings. Clearly, in the matter of conversion, as with every other Halakhic matter, legitimate disagreements arise. Since the more stringent rabbinic opinions are better known among the wider public, this booklet aims to include the lesser known rabbinic opinions. This booklet was written with the intention of raising interest in the subject of conversion in the hopes that its readers will become inclined to deeply study the sources. Further, the booklet does not intend to represent any particular position as practical Halakha (Halakha le-ma’aseh).
My many thanks go to the great Rav Haim Amsalem, SHLIT”A, author of the monumental book “Zera Yisrael,” from which most of the citations were drawn, with the addition of a few gems that I uncovered with my own efforts, representing the Halakhic rulings of the leading rabbis of their respective generations. I merited the immense privilege, which is impossible to describe, of getting to closely know the Rav, pouring water on his hands, and learning the Torah of conversion from his mouth.
Kalman Pesach (Chuck), son of Pinchas, Davidson