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.
You will forever be remembered as a valiant warrior for freedom, and now as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, you have the opportunity to take up the mantle of bold leadership in the battle for religious freedom, Jewish diversity and equality, whose time is long overdue.
Last week, you spoke before hundreds demonstrating for full recognition of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s conversions. To the assembled crowd (which I was part of) you said, “At a time when… our enemies attempt to sever the ties between young Jews and the Jewish state…the Jewish Agency fights to strengthen Israel’s stature among world Jewry, and we protest this unacceptable blow to the vital bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry….” In an interview you clarified that the Chief Rabbinate should accept all Orthodox conversions performed by rabbis ordained at recognized Orthodox seminaries.
You praised the rabbinate for “connecting the Jewish state with Judaism.” Sadly, you are wrong, for the monopolistic and coercive rabbinate is alienating Israeli Jews from Judaism.
It is no surprise that the Rabbinic Court of Appeal refused to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions in spite of your pleading.
Your support for Rabbi Lookstein is appreciated, as is your past advocacy against the infamous “Rotem Bill” and your push for the Western Wall compromise. So is your willingness to have the Jewish Agency undertake to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox converts in light of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ pending legislation aimed at undoing the Supreme Court ruling allowing non-Orthodox converts access to the state’s publicly funded ritual baths.
You’ve done remarkable damage control, helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is under competing pressures from world Jewry and its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but hasn’t the time come to take a stand for what is truly needed to realize the noble principles you espouse? While you have repeatedly demanded that Israel and its rabbinate recognize liberal Orthodox conversions, you have never clearly articulated a parallel demand that Israel fully recognize non-Orthodox conversions.
As head of the Jewish Agency, doesn’t non-Orthodox Judaism deserve that you urge the State of Israel, if not the rabbinate, to do so? For Israel’s sake and for the relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora, these converts must
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,
A Conservative colleague once told me that the auspicious Rabbi Max Kiddushin told her that if a person says that s/he wants to convert a rabbi should convert that person immediately and teach the person later.
Little did I know at the time that Rabbi Chuck Davidson’s research, found in our newsletter of January 18th, would prove definitively that Rabbi Kiddushin’s viewpoint was well-founded in tradition, assuming that the person was as well-meaning as Rebecca Thornhill, the author of our principle article this week (available at IDEALS: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.)
I believe the Jewish world is once again, after 200 years, struggling with the concept of Jewish authenticity in light of Modernity. Ms. Thornhill’s overwhelming sincerity should impress any Jewish stream, and modern Orthodoxy is fortunate that such a sincere, Jewishly motivated and educated woman has chosen Modern Orthdoxy to live out her Jewish life. I hope you will take the time to peruse the article and her arguments.
But why did we choose to reprint her article in the RRFEI Newsletter? For this reason: Ms. Thornhill demonstrates what is possible when national politics is removed from religion! She has placed herself squarely in the center of a vital and necessary discussion for the Jewish world: what constitutes authentic Jewish practice in light of modernity, and who is acceptable for conversion? Clearly, to skew a makhloket l’sheym shamayim, as is her article, because of power politics is not only a blight on the Jewish world, but harms Judaism’s capacity to adjust to modern realities and move forward, as demanded by a State that has not existed for 2 millennia.
This week, also, you will see updated discussions of issues surrounding the Kotel and the public mikvaot in Israel. How would these be different if the sole determining factor were the welfare of the Jewish people within a modern Jewish State? Suppose there were no central rabbinic authority defending its political power and its state supported budget? How might the Jewish people flourish as never before in the last 2,000 years?
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
… Today, the new poster child of religious civil disobedience wears a knitted kippa. And faced with a recalcitrant Knesset ever fearful of disturbing the tenuous status quo, the movement is employing a strategic shift away from legislation and toward the use of other big guns, including class action lawsuits.
A new battle begins, and its arena is the court of law.
This year, seeing no prospect of progress through legislation, it has ramped up its efforts to create precedents through the court system, a tactic Liberal Judaism in Israel has employed for decades. And the rabbinate is on the defensive.
[One particular] petition, which was brought by Itim alongside other organizations, is interesting in that there are two landmark issues at stake: The first asks whether those without the legal status of residents of Israel may convert in Israel and subsequently petition for citizenship. Currently, under the Law of Return, they cannot gain citizenship.
The second matter under discussion is whether Orthodox conversions in Israel that are completed through independent conversion courts outside of the state’s Conversion Authority should be recognized by the Interior Ministry. (After a Supreme Court decision in 2002, Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel are recognized by the state, although the converts are not viewed as Jewish by the chief rabbinate so they cannot legally marry, etc.)
It is this second issue, of domestic halachic conversion courts outside the rabbinate, that quickly became relevant in late summer with the establishment of the independent Orthodox-run Giyur Kahalacha.
According to the 2015 Israel Religion and State Index conducted by Israeli NGOHiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, some 64% of Israelis support the recognition of all forms of religious conversion, including Reform and Conservative. Among secular Jews, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, 90% support recognizing all forms of religious conversion (53% would also recognize secular conversion). Interestingly, among immigrants, the support was less, at 82%.
However, the Giyur Kahalacha initiative is, as Farber puts it, “the first frontal challenge to the rabbinate on conversion from the Orthodox community.”
“We Israelis understand that the American model of separation of church and state is not relevant to a Jewish state. But we see no reason why religious bodies should be part of the legislative