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 be able to be fully absorbed into Israeli society! How can they, if they are not allowed to marry in Israel? As the state handed total control over marriage of Jews in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize them as Jews, none of them can legally marry here. Neither can some 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Don’t they deserve that you, as head of the Jewish Agency, demand that Israel grant them the right to family, and not subjugate them to the anachronistic rabbinic establishment that refuses to accept even Rabbi Lookstein’s legitimacy? Even with your goodwill, the Agency’s funding and the handful of lenient Orthodox rabbis willing to defy the rabbinate’s intransigence, few will undertake Orthodox conversions.
Can a Jewish Agency committed to the successful absorption of the miraculous Russian Aliya close its eyes to this mistreatment, which renders them second class citizens? In rightly stressing the need for Israel to welcome the young generation of Diaspora Jewry, you must know that the majority of that youth will not be accepted as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and would similarly be excluded and humiliated.
Many among them converted (or their mothers converted) with non-Orthodox or modern Orthodox rabbis like Lookstein, or were born to mixed marriages.
As there is no legal option for civil marriages in Israel and neither do non-Orthodox rabbis have the authority to officiate at marriages in Israel – the majority of Judaism’s next generation would not be able to marry in Israel! As Hiddush polling repeatedly demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support equal status for non-Orthodoxy and state recognition of all forms of marriage.
The non-Orthodox make up the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry, as you well know. Shouldn’t the primacy of Jewish unity and inclusiveness, Israel’s founding principles of religious freedom and equality, and the overwhelming support for Jewish diversity among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews compel you to mobilize the Jewish Agency toward this goal? This may not come easily for you. I recall an interview you gave in the past, explaining that Israel must have a single rabbinic authority to achieve Jewish unity. When you served as interior minister you submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court expressing your opposition to recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, even in the civil arena. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected your position and accepted ours. Much time has passed since then, and, in your current position, I know that you have gained many additional insights and sensitivities toward the Jewish Diaspora, your Agency’s stakeholders.
During your tenure, significant developments indicate growing concern about the lack of religious freedom in Israel.
One example is the Jewish Federations of North America adopting the “Israel Religious Expressions Platform,” in support of marriage freedom in Israel. A resolution focusing on this issue was submitted to the Jewish Agency, but is dragging and has yet to gain your support.
Sadly, even the resolution adopted by the Jewish Agency over a year ago on the “establishment of ongoing working groups for religious freedom in the State of Israel” still awaits implementation.
The Western Wall compromise and the Agency’s willingness to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox Jews follow the problematic and long discarded principle of “separate but equal.” Now that the rabbinic establishment is discriminating even against modern Orthodoxy, shouldn’t we breathe life into the fundamentals of our Jewish and democratic state promising religious freedom and equality to all? Shouldn’t you hold Prime Minister Netanyahu accountable to his praiseworthy declaration at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America a few months ago, committing to “ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews?” Damage control is not enough. Mere tweaking will not suffice. The rabbinate’s coercion, anachronism and extremism are distancing Israeli Jews from Judaism. Giving them exclusive authority over marriage and divorce of all Jews in Israel is undermining Jewish peoplehood and alienating world Jewry.
Dear Natan, I urge you to act further on your stated vision of Jewish inclusiveness and diversity! Lead the Jewish Agency towards the real, bold changes necessary so that all your stakeholders in the Diaspora and all Israeli Jews can feel themselves partners, working together to create a rich Jewish tapestry, which represents and respects the diversity of the Jewish people of the 21st century. As much as support for Rabbi Lookstein and his liberal Orthodox colleagues is justified – nothing short of upholding the right to marry and respecting religious freedom and equality for all will do!
Rabbi Uri Regev
Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel
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
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?
I hope Ms. Thornhill’s discussion will prompt your comments. For myself, I am further energized to see in her article that unleashed forces await just outside the Jewish world, waiting to join our people and add their creativity fully within the scope of authentic Jewish life. Therefore, the task of removing state politics from religion grows even more urgent.
Please send your comments to:firstname.lastname@example.org or comment in our Facebook group [link].
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
… 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 or judicial branches… It’s fine if the government chooses to support religious bodies, but it should support all streams and communities.”
Kariv and others believe that if the critical grassroots mass of those seeking independent avenues for marriage, conversion and kashrut continues, increased official recognition and government support for all streams of Judaism is inevitable.
Taking it one step further, in August, Dr. Shuki Friedman from the Israel Democracy Institute wrote in an op-ed published in Haaretz that “the trend towards privatization of religious services heralds not only the death of the rabbinate – it creates a de-facto separation between religion and the state. The less relevant the rabbinate and the official and established religious services it provides, the more significant the separation between religion and the state. And if that is the actual situation, in the end the legislators will have no choice but to recognize it by means of legislation as well.”