Beyond the Cusp

September 11, 2014

Attack on Israeli Chief Rabbinate or Liberalizing Conversion?

Yesh Atid and Hatnua Parties members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, have introduced a bill in conjunction with left-wing social action organizations and Reform and liberal rabbis which would revamp and alter the standing traditions and rules governing conversion to Judaism within Israel. The normal problems with conversions within Judaism has been assuring that any conversion performed outside of Israel would be recognized if and when the convert applied to move to Israel, especially if their return is planned to be as part of the “Right of Return” laws in Israel regarding Jews returning to their ancient homeland. With the introduction for changes to the rules and governing body deciding conversions within Israel a completely new and otherwise unexpected reaction has recently reared up. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau in a meeting with rabbis in London was informed that should this proposed law be enacted that there would be a definitive split in Judaism as outside Israel any conversion performed under the new directions could see mistrust or even outright rejection outside Israel. This would be a complete reversal of the current situation. One of the originators of this proposal, Minister of Knesset Elazar Stern of the Hatnua Party stated one year ago in November of 2013 in an emergency session of the Knesset People, Religion and State Caucus to address Chief Rabbinate’s policies stated, “We came here today with the belief that Israel is a Jewish-Democratic state, not only Jewish or only democratic, and that sometimes it comes at a price; that sometimes Judaism needs to bow to the rules of a democracy, and sometimes a democracy needs to bow to the rules of Judaism.” This is an interesting statement which is at the core of this argument and also gives a deep insight to the desires of Minister Stern and those backing the call to alter conversion in Israel.

The first necessity to this discussion is to define what the new law would change and what such changes would mean to somebody seeking to convert to Judaism in Israel. The law would place the sanctioning and licensing of Rabbis permitted to perform conversions in the hands of each local government removing this power from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The reasoning is that currently only Orthodox Rabbis are permitted to perform conversions and the rules they must adhere to are straight forward and considered to be too demanding by those backing this legislation. The main complaint they have is that the only Rabbis permitted to perform conversions are Orthodox Rabbis and Reform and Conservative Rabbis are not given such license. The backers of the new rules for conversion also believe that the requirements an individual must meet to complete the conversion process are too lengthy and require a rather great amount of study and proof of understanding of the history and commandments in Judaism. They feel that there should be different and varied levels of requirements and length and depth of study necessary for conversion more attuned to the various different schools of Judaism. Their argument is that those born as Jews often do not have as deep an understanding or have ever taken study to the depths and breadth required of converts and that if a convert plans to join a congregation which is other than Orthodox, then their level necessary to meet standards for conversion should reflect the branch of Judaism to which they plan to belong. Those are the stated arguments, but are they the real basis and driving ideology behind those proposing the changes?

Minister of the Knesset Elazar Stern judging by outward appearances would be thought very religious. Judging by his statements and actions one gets an entirely different perception. In acts Minister Stern appears to oppose the hierarchal structure of Orthodox Judaism and wishes to undermine the hold the Chief Rabbinate has over the rules for who is permitted to perform conversions, to officiate Jewish weddings, and to conduct or oversee other rites which currently fall under the Chief Rabbinate. He has been rather outspoken about his distaste for many of the Orthodox and Hasidic rules, practices and especially control over the governing bodies of Judaism, and not only over their control within Israel but the seemingly fairly strict governance of what may be considered to be truly Orthodox Judaism worldwide. Minister Stern would prefer a more liberalized and inclusive form of oversight of that which should be seen as approved practice of Judaism. Where there is a degree of merit to this path of thought, it also leads to some potentially questionable results once this path is first tread.

Once the hierarchy is challenged and altered the question would soon arise as to how far should the new structure depart from the former limits and exactly who now decides who and what is acceptable and what would be considered straying too far from the path of traditional Orthodox Judaism. Who would be trusted with the powers to choose who approves and regulates conversions and would these same authorities also make decisions on weddings and other societal religious licenses. Would it be possible that in certain cities or towns that a secular board might be empowered with these decisions and if so where does that leave those seeking a strict Orthodoxy able to turn to find those who would meet such requirements when the ability to legally act as a certified Rabbi or other officiating religious position is no longer under the control of the Chief Rabbinate. Then there is the most dangerous result where people wishing to enjoy the fruits of being a Jew in Israel but are unwilling to put forth the efforts under Orthodox systems would be able to shop municipalities seeking one with a more lax and relaxed set of standards and be converted without receiving sufficient education in the doctrines and requirements of a truly religious Jew who observes all the commandments. Somebody could receive a conversion from such a locality and then present themselves as being Jewish to a Jew who is actually Orthodox in their practice and should their relationship lead to marriage without the convert’s lack of full knowledge of the commandments being revealed, the consequences of such could be heart wrenching. It would not be that the convert lacking complete knowledge could not be further educated by their spouse, it is that such should never be a possibility as it would place an undue strain on the relationship from the outset and one member of the union might bear resentments even not fully cognizant of those regrets and the animosity they produced. These and other difficulties are in addition to the potential of a lack of credibility in Israeli conversions elsewhere in the world requiring that each convert carry with them the license with the name of the Rabbi who officiated their training and education in the traditions and commandments of Judaism to be checked against a list of acceptable Rabbis within Israel similarly as to how in Israel there is a list of which Rabbis across the globe are considered Kosher to oversee a conversion for it to be recognized in Israel.

The final argument which should be addressed before this legislation is voted on, let alone passed, is that should not Israel be the standard of what it means to be Jewish and thus their conversions, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Brit Milah, and any other Jewish sanctification or ceremony performed and considered and sanctioned as truly Jewish in Israel be accepted without question the world over. If the rules are altered and are actually different from one location within Israel to another or even defined by each individual congregation such that even within a community where there exists more than one congregation that there be uncertainty as to the Jewishness of a conversion etc. Furthermore, is it even the place for the Knesset or any other political and secular body to make any final decisions as to who, where and what constitutes true Judaism the opening of Pandora’s Box? The Chief Rabbinate has not taken to attempt to rule on the qualifications for anybody to hold a position in the Knesset or as to who may be considered for the position of Prime Minister, serve on the Israeli Supreme Court or any of the multitudes of political positions within Israel. Could not the Knesset be counted upon to at the very least return this favor? Granted there are those in Israel, even among Israeli Jews, who do not particularly have any great affinity for the Chief Rabbinate, but the Chief Rabbinate concerns themselves almost entirely with the decisions relating to Orthodox Judaism and the rulings and regulating those things religiously bound and independent of the secular government. One might hope that the majority of those for whom Judaism and their being a Jew is of great importance and who grant such a strong measure of control over their lives and actions would also be the individuals who would get to decide if they would prefer some other manner of setting the rules, regulations, standards and official decisions concerning the practicing of Judaism and what and who is considered to be truly Jewish. Has there been a hue and cry from the body of Jewish society for the Knesset to interfere with the current manner where the Chief Rabbinate decides those things Jewish to be challenged and altered or is this the dream of those for whom Judaism is not their guiding light and whose religious observance does not hold as primary a place in their day-to-day decisions and lives such that it would meet the preferred manner of Jewish life as would be recommended by the Chief Rabbis. If secular authorities decide to take legal control over religious decisions then those secular institutions should expect the religious to do all in their power to elect only the most religious into those offices. Minister of the Knesset Stern, are you and your cohorts really interested in kicking the religious community so hard in those things they hold so very dear that they rise up and vote only by their religious beliefs those who hold every government position from top to bottom within Israel wherever they have the votes to do so? You might receive a real surprise should you insist in playing that game. I understand that you are watching Israelis becoming more and more religious with each passing day and this frightens you but it really should not as thus far the religious mostly keep a separation between their religiosity and their duties as a citizen. So, could we please leave religious matters to the religious and secular matters can remain with the secular? Somehow I doubt you will agree as you know so much better than the rest of us who are less enlightened simply because we believe that there are those things that are written in stone. One example is the Ten Commandments which were originally written in stone; twice.

Beyond the Cusp

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