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

February 22, 2013

Riding a Rollercoaster with Netanyahu

Going all the way back to the first time Benyamin Netanyahu was elected as Prime Minister in June of 1996  we get to experience the entirety of his position swings during different points and when under varying stresses. Some of the highest points on the ride are when he has made speeches especially those before the United Nations, the United States Congress or when speaking before Jewish groups as the main speaker who is also the guest of honor. These have been Bibi at his best where he has stated the Israeli Zionist positions with elegance, bravado, style, and persuasion. His campaign rhetoric is almost as grand and has a quality of promise and hope that Bibi Netanyahu will be the kind of Zionist with strong Jewish roots and values that supporters desire in their Prime Minister. When many Israelis cast their votes for the Likud and Benyamin Netanyahu that is the person for whom they are casting their vote. That unfortunately is not the person who often appears in the Prime Minister’s office after the election.

 

Some of the lowest points on the rollercoaster ride with Netanyahu were such as his Bar Ilan Speeches where he capitulated in some measure to pressures from foreign leaders often including any number of European and United Nations dignitaries also including leaders from the United States, especially the President. The promises he offered in both those speeches left many Israelis feeling like they were left only with broken promises from the past election and were no longer assured of the positions represented by the man in the Prime Minister’s office, though it did look like the same Bibi they had elected. Possibly the lowest point in the ride was when Prime Minister Netanyahu capitulated to the demands and deceits imposed upon him by President Obama and the Ten Month Building Freeze on our lands was announced and imposed upon all Israel. The reasoning behind our saying it was placed on all of Israel and not solely on the areas of Samaria and Judea is simple; due to the expensive end to building in these areas there became a great shortage of housing and prices shot up sharply affecting all of Israel. Nothing imposed upon our country’s people living past the Green Line affect only those past the Green Line; it will affect all of us. Israel is far too small nation in size that anything can truly be local, almost anything will end up having nation-wide effects. Thus the Ten Month Building Freeze may have been directed at Samaria and Judea, but it was imposed in reality on all of Israel in the end.

 

Between the times when Bibi Netanyahu is hitting the campaign trail and sounding very much as we would wish any potential Prime Minister to sound and those periods where he is bent and twisted to the breaking point by the pressures every Prime Minister of Israel is bound to face, we have your basic rollercoaster ride with its peaks and valleys. Add in those superb appearances before the world and speaking freely before those who generally or specifically support Israel and you have momentary peaks which seem almost unscalable. Then there are the opposing moments when Bibi falters and we visit the screaming fall into the dark valleys at the bottom of the tracks wondering if the entirety of the rollercoaster cars will crash off from the tracks and shatter everything onto the hard ground below. Such are the moments when we are left wondering where the man who spoke so wondrously with eloquence and bravery just a few weeks back went and how he could have faltered so completely. Possibly quite fortunately none of us will ever be forced to face such pressures and calamities that are often imposed and thrust upon the leader of the State of Israel. Sometimes we must think and wonder if there are any who might perform with any greater assurance and firmness.

 

But the question we are all asking is where is this rollercoaster heading? We are all wondering if we will continue to climb a while longer or are we about to take another of those spills down into the depths of the ride once more. Many are unsure as the campaign this time was not as filled with soaring eloquence but rather was somewhat unsettling and leaves us wondering exactly what was promised us not only by Likud, but by Bibi Netanyahu himself. Many were troubled by the call for building a centered governing coalition which was more inclusive than idealistic. If we remember the last time we were promised balance and a new approach that would take Israel forward to a more peaceful future we got something that has not delivered. That was the promise we received from the Likud Prime Minister who later gave us the present of Kadima which also produced Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. This was also the government under whose guidance we unilaterally disengaged from Gaza forcing many thousands of Jewish families from their homes, synagogues, businesses, farms, communities, and their lives as they had built them over many years. This was the government whose decisions led Israel to the terror and horror of near continuous rockets raining down on ever increasing areas of southern communities eventually striking on the edges of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These are important facts which must never be forgotten. These were dangerous ideas and actions which can never be allowed again.

 

So, where do we stand and which Bibi Netanyahu is presently formulating a new governing coalition and choosing the path his new governing coalition will be taking? We have little evidence, but we can look at the little we do possess and try to gain a hint at the picture being painted. We do know who was the first party to be joining with Likud-Beiteinu, and that was Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (“The Movement”) Party. Along with giving Tzipi Livni the prestigious Justice Ministry which Yair Lapid had desired according to reports, but Prime Minister Netanyahu also granted Ms. Livni’s demand that she be appointed to lead any delegation which would negotiate with the Palestinian Authority. As the old advertising ploy said, but wait, there’s more. Taking this step and allowing Tzipi Livni to hold such office and also have the lead position in negotiations with the Palestinians where she has stated her position as willing to sacrifice virtually all the lands past the Green Line, uproot all the Jewish people residing there, and return half of Jerusalem including the entire Old City if needed if that is what is required to attain a settlement with the Palestinians will make having HaBayit HaYehudi (Israel Home) Party joining the coalition next to impossible. This also would very likely also apply to the hope of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (Future) Party joining any coalition with such intentions. When also including the lack of contact with both HaBayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid and the apparent intent made by Netanyahu to court Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich to reverse her promise to never join a Party headed by Netanyahu and form a left of center coalition, could this be actually Bibi Netanyahu’s honest intent?

 

This would be an even harsher reality than when a previous Likud Prime Minister left Likud in order to chase his place in the history books and formed Kadima to conduct his treachery. Should Prime Minister Netanyahu form such a coalition, it would beg the rather impressive and important question; would Likud remain Likud and even if the name continued with Netanyahu, would everybody remain on board or would they seek new pastures? Then if many of the Zionist members of Likud decided to abandon Likud, where would they go, their own new party or join another existing party likely HaBayit HaYehudi with Naftali Bennett. If they were to join Naftali Bennett and Moshe Feiglin also left Likud for HaBayit HaYehudi, then there might be a very interesting and intriguing leadership situation going forward. What has been most confusing has been the number of members within the leadership of Likud and among its members who have intimated that Naftali Bennett will join as if he has no other options. Meanwhile, there have been rumors that HaBayit HaYehudi has restarted their campaign committee in preparations for the possibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be unable to form a government. This may come down to whether or not Shas and United Torah can also be brought into the coalition and a compromise be made with Livni and Shelly not to bolt in reaction to Shas being brought onboard. This would also require some grand compromise on the forced service in the IDF of Haredi full time Torah students. However the next few weeks play out, the rollercoaster ride with Netanyahu is about to enter some wild gyrations, sweeping turns, sweeping highs, shattering lows, and who can imagine the rest of the twists which are sure to come. Advice, you want advice? Hold on for your life and pray, pray a lot.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

February 9, 2013

Stubbornness Contest Between Shas and Yesh Atid

Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing difficulty in forming the large coalition which includes as broad a span of political views as possible such that the result will not be dependent on any single party other than Likud-Beytenu. The problem he has struck is the contest between Shas, the Hasidic Party and Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid who refuses to compromise on any of the party platform issues he and his list had campaigned upon. One issue which has become a hot button issue finds the religious parties including Shas in direct conflict with Lapid’s Yesh Atid stand that only the top four-hundred Torah students be allowed a deferment from IDF or National Service a part of the share the burden solution. Shas, needless to point out, wishes for an equal or at least very similar style deferment law as the Tal Law which was ruled to be against the constitution by the Supreme Court in a decision made in the final days under Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, a strange concept as Israel has no constitution. Neither side wishes to budge on this issue and Lapid, who is entering the Knesset for the first time as are all the people on his list, will likely be introduced to the concept that if you demand everything you will often end up not in the coalition and you get nothing, such is the way of parliamentary governance. My feelings are that Yair Lapid knows full well that at some point he will need to give in order to get but is going to play hard and stiff for as long as it serves to further his ideals and ideas and bend only at the last moment. Shas will not bend and will need to be bludgeoned into accepting any form of compromise but that is their way and is expected.

Yair Lapid might be playing a dangerous game believing that Netanyahu cannot permit him and his nineteen Knesset seats to join Shelly Yachimovich and the Labor Party in the opposition. He had best do the math and realize that Netanyahu can form a sixty-one seat coalition simply by including the two purely religious parties, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah with eleven and seven seats respectively along with HaBayit HaYehudi which has twelve seats. Add in the thirty-one seats of Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu Party reaches the sixty-one seats out of the Knesset’s one-hundred-twenty total seats, the minimum necessary for a majority to form a coalition. Netanyahu has even spoken with Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich and even the leader of Meretz, Zahava Gal-On, even though the likelihood of their parties joining the coalition are minimal, as the Prime Minister had stated he wishes to form as broad a governing coalition as possible, even a unity government, though that is next to impossible. All told, the forming of the coming coalition very well may prove to be more interesting than the usual cut and dry same old expected coalition of traditional allies. With some of the difficulties which may come to a head and have to be faced by the coming government, a large and stable coalition that is not dependent on any one party is something that is definitely desirable. I do not envy the members of this Knesset, especially having a fairly good idea of what challenges are coming down the rails like an out of control train.

Back to the tug-of-war between the Hasidic Parties and Lapid’s fairly secular party over exemptions may be the most evident battle ongoing but is not the only and may prove not to even be the most critical or vitally important debate that forming the coalition will need to address. Another of Lapid Party’s concerns that I feel is likely even more important concerns the economy and the price of living. One of the major segments of the economy which needs the magic touch of Netanyahu’s economic miracle workers is housing prices and rents. During the last Knesset Netanyahu took aim at the cell phone monopolies and he opened up that market to greater competition and the prices dropped like an anchor. Hopefully Netanyahu will be able to work similar miracles with housing and rental prices, then taking aim at food prices, especially dairy and the other areas where the number of vendors is quite limited. What makes this area even more important is that much could be gained in relieving some of the upward pressures on food prices that could be attained through annexing at a minimum Area C of Judea and Samaria, the area already under total Israeli rule and control. The additional farm lands and expanded area would serve as a stimulus to the Israeli economy, an economy that is already one of the most robust of the Industrialized West. Another possible benefit from such a move would be to place some pressure on the Palestinian leadership which might be sufficient a shock to bring Abbas to the negotiation table and remove from United States President Obama’s list of misconceptions about Israel, namely that it is Netanyahu who refuses to negotiate and Abbas the willing partner. In the meantime, let’s just relax and watch the barter and other fun that goes with making a coalition. I wonder if there were a way of making coalition forming the national sport of Israel after all, they do it far, far too often.

Beyond the Cusp

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