JERUSALEM (Jul. 12)
The Knesset voted 57-19 this afternoon to decisively defeat an amendment to the Law of Return specifying halachic conversions for prospective immigrants. Eleven of the 12 National Religious Party MKs observed coalition discipline and abstained. But the NRP which had been under severe pressure from Orthodox elements here and abroad to support the measure introduced by Agudat Israel MK Shlomo Lorincz, was seriously embarrassed by the defection by one of its Knesset faction, Dr. Avner Sciaky. Deputy Minister of Education.
Sciaky, who has a large Sephardic following and is one of the few intellectuals in the NRP joined with the Agudat Israel, the Poalei Agudat Israel and 15 members of the right-wing nationalist Herut faction in voting for the measure that was strongly opposed by the government. His defection was regarded as a moral victory by the supporters of the bill. Dr. Sciaky and Herut leader Menachem Beigin drank a vodka toast after the vote, the vodka having been sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York.
Although the outcome of the voting was a foregone conclusion it was preceded by a spirited debate in which Premier Golda Meir questioned the sincerity of the Aguda faction in raising the “Who is a Jew?” issue at this time and hinted strongly that it was their aim to embarrass the government and the NRP rather than to achieve anything substantive. Mrs. Meir also made a strong appeal to the Israeli rabbinate for a liberal interpretation of halacha (religious law).
She warned the Aguda and Poalei Aguda factions that their “willful blindness” to the realities of the Jewish world today would eventually lead to a tragic split between the State and religion which most people, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, want to avoid. The Premier insisted that everything possible must be done to ease the path of new immigrants. A narrow definition of conversion would thwart this aim, she said. She asserted that halacha as it was administered at present by the rabbinate was too difficult a burden for most Israelis to shoulder. The solution is for the rabbis themselves to interpret halacha more leniently, Mrs. Meir said.
As an example, she referred to the case of a brother and sister, Hanoch and Miriam Langer, who were forbidden to marry the partners of their choice because they were branded “mamzerim” (bastards) by the rabbinate. “Why did such problems as bastardy never come up in the shtetl?” Mrs. Meir asked, referring to the Jewish communities in 19th century Russia and Poland. The old-time rabbis were great scholars and also had warm hearts and feelings for Jewish sufferers, she said.
Her remarks drew shouts of protest from the Aguda MKs who defended the practices of Israel’s present-day rabbinate. Rabbi Kalman Kahane, of the Poale Agudat Israel which introduced a bill similar to the Lorincz bill and Rabbi Lorincz himself, sharply rejected the charge that they were out to embarrass the NRP. Kahane claimed that the amendment to the Law of Return was needed because the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that it was prepared to accept conversions by American Reform rabbis as valid. Lorincz said his bill would stem the rising tide of assimilation and intermarriage which he claimed was threatening to engulf world Jewry.