Crises are a fact of Jewish life. Some are just a product of ephemeral Jewish angst or artificial hype and pass quickly. However, others have profound and long-term consequences. How these are resolved will affect tens of thousands of individual Jews as well as the future of the entire Jewish people.
The conversion problem today is one of these real crises. The present system of conversion in Israel fails to offer a coherent response to the unprecedented — and awe-inspiring — situation that Israel now faces. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children reside in Israel, speak Hebrew, serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and identify as Jews and Israelis, but they are not legally Jewish according to traditional Jewish law. If this large population is not integrated into the Jewish mainstream, Israel will face an intermarriage problem far exceeding that of the diaspora.
Contrary to popular belief, Jewish law has a pertinent response to the current crisis. These citizens do not fall under the legal category of non-Jews seeking to convert. According to Jewish legal tradition, they are considered “Zera Yisrael” (Jewish progeny) since they have a familial connection to the Jewish people and have demonstrated through their behavior a clear commitment to become part of the Jewish people.
Shas Knesset member and rabbinic scholar Rabbi Chaim Amsalem has recently published a scholarly work, appropriately called “Zera Yisrael.” It clarifies this concept and calls for a welcoming approach toward the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants living in Israel today. The second volume of the work is a compilation of generations of rabbinic responsa demonstrating the proud place that this approach holds within mainstream Jewish legal tradition. “Zera Yisrael” has been endorsed by leading haredi and Religious Zionist authorities, and there has been no halachic refutation of Rabbi Amsalem’s treatise by fervently Orthodox rabbis.
We are one people and must remain one. We look to the State of Israel for guidance and inspiration in its approach to converts who willingly take on the challenges, dangers and hopes of Jewish peoplehood. The State of Israel must take a courageous, visionary and responsible stand, and lead the way toward greater Jewish unity.
The law, authored by Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, began as a promising attempt to both encourage a lenient approach to conversions and exclude the possibility of retroactively annulling conversions. But a close examination of the law demonstrates that it causes more damage than good, and that it sets dangerous precedents with potentially disastrous results.
The bill intended to broaden conversion authority by authorizing Special Rabbinical Courts convened by municipal who are members of the Israeli rabbinate. This appears encouraging; however, most local rabbis do not have an inviting attitude to potential converts. They follow the centralized Supreme Rabbinical Court, whose predominantly haredi members have adopted increasingly stringent conversion requirements and have retroactively nullified over 15,000 conversions conducted by the Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Druckman.
Moreover, even those few municipal rabbis whose approach is welcoming to converts will find the bill nearly impossible to apply since it requires a bet din to be composed of three municipal rabbis who sit together and cannot appoint any other rabbis to their court. This requirement of municipal rabbis, who are already extremely busy in their current roles, means that such courts will be convened very infrequently — if at all. The bill also excludes other Orthodox rabbis, such as the rabbis of Tzohar who are more modern and have a sympathetic approach to potential converts.
What the bill appears to give with one hand, it takes back with the other. It allows for review of the municipal rabbis conversions by a higher rabbinical court appointed by the same haredi rabbis of the centralized Supreme Rabbinical Court. This appeal procedure could result in the nullification of tens of thousands of conversions done since the founding of the state. Because the bill stresses that conversions are valid only if the convert accepts “the yoke of Torah and mitzvot” (the first time in history that halachic terminology is used in Israeli legal formulation) the definition of what constitutes “Torah and mitzvot” is left completely in the hands of the haredi rabbis and allows for their most stringent interpretations to be inscribed as law. Thus the majority of converts from overseas would not be recognized under the terms of this bill.
The most significant and painful element of the proposed legislation, however, is that it is based on narrow political considerations that damage Jewish unity. In 1998, the Ne’eman Commission achieved what many thought impossible: a consensus among Israelis and Jews of all denominations, based on mutual dialogue, respect and understanding. This new law would set us back 15 years and erase the achievement of the Ne’eman Commission. Jewish unity is an issue that is essential to Jewish identity and critical to Jews in Israel and the diaspora. We cannot allow it to be destroyed for political or ideological considerations.
We have just observed Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. Our ages tell us that the ultimate cause of the destruction was our lack of respect for fellow Jews. Time and again, the teachings of the Talmud stress that the disputes of that period had legal grounds. Although halahic from a narrow point of view, our people were punished and sent into exile because of their blatant disrespect for their adversaries, limited vision born of self-interest, and above all, a lack of Ahavat Yisrael — an unconditional love for all Jews.
Let us learn from history not to make the same mistakes again.
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Benjamin Ish-Shalom is founder and resident of Beit Morasha, an academic Jewish studies and leadership training center in Jerusalem. He is the founding chairman of the Joint Conversion Institute and of the Israel Institute for Conversion Policy at Beit Morasha.