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Rabbis Worry Court Ruling Will Spur Divisiveness in Israel

February 21, 2002
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They don’t agree on whether Israel’s High Court ruling on conversions this week was a good one.

But Reform, Conservative and Orthodox leaders in the United States do seem to agree that with Israel locked in a cycle of violence with the Palestinians, now is not the time for a protracted and divisive Knesset battle over religious pluralism.

Reform and Conservative leaders here, predictably happy about Wednesday’s ruling recognizing their movements’ conversions in Israel, say it is a step toward greater recognition of their movements in the Jewish state.

But they cautioned that since the decision does not require Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which is Orthodox, to allow Reform and Conservative converts to marry other Jews or be buried in Jewish cemeteries, the ruling is only a symbolic first step.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, praised the ruling, saying that it "provides an additional level of government recognition that hasn’t existed before.

"If someone converts in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem with a Reform or Conservative rabbi, the government now needs to recognize that."

The ruling will lead to an expansion of Reform conversions in Israel, Yoffie said.

However, he said, it "does not make Reform Jews equal in the Jewish state" and allowing liberal Jewish converts to be married in Israel is "the next struggle we’ll look to."

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, called the ruling "fair and courageous."

"It’s a decision that in the short run is only of symbolic value, but in the long run will underscore the need for the introduction of civil marriage," Schorsch said.

Currently, Schorsch said, thousands of Israeli Jews go abroad each year for their weddings, so that a non-Orthodox rabbi can officiate at their wedding.

Weddings outside Israel are recognized by the state, but inside the country, only weddings performed under Orthodox auspices are officially recognized.

Calling Israel’s Chief Rabbinate "a blight on Israeli society," Schorsch said the introduction of civil marriage would mean that "anyone who wishes to have a religious marriage can go to any rabbi they choose."

Not surprisingly, Orthodox leaders in the United States were unhappy with the ruling.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said the ruling paves the way for recognition of conversions by humanistic and even "messianic" Jews.

While the new ruling is "only symbolic," Shafran said it will "mislead Jews" and "create a whole new class of Jews who feel they’re Jewish and won’t be recognized by the rabbinic or Orthodox community."

Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionist Organization of America, an umbrella for several Zionist Orthodox groups including the Orthodox Union, said the ruling is "not unexpected considering the liberal outlook of the court" and it "just complicates matters."

"What you’re going to have in Israel is everyone is going to have to carry a family tree to prove their grandmother, great-grandmother, was born of a Jewish mother or converted," Ganchrow said.

"We’re going to have two systems," he said, explaining that Orthodox rabbis — and Orthodox families — will no longer be able to accept an Israeli identity card as adequate proof that someone seeking to marry is Jewish according to Orthodox interpretation.

Both Shafran and Ganchrow acknowledged that the dual system already occurs, since some Jews outside Israel have liberal conversions and since many Israelis — who already have Jewish identity cards — are the products of liberal conversions outside Israel.

However, "this formalizes it because now you have the imprimateur of the Supreme Court of the State of Israel saying this is legal and kosher," Ganchrow said.

"It’s too bad, after the Ne’eman Commission worked so hard to bring about a single standard for conversion that this wound is opened up again," Ganchrow said, referring to unsuccessful efforts in the mid-1990s to reach a compromise on this divisive issue.

Indeed, both sides worry that the ruling will spur a new divisive Knesset battle over ‘Who is a Jew" — something Israel, with the intifada raging, does not need.

Orthodox politicians reportedly have already initiated legislation that would circumvent the court ruling.

For Reform and Conservative leaders, the current security situation means that Israeli leaders should accept the ruling and avoid considering overturning it with Knesset legislation.

Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist group, said that if religious parties push for a Knesset law to reverse the ruling, "American Jewry — basically Reform and Conservative — will rise up."

"Although we support Israel strongly in its fight against terrorism, we’re still concerned about the quality of life and quality of Jewish society here in Israel and will make sure our voices are heard on this matter," he said.

Yoffie said, "What the Knesset should not do when Israel is at war and dealing with terrorist attacks on a daily basis, is to respond to pressure and blackmail from hysterical voices that see this in apocalyptic terms."

"They should put this aside and accept the ruling of the court. If they want to make changes, they should do so later when they’ve had time to review the implications and when the political situation allows them to consider it in an appropriate atmosphere."

For their part, Orthodox leaders in the United States seem reluctant to start a major fight on pluralism right now.

Shafran said that his movement will "morally support any efforts to assert the populace’s point of view against that of an activist Supreme Court," but that no specific campaign is being considered.

He said the ruling "could not come at a worse time. From a truly Jewish point of view, what yields security for the Jewish people is our merits as the Jewish people. What we need today is affirmation of our spiritual heritage, not abandonment of it."

Given the need for unity with Israel in crisis, Ganchrow said he does not plan to mobilize voters in next month’s World Zionist Congress elections around this issue.

The WZC is the official representative of Diaspora Jewry that determines the policies of the World Zionist Organization.

A seat means influence over the $350 million budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is involved in immigration and absorption and runs religious, political and educational programs throughout the world.

"For us to use this we’d have to attack Conservative and Reform and I don’t want to do that. I don’t think that’s healthy in this climate,"Ganchrow said.

Others speculate that it may affect turnout and voting choices among the 110,000 American Jews registered for the election.

It is too late for additional people to register, but the return of religious pluralism to the spotlight — credited with drawing turnout and support for the Reform and Conservative slates in 1997 — may motivate more registrants to actually complete the ballot.

"I think this decision will rally registered voters to vote," Golub said.

Schorsch said he hopes the ruling prompts liberal American Jews to vote for the Reform or Conservative slates.

"I would hope the decision will make non-Orthodox Jews voting in the Zionist elections more conscious of the importance of voting for the denominational parties," he said.

But Reform’s Yoffie was less sure.

"On the one hand it’s a reminder that fundamental religious issues remain unresolved in the Jewish state, and the majority of American Jews are supportive of principle of religious freedom in Israel," he said.

"But it’s still true that at this moment this issue isn’t foremost in anyone’s mind.

"We’re all concerned now with terrorism, daily killings and finding a way to stop the bloodshed. However welcome this is and it’s very welcome, it’s not going to be either in Israel or here, at this moment, the central existential issue."

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