Saturday, July 24, 2010

On the Rotem Conversion Imbroglio: From Rosner's Domain

[I am honored to be one of Shmuel Rosner's interviewees. The following appears Rosner's Domain.]

1. Your view is that “American non-Orthodox Jews are being largely misled” on the conversion bill. What is it that they don't understand?

I get the distinct impression that many American Jews think that the Rotem Bill disenfranchises them as Jews and renders them ineligible under the Law of Return. This is simply not true. The eligibility of all Jews, including converts from the major Jewish denominations, for citizenship in Israel is explicitly upheld in the law, based upon

an explicit Supreme Court decision. The bill in no way excludes any Diaspora Jew from Israeli citizenship, or from his/her rightful place in the Jewish State.

The Rotem bill is intended to alleviate a domestic Israeli problem. Personal status issues in Israel are determined by the Orthodox rabbinate (a point to which I’ll relate further on). For reasons that are too involved to describe here, the rabbinical court system has fallen under the control of a cadre of Haredi rabbis (and politicians) whose reading of Halakhah is extremely narrow. What they demand as a minimum Jewish commitment by the prospective convert is far beyond that required by normative Orthodox standards. Many of these Haredi rabbis even refuse to recognize conversions performed by fully qualified Orthodox Rabbinical courts, both in Israel and abroad, acting along those more moderate standards. They have gone so far as to overturn conversions that had been performed decades before, leading to many personal tragedies. To the best of my knowledge, such lack of collegiality is unprecedented in the history of Halakhah.

The Rotem bill significantly expands the circle of rabbis who are authorized to deal with conversion, in accordance with traditional Halakhah. Most importantly, it reinforces the authority of the special courts for conversion that were set up independently of the established Battei Din. It also prohibits the revocation of any conversion performed by a duly authorized Bet Din in Israel. This will hopefully break the conversion log jam, and allow Russian immigrants, and others, to convert to Judaism in a way that will be accepted by the overwhelming majority of the Jews of Israel.

2. Misled by whom - and what is the purpose of misleading them?

Prominent non-Orthodox rabbis have been refreshingly honest in this regard. Rabbi David Ellenson, a noted historian of Halakhah and president of the Hebrew Union College, has admitted that he opposes the bill because it places conversion under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate. That, in turn, will prevent the non-Orthodox denominations from advancing their desire, which is understandable from their point of view, to achieve equal standing in matters of conversion, and personal status generally, in Israel.

The tragedy is that by adopting this position, in the present circumstances, the non-Orthodox streams are playing into the hands of the obstructionists, who also oppose the bill. They will, thereby, undermine a brave attempt to advance a moderate, welcoming and open approach to conversion in Israel.

3. Don't you see any problem with a bill officially declaring that "authority" over conversion will be an authority of the rabbinate? And even if you don't - can you understand why other people might see it as problematic?

Giving the Chief Rabbinate authority over conversion causes me concern, and I certainly see it as potentially problematic. I am convinced, though, that this does not vitiate the very positive contribution that this law will make. The many rabbis and leaders who desire to resolve the anomaly of Israeli Jews who are not halakhically Jewish will certainly do everything to prevent obstructionist elements within the Chief Rabbinate from undoing its salutary effect. There is, after all, a limit to the degree that the Chief Rabbinate can interfere with the extant conversion structure. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, has been very supportive of the moderates.

4. Do you think world Jewry should have a say on such matters, concerning Israel's Jewish identity?

This is a very thorny question. I agree with David Ben-Gurion’s commitment that Israel should not act unilaterally when it comes to questions of Jewish identity. That’s why I am pleased that the Rotem bill does not impact upon the Law of Return. And that is also why I favor government support of non-Orthodox religious and educational initiatives (E.g. TALI schools). Every effort to deepen Jewish knowledge, self-expression, historical awareness and self-identification is invaluable to the survival of Israel as a Jewish State.

I think we can take our cue, in this regard, from the era of the Second Temple. At the time, there were three (or more) ‘streams’ of Judaism. They differed vigorously, and vociferously, on many different questions of religious belief and observance. However, they did not differ on the basic definition of Jewish identity.

In that light, we need to face the fact that there is a significant disconnect between the way many (if not most) non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews define Judaism and their relationship to it. American Jews are characterized by a Post-Modern, absolute individualism. Most, as a result, bristle at the very idea that any person or institution can decide who is or who is not Jewish. On the other hand, the over 80% of Israeli Jews who describe themselves as either Orthodox or Traditional (including many Israeli Conservative Jews) see things very differently. Their conception of Judaism is not totally subjective, and their obligation to the Jewish people, as a whole, and their strong connection to Jewish collective history and memory is obligating and formative.

In other words, here, the seamless combination of Jewish nationhood and Judaism, which has characterized Judaism from time immemorial, is very much alive. As a result, conversion is not simply a matter of religious self-expression.

The late Professor Jacob Katz noted that only two issues can create a real schism in the Jewish body politic: Personal Status and the Calendar. Differences concerning Shabbat, Kashrut, prayer, or anything else, divide Jews, but do not tear them asunder. Once the ethnic-tribal fabric of the nation is frayed, once they are no longer able to unquestionably marry one another – an extremely dangerous situation develops. As an historian, and not simply as an observant Jew, it is my conviction that this societal unity, what we call ‘be-yahad,’ is a critical element for our survival. It is, in many ways, more critical than the quality of arms and material with which we equip our army. That is why I believe that personal status issues in the Jewish State must be based upon a halakhic common denominator, as traditionally understood. At the same time, I maintain, in the strongest terms, that moderate and wide parameters that millennia of halakhic tradition does provide, must be actively applied in matters of conversion.

5. In your view, should Israel pass the bill - disregarding world Jewish opinion? Disregarding the price in alienation?

As I write these lines, the media has reported that Prime Minster Netanyahu has tabled the Rotem Bill for six months. I hope that this time-out will be used to reach common ground on this very sensitive issue. Israel is the homeland of all Jews. All Jews should share in its joys, and we count upon their support in hours of travail. Especially now, with the prospect of a nuclear Iran looming, we need to affirm that which unites us.

I pray that all involved will work together to transcend their differences to arrive at an acceptable resolution of the issue.


R L Smith said...

There was very limited space to comment in the JP, here is what I said but I would like to add a few words:

"The Rotem bill came along at a particularly bad time re sensitivities in the diaspora. Many of the opponents of the bill also mentioned the recent events at the Kotel, e.g. Anat Hoffman, as correlated examples of how the haredi are aiming to destroy non Haredi approaches to Judaism. Many of us have had children and wives who were subjected to abuse and violence in Israel at the hands of the Haredi. This doesn't mean we seek autonomy from Jewish law, but rather we seek leadership from those who interpret Jewish law in a way appropriate for our times."

So as important and threatening the conversion issue is, I don't believe that this is just about autonomy (and in this regard I believe that the Reform use of patrimony is a horrible thing and threat, at least equivalent to haredi control). But issues involving women have become crucial to many of us here in North America. This even involves Orthodox with recent "scandals" re Rabba (e.g speaking in Long Island), re Youing Israel and women presidents of Orthodox shuls (Shaarei Torah in Syracuse), and even women as board members as in the Bialystock shul in the lower east side. The Haredi should be encouraged to follow their path, but not when it interferes with the development of Judaism by the rest of us. We seek help from Israel in fighting assimiliation and intermarraige and for many of us we see maximizing opportunities for all of our children as a no brainer -- as a keep weapon in this struggle. Terrorist attacks have not kept us from sending our children to Israel, but attacks from the Haredi could well end up doing that. This is what, in my opinion, the struggle is all about, and the Rotem bill is just one battle.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the intro: "honored to be one of Shmuel Rosner's interviewees". The first blog of Rosner's that I read was about the purchase of "Beit Hashalom" next to Kiryat Arba. It was filled with hatred and misinformation from beginning to end. It may be useful to have him interview you - but "an honor"? Save your honor for more honorable people.

Anonymous said...

"This even involves Orthodox with recent "scandals" re Rabba (e.g speaking in Long Island), re Youing Israel and women presidents of Orthodox shuls (Shaarei Torah in Syracuse), and even women as board members as in the Bialystock shul in the lower east side. "

These issues are at most trivial-one way or the other-title you give a women-meaningless on both sides-BUT the deligitimization of thousands of Orthodox Jews and the onas Hager of those who converted with good faith and now decades later one says that issue is not as important as the title that Sara Hurwitz uses give me a break.

Yael said...

Jeffrey, I've a question and it is really my one concern about the Rotem bill as it currently stands (I also understand why the non-orthodox are reacting the way they are --it was certainly my first reaction --but slowly, slowly, one step at a time).

My concern with placing the authority over conversion with the Rabbinate is that who can say over time that similar mores won't be adopted by the Rabbinate as a whole as we currently see with the extremists who are revoking conversions after decades and so forth? The rulings and the thinking they are applying seem utterly divorced from historical precedent. The closest thing I can think of would be the focus on the minutiae of pilpul that was in vogue in the period just prior to the rise of the Besht. Utterly alienating.

But my concern is a) why have these extremist interpretations arisen now and b) how can we know that those views will not eventually take over/be adopted by the Rabbinate? And then what is the recourse?

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, did you actually read the bill? The chief rabbinate (read haredi chief rabbinate) can, with the stroke of a pen, "unentitle" any rabbi they feel should not be performing conversions. Any new bill must take away control of conversions and return it to the people. Any three dati Jews can perform a conversion. Why is it it being controlled by the rabbinate?