This con­ver­sion row could hit us all

Is­raeli ul­tra­Ortho­dox in­flex­i­bil­ity over con­verts could re-shape the di­as­pora

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

THE CON­TRO­VERSY over con­ver­sion in Is­rael, which cul­mi­nated last week in the dis­missal of the head of the Con­ver­sion Author­ity, Rabbi Chaim Druk­man, is more than just an­other dis­pute be­tween re­li­gious view­points. Druk­man’s fir­ing, shortly af­ter the Supreme Rab­bini­cal Court ruled that his con­ver­sions were in­valid, is a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal de­bate that will de­ter­mine the shape of the Jewish peo­ple for decades. Over 300,000 Is­raelis, born in the for­mer Soviet Union, can­not get mar­ried in Is­rael and have to be buried in sep­a­rate ceme­ter­ies. While they are el­i­gi­ble, thanks to their Jewish an­ces­try, to Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship, they are not de­scended from Jews through the ma­tri­lin­eal side, and so are con­sid­ered non-Jewish by re­li­gious stan­dards. Two gov­ern­ment com­mis­sions and mil­lions of shekels spent on stream­lin­ing the prepa­ra­tion cour­ses and mak­ing the rab­bini­cal courts more user-friendly have failed to make a sig­nif­i­cant change. Only a pal­try 2,000 or so im­mi­grants are con­verted to Ju­daism each year.

Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have not had the po­lit­i­cal willpower to or­der the rab­bini­cal judges, who are gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, to show any flex­i­bil­ity to­wards the prospec­tive con­verts. Their in­sis­tence that a Jew from birth re­mains one, even if he ob­serves none of the mitzvot, while a con­vert must ob­serve a full re­li­gious life ac­cord­ing to Ortho­dox stan­dards, re­mains an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle. The in­tran­si­gence of most of the dayanim on this re­quire­ment, as or­dered by the se­nior strictly Ortho­dox rab­bis, is cou­pled with the in­quis­i­tive­ness of most mar­riage reg­is­trars when­ever a con­vert ap­plies for a wed­ding per­mit. In many cases, if the dayanim whose name ap­pears on the con­ver­sion cer­tifi­cate are sus­pected of be­ing too easy-go­ing, they turn them down.

In a coun­try which by law has no civil mar­riage, the reg­is­trars, who take their or­ders from the rab­bis and not from the au­thor­i­ties who pay their salaries, have ab­so­lute pow­ers. It takes over a year of rig­or­ous study and ma­jor changes to the can­di­date’s way of life be­fore he or she can ap­pear in front of the con­ver­sion court. Lit­tle won­der that few im­mi­grants em­bark on this long and ar­du­ous road in the knowl­edge that they could well be turned down, for rea­sons that, to them cer­tainly, seem ar­bi­trary.

De­mo­graphic changes in the Jewish peo­ple have turned this into an in­ter­na­tional is­sue. The two fastest­grow­ing sec­tions in Is­rael and the US, as well as in smaller com­mu­ni­ties like Bri­tain and Ger­many, are the ul­tra­Ortho­dox com­mu­nity and mixed-mar­riage fam­i­lies. In pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, Ortho­dox rab­bis were ca­pa­ble of show­ing more flex­i­bil­ity, but the cur­rent ul­tra-Ortho­dox es­tab­lish­ment, lead by the 98-year old hard­liner, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has suc­ceeded in bring­ing most rab­bis in line with the strictest def­i­ni­tions of giyur.

The Rab­bini­cal Coun­cil of Amer­ica has re­cently ended the prac­tice whereby lo­cal rab­bis could per­form con­ver­sions, and agreed only to an ap­proved list of rab­bis, vet­ted by the Chief Rab­binate of Is­rael, it­self be­holden to the ul­tra-Ortho­dox lead­er­ship. As for Bri­tain, the Lon­don Beth Din has long been re­garded the most con­ser­va­tive over con­ver­sions, fully in step with the rab­bis of Jerusalem.

But while weak politi­cians in Is­rael and an in­de­ci­sive lead­er­ship in the di­as­pora have al­lowed an ul­tra-Ortho­dox hege­mony on con­ver­sion, the grow­ing con­stituency of Jewish fam­ily mem­bers, both spouses and chil­dren, not Jewish ac­cord­ing to the rab­bis, but ea­ger to be part of their Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, cre­ates a crit­i­cal chal­lenge. Their num­bers give them po­lit­i­cal power in Is­rael and an in­cen­tive for dwin­dling com­mu­ni­ties around the world to find a way to ac­com­mo­date them.

The Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive (Lib­eral) rab­bis have their own, more flexible con­ver­sion pro­cesses, but while th­ese move­ments re­main largely pow­er­less out­side the United States, they are not a so­lu­tion. More­over, they only serve to high­light the threat of a split be­tween two parts of the Jewish peo­ple: those who wel­come new­com­ers on their own terms, and the club with exclusive mem­ber­ship rules.

The hard­lin­ers in­sist they are only ad­her­ing to the strict rule of halachah. But enough his­tor­i­cal prece­dents ex­ist, from the time of Abra­ham to the last gen­er­a­tion, of dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes to­ward gerim. There are still Ortho­dox rab­bis who be­lieve that. Rabbi Druk­man is one of them, and this be­lief, not the ridicu­lous tech­ni­cal­ity that he has reached the manda­tory re­tire­ment age, was the real rea­son that lead to his abrupt dis­missal last week.

There is a firm be­lief among some, but not all, Ortho­dox cir­cles that if they heighten the walls around their in­su­lar com­mu­ni­ties, main­tain high birth-rates and per­sist with their kiruv (out­reach) ef­forts, the re­main­ing sec­u­lar Jews will dwin­dle through in­ter­mar­riage and as­sim­i­la­tion into ir­rel­e­vancy. Open­ing the gates of con­ver­sion will thwart th­ese hopes. Those rab­bis who still be­lieve in find­ing a golden path of in­clu­sion are steadily grow­ing iso­lated, and what’s worse, in Is­rael and abroad, not re­ceiv­ing any back­ing from the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship.

Many sec­u­lar Jews be­lieve that con­ver­sion is a re­li­gious racket, of no con­cern to them. But the bat­tle over who con­trols the gate­way to the Jewish peo­ple will have a pro­found ef­fect over the na­tion they be­long to.

An­shel Pf­ef­fer writes for the JC from Is­rael and for Haaretz

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