What happens when two Jews means two different peoplehoods?
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What is happening today is 'as dramatic as the shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism'

What happens when two Jews means two different peoplehoods?

The clash between much of the Diaspora and Israel over conversion and the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ means the Jewish state now has two de facto classes of Jews. Where will it all end?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Is the cohesion of the Jewish people about to be lost in an administrative shuffle? (Broken Star of David
Is the cohesion of the Jewish people about to be lost in an administrative shuffle? (Broken Star of David

A revolutionary symposium was held in the sprawling downtown Jerusalem headquarters of the World Union for Progressive Judaism this February.

Meeting next to the Israel branch of the Hebrew Union College in an office building that overlooks the Old City, a collective of 20 Reform and Progressive rabbis and heads of rabbinical courts from 12 countries intensively discussed for three days shared resources and minimal standards for life cycle events — especially conversion.

The major impetus of the Progressive Jewry symposium is a recently released list of criteria for acceptable non-halachic conversions that was drawn up by the civil Israeli Ministry of Interior. This list, born out of protracted legal battles, was presented to the Supreme Court in October 2014, and is slowly being discussed by Liberal Judaism’s leadership with the promise that, if the movements conform to the ministry’s criteria, presumably their converts will now be given a free pass into Israeli citizenship.

And so, for the first time, together the Diaspora rabbis pondered the Israeli government’s versus their movements’ roles in shaping one of the most historically divisive questions facing the Jewish people: Who is a Jew?

For millennia in the Diaspora, local communal rabbinic courts are the traditionally sanctioned gatekeepers for conversion. But since the founding of the State of Israel and subsequent “ingathering of the exiles,” the fraught three-word question of Jewish identity is now complicated by another: For what purpose?

At the World Union for Progressive Judaism's rabbinical court symposium in Jerusalem, February 2016. (courtesy)
At the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s rabbinical court symposium in Jerusalem, February 2016. (courtesy)

In the Jewish state, when convert immigrants apply for citizenship, those courts’ qualifications and authority are increasingly called into question. And in today’s thriving Israel — whose borders are ostensibly open to all Jews — suspicion of converts’ motives is further compiled by bitter internal denominational turf wars.

The result? Bureaucratic stumbling blocks placed in front of Jews by choice, by the country of the Chosen People.

Since 2013, the majority of world Jewry is found in the Jewish State. According to leading Jewish demographer Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, in 2015, the core Jewish population of Israel was 6,217,400, versus a second-place 5,700,000 in the US.

There is now an existential see-saw facing world Jewry. On one side is the largest Jewish community of Israel, where the definition of Jew is ever more refined to an increasingly stringent halachic perspective. Israel’s almost equal counterweight is Reform-dominated US Jewry, where most Jewish couples are intermarried and often raising halachically non-Jewish children who are embraced and raised with a strong Jewish identity.

There is now an existential see-saw facing world Jewry

What is happening today in world Jewry is “as dramatic as the shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism,” Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told The Times of Israel in a Jerusalem interview.

“Everything is in flux, the relationship [of Diaspora Jewry] with the State of Israel, with [organizations such as] Hadassah, with the movements. The last great paradigm shift happened with the destruction of the Temple,” said Wernick.

Contemporary Judaism, he said, is facing another.

Narrowing the scope to the intertwined topics of conversion and Jewish identity — in this unprecedented era in which Jews converted in the Diaspora can be recognized as Jewish for civil purposes but not religious — has the Jewish state de facto created two classes of Jew? Is the Jewish world heading for a split, a religious and national schism, in which it will soon no longer speak about the Jewish people but rather peoples?

Reform Jews are ‘mentally ill’ who ‘stab Torah in the back’

Sitting with The Times of Israel on a busy February morning in Jerusalem, head of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs is interrupted for a brief radio interview — which is conducted in fluent Hebrew — about the latest slur against Reform Judaism by an elected Member of Knesset.

In this current case, it was the United Torah Judaism’s MK Yisrael Eichler, who, responding to the Supreme Court decision that non-Orthodox movements may use state-run ritual baths for their conversions, compared Reform Jews to the mentally ill. (The Knesset Law Committee passed a preliminary reading of a law which would delineate ritual bath use for Orthodox purposes only.)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Union for Reform Judaism president, speaking at the movement's biennial conference in Orlando, Florida, November 7, 2015. (URJ/via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Union for Reform Judaism president, speaking at the movement’s biennial conference in Orlando, Florida, November 7, 2015. (URJ/via JTA)

Politely excusing himself from our conversation about the bright and dynamic future of the American Jewish community, Jacobs, who speaks for some 900 congregations and 1.5 million Jews, told Galei Tsahal that Eichler’s response comes from a place of misunderstanding.

“I think he doesn’t know what Reform Judaism is. We’re happy to sit with him, to teach him,” said Jacobs. This private lesson on American Jewry, however, is conditional on Eichler’s apology, of course.

The radio interviewer asked Jacobs about another vitriolic statement, this time made by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. During a Knesset debate on the controversial planned egalitarian section of the Western Wall, Levin said, “Reform Jews in the US are a dying world. Assimilation is taking place on a vast scale.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on July 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on July 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“They’re not even tracking this properly in their communities. It’s evidenced by the fact that a man who calls himself a Reform rabbi stands there with a minister and officiates at the wedding of the daughter of Hillary Clinton and no one condemns it and so it gets legitimized,” Levin said.

In a proactive response, at the suggestion of the head of the Israel Reform Movement Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Jacobs cancelled a scheduled meeting with Levin as a “boycott” measure.

“Minister Levin is the minister of tourism. We’re the biggest movement. If he can’t say something good about the largest Diaspora community, what is his role in the government?” Jacobs told the radio interviewer.

Radio interview completed, Jacobs apologetically turned back to The Times of Israel. Sighing, he said that for Levin, like Eichler, disparagement of Reform Jewry was through a fundamental misunderstanding of it.

Levin and Eichler are not alone: In July, Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay told Army Radio that Reform Jews have lost their way and can’t be called Jews if they don’t follow halacha. In all three cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the statements.

‘They feel we’re the doorway out’

“They feel we’re the doorway out,” said Jacobs. But, he explained, through a number of strategic moves, including, for example, youth engagement past the normative bar/bat mitzva experience, Reform Judaism is becoming a new home. In moving beyond key lifecycle events, the synagogue community is “a doorway in” to Judaism and getting more involved.

Levin looks at assimilation as a tragedy, said Jacobs. The Reform movement sees it “as a challenge to be more welcoming.” The question, said Jacobs, is how to bring a greater number of people closer so they can see and experience first-hand a “Judaism that is modern, relevant and serious.” In other words, affiliated Liberal Judaism.

From Ruth to Marilyn Monroe

Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. However, stemming from the story of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible, throughout Jewish history there are innumerable incidences of non-Jews converting to bind their fates with the Jewish people.

Outside of Israel, many conversions are ahead of marriage, such as that of Marilyn Monroe, who famously joined Judaism to marry playwright Arthur Miller. The Judaism Monroe chose as her path to the Chosen People was Reform. And, to the majority of American Jews, Monroe and others who join Judaism through Liberal streams are “kosher” Jews.

In this 1957 photograph, Arthur Miller and his second wife, actress Marilyn Monroe, enjoy the April in Paris gala (Wikimedia Commons)
In this 1957 photograph, Arthur Miller and his second wife, actress Marilyn Monroe, enjoy the April in Paris gala (Wikimedia Commons)

When a Jew by choice converts through the Reform movement, “the conversion is to Judaism, not to Reform Judaism,” explained Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) in conversation with The Times of Israel in February. There is no doubt, he said, that the majority of Jewish communities in the Diaspora consider them Jews.

Founded in the 1880s, the Reform movement rejected the binding nature of halacha, a 2,000-year-old tradition of oral and written Jewish law. Alongside re-envisioning Jewish ritual, obligation and relevance, Reform Judaism also revisited what it means to embrace a Judaism of choice.

According to Chuck Davidson, an Orthodox rabbi active in the field of conversion in Israel and around the world, there is some halachic cause for the Orthodox acceptance of conversions through the Conservative movement, whose rabbis largely observe mitzvot (commandments).

That is not the case for Reform conversions.

“Reform is very honest about it not being a halachic Judaism,” said Davidson. He added that the movement’s converts were “converting to Judaism, but not to halachic Judaism. From a halachic perspective, the Reform conversion has no halachic legitimacy.”

There are now many situations in which Jews from birth are not viewed as Jewish by the Jewish state

Therefore, with the rejection of halacha (the overarching context in which rabbinic Judaism’s conversions were historically performed), Liberal Judaism’s conversions are considered void by the halachically bound Orthodoxy, including of course, the Israeli chief rabbinate.

Today, after several generations and new Jewish denominations with no common conversion standard, throughout the Jewish world there are now many situations in which Jews from birth are not viewed as Jewish by the Jewish state.

This is one of the most painful issues addressed by the symposium. Founded in London in 1926, the WUPJ is the umbrella organization of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements. It serves from 1,400 congregations with 1.8 million members in more than 50 countries, with the bulk living in the US.

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. (courtesy)
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. (courtesy)

After three days of meetings with rabbis from across the Diaspora, Freelander said that “openness to conversion is one of Reform Judaism’s unique contribution to 21st century world Jewry. When someone expresses interest in Judaism, we need to welcome them to explore Jewish spirituality and practice.”

The symposium, Freelander said, was a forum for brainstorming “how we can be welcoming within our defined Jewish boundaries, creating new openings for entry into the Jewish people.”

These “entries,” however, are, of course, firmly rejected by the Israeli chief rabbinate, which is the state religious authority for all Jewish lifecycle events.

The question on the table during this symposium is whether the state will accept the movements’ conversions for civil purposes, such as residency and citizenship — and whether the movements want to bow to the state’s criteria.

The shifting tides of world Jewry

 

With a largely non-Orthodox community living in complete religious freedom, over the centuries American Jewry has developed its own flavor and its own ethos; its legendary “Jewish values” are primarily based on liberal ideals of inclusion and social action. This is backed up by the recent March 2016 Pew report, which found, “American Jews are inclined to see personal and social responsibility as essential to their Jewish identity.”

Conservative, Reform Jews do not have a major presence in Israel (screen capture: Pew Research Center)
Conservative and Reform Jews do not have a major presence in Israel (screen capture: Pew Research Center)

In America, “Jews identify with either the Conservative (18%) or Reform (35%) movements, and roughly 6% belong to smaller streams, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. An additional 30% of US Jews do not identify with any particular stream or denomination of Judaism,” according to Pew. Therefore, a whopping 90% of US Jews do not see halacha as the decisive factor in Judaism.

In Europe, especially, and in other parts of the world, the situation is more nuanced, and there are varying degrees of state support for synagogues, and their affiliations. European Liberal Judaism is an overwhelmingly minority movement, but growing.

According to an internal WUPJ survey of conversions (inclusive of Israel, but exclusive of the US), in 2013 there were 818 conversions throughout the Liberal Jewish communities, and in 2014, there were 1,065. (The US Reform movement does not report or track its conversion numbers, but the 2013 Pew survey concluded that 2-3% of US Jewry are converts.)

In Europe, many converts seek Judaism through a spiritual impulse not met through the crumbling Catholic Church

In addition to conversions for marriage, European rabbis at the Jerusalem symposium told The Times of Israel that in their experience, many of their converts seek Judaism through a spiritual impulse not met through the crumbling Catholic Church. A pair of UK rabbis said many come through the active Jewish gay community.

Some 70 years after the European continent’s Jews were all but wiped out by the Holocaust, a rabbi from Switzerland said that in many cases there is a sense of reconnecting with a distant Jewish past. This nostalgia for Judaism is now fashionable in some European circles.

“In Poland there is a philo-Semitic trend, also in Switzerland, where it is popular to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Ruven Bar Ephraim. He added that for some European communities, there can be more potential converts than Jews in any given service. The UK rabbis nod in agreement.

Additionally, in the open religious market of most Diaspora countries, there are increasing accommodations for not-exactly halachic Jews. In the US, where Orthodoxy is still a minority of 14% of affiliated Jews, often Modern Orthodox congregations, and certainly the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement, are encouraging of any Jew’s desire to become more religiously observant.

In Europe’s smaller Jewish communities, a new inclusivity into their traditionally more Orthodox settings is even more pronounced. A recently released study from the Joint Distribution Committee, the Third Survey of European Jewish Leaders, found that from 2008 to 2015, “Orthodox opinion has become more accommodating on the issues of Jewish status. The percentage of Orthodox unwilling to recognize ‘non-halachic Jews’ as members of the community has declined from 60% to 44%.”

Rabbi Kotlarsky has started a tefillin tradition outside Chicago’s Wrigley Field (Chabad.org)
Rabbi Kotlarsky has started a tefillin tradition outside Chicago’s Wrigley Field (Chabad.org)

The European Jewish leaders’ preference for conversion in lieu of mixed marriage was also clear in the JDC report.

“Issues concerning Jewish status, non-Orthodox conversions and community membership were important concerns in all communities. The overall tendency was to be inclusive and accommodating rather than exclusive and strict,” according to the report.

However, in Europe too, inclusivity has its limits. “Opinions on these matters were mostly divided according to religious denomination and in some cases, were sources of community tensions as reported by respondents.”

According to the JDC report, “Most respondents were pessimistic, with 47% expecting these issues to become more problematic in the future.”

The tangled Israeli tango of religion and state

In Israel there is a complex unchoreographed dance between religion and state that dates to before its foundation. Back in June 1947, head of the Jewish Agency Executive David Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to the head of the ultra-Orthodox World Agudat Israel organization which now serves as the basis of the religious status quo agreement.

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

The letter is interpreted as giving Orthodox Judaism oversight over family law and other life cycle events, although Ben-Gurion also states that “full equal rights for all citizens and the absence of coercion or discrimination in religious matters must be guaranteed in advance.” Further, the following year’s Declaration of Independence proclaims: “The State of Israel… will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

‘The State of Israel… will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’

While that may sound to modern ears like a signal for the acceptance of pluralism, by the 1980s, the government passed the Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law, which codified that the only Judaism that is authorized to preside over Jewish Israelis is Orthodoxy.

Earlier, in 1950, the Knesset had passed the Law of Return, which allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent the right to immigrate to Israel. A 1989 Supreme Court case opened up the Law of Return for those who convert to Judaism abroad as well.

And so today, the civil authority recognizes immigrants as Jewish for registry and citizenship purposes, many that are turned away by the halachic chief rabbinate. Since the 1990s, this has become even more complicated with the large-scale immigration of those with historically difficult situations for Jews, such as the Soviet Union regime and Ethiopia of the 1980s and 1990s.

The strong grip of the Orthodox monopoly on life cycle events in Israel, however, is not born out by Orthodox Israeli adherents. According to the 2016 Pew report, “Roughly one-in-five Israeli Jews (22%) identify with groups that are commonly considered Orthodox.” Some 9% are ultra-Orthodox and 13% are Modern Orthodox.

The 2016 Pew survey's breakdown of Jews in Israel. (screenshot)
The 2016 Pew survey’s breakdown of Jews in Israel. (screenshot)

However, it is striking that although a combined 78% of Israeli Jews identify as traditional or secular, the average Israeli Jew exhibits more religious involvement than the majority of US Jews. Case in point is that 61% of Israelis believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people — which is a much larger percentage of the population that has some belief in God at all.

And in the US, according to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, the only steadily growing Jewish segment is Orthodoxy.

Targeting this core American Orthodox audience, the Israeli chief rabbinate has, over the past decade, begun reaching across the ocean to influence Diaspora Orthodox conversion courts. Through its rejection of a growing number of Diaspora Orthodox rabbis’ conversions (particularly those labeled Modern or Open Orthodox), the rabbinate is setting itself as a quasi-pontiff and arbiter of who is suitable to sit upon these Diaspora conversion courts.

The question, therefore, becomes one of motive.

“This act of centralization is actually intended to undermine the potential for split,” said Bar-Ilan University Prof. Adam S. Ferziger.

‘The Israeli rabbinate’s approach appeals to the only sector of American religious life that is experiencing growth’

“If the [2013] Pew report results remain, there will be more and more Orthodox Jews in America who only accept halachic conversions and fewer Americans of non-Orthodox Jewish origin who self-define based on the religious criteria of any of the denominations. Thus the Israeli rabbinate’s approach appeals to the only sector of American religious life that is experiencing growth,” said historian Ferziger, author of the award-winning “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism.”

Meaning, although currently only 14% of American Jewry, the rabbinate is taking a long-view approach that in time, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel will be a majority halachically observant community.

Progressive Jews by choice in the land of the Chosen People

Some of the oldest cases currently on the Israeli Supreme Court docket date back to 2005, and are connected to the official civil status of Reform Jews.

A series of arduous petitions to the court surrounding the quagmire of conversions brought by the Reform movement has seen its share of victories and losses. After overseas Reform conversions were recognized in 1989, the 1990s saw a slew of cases of Israelis requesting civil recognition after being taught in the Reform movement and then going abroad for “quickie conversions.”

At the same time, in 1997, the ultra-Orthodox parties attempted to pass a conversion law stating that conversion could only be recognized through the chief rabbinate. After vehement protest from world Jewry, this law did not pass, and there still is no legislation on the books.

Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, specializes in legal aid for immigrants (courtesy)
Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, specializes in legal aid for immigrants (courtesy)

In a standout 2002 Supreme Court case, it was decided that regardless of where the Reform conversion took place, the Interior Ministry must register the convert as Jewish for the population registry.

This was “a huge breakthrough for the recognition of non-Orthodox in Israel,” said Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, who deals with legal aid for immigrants. As Maor put it, from 2002, “the question of registration is finished.” But not, however the question of citizenship through the Law of Return.

By 2003, “the Interior Ministry came and said, we’re changing our position, no convert who converted in Israel — Orthodox or non- — should be able to apply for the Law of Return,” said Maor.

‘We’re very aware of our national responsibility’

Maor frankly called the Interior Ministry’s position a “very clear move against the non-Orthodox,” and “another way of getting around the Supreme Court decision.”

In the meantime, the Israeli Reform movement has continued to convert those who came to Israel under the Law of Return, such as many through the 1990s Russian wave of immigration, and those who are in the country with a “kosher” visa.

“Since 2005, Reform doesn’t convert anyone without a temporary resident visa so we can’t be accused of circumventing status. We’re very aware of our national responsibility,” Maor said.

There were several more push-pull moves between the Supreme Court, the Interior Ministry and the Liberal Jewish movements, but since 2005, the court has pushed off ruling on the status of domestic Israeli conversions for citizenship under the Law of Return.

However, in 2005 the court, sympathetic to the Interior Ministry’s fear that overseas conversions would be used as a free ticket to Israel, ordered the ministry to draw up a clear list of criteria for acceptable non-Orthodox conversions.

Nine years later the criteria were presented to the court.

What’s on the Ministry of Interior’s list of criteria?

 

You will not find this list of criteria for acceptable Reform conversions abroad in any book in the Interior Ministry, said Maor, but these are the working guidelines the ministry clerks are supposedly using.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Maor recounted the chronicles of Reform Jewry’s legal battle for recognition in Israel, and explained the criteria drawn up after high-level consultations with Reform and Conservative leaders of the world movements.

A view of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem (Flash90)
A view of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem (Flash90)

Maor used the analogy of a traffic light when speaking of the criteria. If a conversion court abroad follows the criteria with its conversion program, its converts would get a green track in Israel for immigration under the Law of Return. If it follows a majority of them, the person would get a yellow track and have to go through some bureaucratic hassle. And if the rabbinic court disregards the criteria, then the convert would face the Interior Ministry’s stone-walling red track.

“The aim was to find a path we could all live with; to avoid stumbling blocks,” said Maor, who was party to the discussions.

‘The aim was to find a path we could all live with; to avoid stumbling blocks’

Among the important criteria is that the period of study prior to conversion must be at least nine months, and the convert be active in the Jewish community. Additionally, there must be a conversion court made up of three rabbis, who issue a signed conversion certificate.

The convert’s sponsoring rabbi must write a letter that outlines the course of study, frequency of lessons and topics, and a detailed letter about the rabbi’s motivation in accepting the convert. The congregation must write a letter attesting to the convert’s involvement in communal life, and the convert must write an additional letter documenting his or her impetus to become Jewish.

Although according to the Law of Return, a convert can officially immigrate once conversion is recognized, but “the Supreme Court has allowed the Interior Ministry to determine criteria to enable them to check whether the conversion was fictitious,” wrote Maor in a letter to Liberal Jewish leaders explaining the criteria. “One of those criteria is involvement in the Jewish community after the conversion.”

Therefore, as a test of the convert’s sincerity, “the Interior Ministry demands proof of involvement of the convert in a recognized Jewish community for at least 9 months after the conversion.”

Mayyim Hayyim, a nondenominational mikvah in Newton, Mass., has been the site of some 2,200 conversion immersions since it opened in 2004. (JTA)
Mayyim Hayyim, a nondenominational mikvah in Newton, Mass., has been the site of some 2,200 conversion immersions since it opened in 2004. (JTA)

Interestingly, the nine months could be served in one’s home community, or in a community in Israel. However, if served in Israel, the convert would only be eligible for immigration after this nine-month period.

If adopted by the Diaspora courts and their conversion programs, these concrete steps will, at least potentially, smooth their converts’ bumpy road to Israeli citizenship.

But after decades of Supreme Court petitions, the rabbis wonder if this list will be the latest of obstacles for those who decide to bind their fates with the Jewish people and its state — or the last?

Who is Israel to tell the Diaspora what to do?

The question of whether Progressive Jewry’s conversion courts will adopt these criteria was met by much hemming and hawing at the February symposium.

The overwhelming response from the beit din symposium rabbis was that while especially in Europe there was a push to standardize circumcision and use of the mikve (ritual bath), it would be next to impossible for rabbis of particular communities — which have often developed in semi-vacuum conditions — to abdicate their autonomy.

‘Those movements developed in an indigenous cultural way. They’re not necessarily reading from the same choir master book’

“In trying to understand the world of Reform and Progressive Judaism, it’s not just about pointing to different countries. Those movements developed in an indigenous cultural way. They’re not necessarily reading from the same choir master book,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush, an Israeli NGO for Freedom and Equality in Religion.

WUPJ head Freelander echoed Regev, and said that while overarching standards are “desirable,” the local communities often already have their own policies and expectations, which must be respected.

Not insignificantly, the idea of catering to criteria merely for a convert’s possible immigration to Israel is anathema to a content American Jewry. (In the past two years, some 7,060 individuals immigrated from the United States: 3,560 in 2014, and 3,500 in 2015.) This is an American Jewry where a lack of stigma in interfaith marriage increasingly marginalizes conversion.

In North America in particular, issues of freedom of religion, lack of interest in too many formalities, and an unwillingness for an outside voice setting their pace makes it unlikely that rabbis would adopt the Ministry of Interior criteria wholesale, said Rabbi Joel Oseran, WUPJ director of international development.

Lawyers Rabbi Uri Regev (far right) and Edna Meyrav with their client from Elad at a Supreme Court hearing in 2014. (courtesy Hiddush)
Lawyers Rabbi Uri Regev (far right) and Edna Meyrav with their client from Elad at a Supreme Court hearing in 2014. (courtesy Hiddush)

According to Regev, “It’ll probably be far easier and more natural to reach some kind of standardized set of criteria with the Europeans, Australians, South Africans, and possibly the Canadians.

“It will be far more difficult — and I daresay impossible — with the American rabbinate, which is built on the basis of acknowledgment of the ultimate autonomy of the individual rabbis,” said Regev. “Other countries are far more conservative and far more respecting of the notion of halacha — even if it’s not Orthodox halacha.”

Regev explained that while in Israel circumcision and use of the ritual bath “are binding requirements,” in the US they are not.

“If any Israeli rabbi is involved with private or independent conversions and doesn’t adhere to centralized and universal standards, he is suspended from membership. Not in the US. Some rabbis strongly require the use of mikve, and there are others that don’t,” said Regev.

At the symposium Swiss Rabbi Bar Ephraim acknowledged Liberal Jewry’s diversity of practice and said for his part, he’d like to push for the recognition of “pluralistic unity” rather than uniform standards.

Will world Jewry’s two halves still make a whole?

 

In his 1947 letter, Ben-Gurion wrote of doing “all that can be done to satisfy the needs of the religiously observant… and prevent a rift in the Jewish people.”

And, according to the 2016 Pew report, “Overwhelmingly, Jews in Israel feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people and are proud to be Jewish. Fully 93% of Jews say they are proud of their Jewish identity and 88% say they feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

However, other observers sense an impending split in the Jewish people, one that can already be felt in Israel.

Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)
Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week following a heated Jerusalem District Court hearing with the chief rabbinate over a list of “acceptable” Diaspora rabbis, Rabbi Seth Farber was in a cynical mood.

“There are already more than two types of Jews here. I’m concerned that even the people who are recognized as Jewish by the state are still being distanced from coming here,” said Farber, who heads an NGO he founded in 2002 called ITIM, which helps immigrants navigate the chief rabbinate’s bureaucracy.

The law is clear, said Farber.

“Someone who converts in a recognized community is ‘aliya eligible.’ The whole point of the Law of Return is that it recognizes the unique relationship with the Jewish communities abroad,” he said.

In drawing up its list of criteria, what the Interior Ministry has done “is defined what conversion is” vis-a-vis a number of hours of learning, etc. “We believe that this is imposing Israeli will on the Diaspora,” said Farber, which is “disenfranchising them and undermining their authority and autonomy.”

While that sounds dire, historian Ferziger isn’t ready to define this troubled period of world Jewry as a schism.

Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger, author of the recently published 'Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism' (courtesy)
Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger, author of the recently published ‘Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism’ (courtesy)

“I would suggest something more nuanced than ‘a split’ that can be outlined through the dichotomy between ‘core and periphery,'” he said.

“As the spectrum of broader Jewish identity widens to increasingly include those who identify as Jewish but are not recognized as such by the halacha, as well as non-Jews who are married to or offspring of Jews, the Orthodox authorities will invest greater efforts into clarifying the lines between the ‘core’ halachic Jews and the affiliated ‘periphery,'” said Ferziger.

Ferziger added that this core/periphery dichotomy applies to Israel in particular, “as long as there remains a significant number of Russian-speaking immigrants and their offspring who do not undergo formal conversion.”

“Rather than a split, then, we will see a sharpened hierarchy of Jewish identity,” said Ferziger.

He explained, however, that the secular Israeli government’s agenda may be in conflict with that of the state’s religious authorities.

‘Rather than a split, we will see a sharpened hierarchy of Jewish identity’

“Politically the State of Israel’s interest in cultivating connectedness to Israel contrasts the Orthodox rabbinate’s desire to maintain halachic standards… Therefore, the state will step in, like it did by the Kotel [referring to the government decision for the planned egalitarian Western Wall plaza] if it sees the alienation [of Diaspora Jewry] interfering with political support for Israel,” said Ferziger.

For Farber, who also founded an independent unrecognized halachic conversion court in Israel called Giyur Kahalacha, Israel’s — and increasingly, world Jewry’s — stratified Jewish community is the result inhibitive fear.

He said there could be steps taken to create a more universal conversion process performed by Liberal Jews that would be acceptable to Orthodoxy.

“There are halachic methods that have been tried in the past and merit being explored today, but it requires a lot of dialogue, and you have to put aside fear to do that,” said Farber.

‘To start marching forward boldly to a Jewish future, we need to enable people to work together and learn to trust each other’

“I believe there are opportunities available today, but we need to be less inhibited. To start marching forward boldly to a Jewish future, we need to enable people to work together and learn to trust each other,” said Farber.

Sipping coffee and enjoying a sunny February morning while sitting outside the Conservative movement’s striking stone Jerusalem stone headquarters, Wernick takes a macro view on today’s changing Jewish world.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, he said, “it took 300 years until the rabbis were able to declare that there had been two Torahs at Sinai” — the written Hebrew Bible, and their oral rabbinic tradition, upon which Judaism has been based for the past 2,000 years.

“The Shoah [Holocaust] and the State of Israel signal the next paradigm shift,” said Wernick. The combination of the sovereign Jewish state with “the freest, most welcome Jewish community — in North America — that history has ever known” make for a world that “is changing, rapidly,” said Wernick.

“Everything is in flux,” he said.

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