Explaining the draft Conversion Law

Yaacov Lozowick Ruminations

Bryan asks me if there’s anything to tell about MK David Rotem’s proposed law to sort out the issues of conversion to Judaism in Israel. This is a fiendishly complicated story that has been festering since the early 1950s at latest, and will continue to fester well beyond the late 2050s, there’s no doubt about it. The story is an expression of the unresolved issue of Jewish identity: an issue which has been open since the 18th century won’t go away because the Knesset passes a law.

Yair Ettinger, a competent journalist at Haaretz (there are some of those) has a good summary of the issue here. For those of you who haven’t been following the story these past 50-some years, Ettinger’s article will probably be only mildly helpful, but it’s not a bad place to start.

My two bits about the story are as follows:

    1. David Rotem is from the mostly anti-Orthodox Israel Beiteinu (Avigdor Lieberman’s party). He’s an unlikely person and it’s an unlikely party to get American Jewry in an uproar – but that’s what seems to be happening.

    2. The problem Rotem wishes to solve is the 300,000 non-Jews who have moved to Israel since about 1990, mostly from the former Soviet Union, along with their Jewish family members. They are culturally Israeli Jews, but not halachically, and this causes problems.

    3. The direction Rotem suggests going in to resolve the matter is – more or less – to enhance the ability of the state- rabbinate to do conversions. His reasonable assumption is that if lots of state-employed rabbis will have the authority to do conversions, most of them local, municipal rabbis, they will, and the problem will go away. At the moment, only a limited number of rabbis can do conversions.

    4. The impediment Rotem is trying to get rid of is the Haredi rabbis, who are not interested in lots of secular Russian Israelis becoming secular Jewish Israelis. Don’t ask.

    5. It is fascinating, and very revealing, that Rotem’s constituents wish the rabbinate to convert them. After all, they could just as easily have chosen to campaign for Reform and (American-style) Conservative rabbis to do so: but they didn’t. For whatever reason, they have accepted the position of secular Israelis, that the synagogue they don’t go to (because they’re secular) is an orthodox synagogue. Fascinating, not obvious, and worthy of additional investigation.

    6. In spite of the context, America’s Jews or at least their spokespeople are in an uproar: by vesting the authority to do conversions solidly on the state-employed rabbis, a step meant to push the haredi rabbis out of the picture, Reform and Conservitive rabbis will also be pushed out. Funny, isn’t it? I expect no-one ever foresaw Reform and Haredi rabbis uniting against the (sort of) modern orthodox ones. But as I said, the Jewish world is a tricky place, and never ever boring.

    7. The whole thing probably isn’t worth the effort. Netanyahu has apparently stopped the process, and it may well stay stuck for the next generation or three.

Personally, I’d say that any Israeli who lives here speaks Hebrew serves in the army and pays taxes, should be given a little slip of paper saying they’re Jews. I’ve got 2nd cousins in the USA who know nothing from nothing about Judaism and care less, but they’re Jews, and these folks aren’t? Huh? But that’s just me.
Bryan said…

Thank you for the analysis, Yaacov. I especially wonder about the resistance of the Haredim to conversion. Even if some converts who may not be entirely dedicated get through, the majority do want to be Jewish, and why not? This generation’s nonobservants might be next generation’s baalim teshuvah. Soemone needs to remind the Haredim that you miss 100 percent of the swings you don’t make.

But obviously, as a non-Orthodox convert-in-training, I’m biased.
July 13, 2010 10:56 PM
Avi said…

Yaacov, I agree with most of what you said here. I am ex-English Orthodox (it was a different thing then when I was growing up in North London) and have been an active member of a Conservative community here in Jerusalem for the past 25 years.

I agree with you completely about the paradox that our not so distant relatives abroad in the west, whilst being halachicly Jewish are much less Jews in my eyes that the offspring of a mixed marriage now living in Israel and being a fully committed members of the society here.

I disagree with you with respect to the haredim being pushed out of the conversion loop. Everyone in the Orthodox world looks over their right shoulder at the haredim to get their approval. You know as well as I do that this is a cultural thing, not legal or administrative. Anyway, the rabbinate has been taken over years ago by the Ashkenazi and Sephardi haredim.

What I do not understand, or rather believe, is how stupid David Rotem really is. I have nothing good to say about Yisrael beytainu, but they just went along and proved my prejudices correct again about the fact that they do not have the first idea of what democracy is about. They know how it works and to work the system, but the cultural understanding is not there.

I would also lay to rest the red herring about how if they want things changed, the Reform and Conservative Jews should come here and vote. I agree that they should come here, but no normal people are sectoral like the haredim. They would vote for different parties because although the religious stream questions are important, there are even more important questions for all of us to decided politically and it is on that basis that they will vote, not as a monolithic community bloc.
July 13, 2010 10:58 PM
RK said…

You and Ettinger don’t mention this, but I believe that Rotem, despite being from Yisrael Beiteinu, is Orthodox himself.

Israelis tend to have funny ideas about what makes one Jewish. I remember when Tommy Lapid came to the U.S., he had an outburst during an interview where he declared that (quoting from memory) “as someone who lives in Israel, speaks Hebrew, and has the Bible as my guide I am the most Jewish Jew who has lived in the past 2,000 years. Certainly more Jewish than some Yiddish-speaking, anti-Zionist Satmar Hasid in Williamsburg.” Not that one should turn to Lapid for a fair assessment of haredi Jews, but it reflects the notion common among Israeli Jews that even the hilonim are leading some semblance of an authentically Jewish life, just because they speak modern Hebrew and get holidays off.

There are, after all, American citizens who don’t know from Thomas Jefferson or the Civil War, while the greatest scholar of American history in the UK will have to jump through the hoops to become a U.S. citizen. Them’s the breaks, in life as in religion. It’s true enough that as several scholars have pointed out, conversion standards and procedures have changed over the centuries. But it’s still necessary, I think, for conversions today to satisfy the broad consensus of contemporary halakhic opinion, while trying to avoid the awful scandals and revocations we’ve seen in the past few years. This bill seems to be a good step in that direction. (There, even a Meimadnik like me can say something good about Yisrael Beiteinu.)

Finally, the specific measure here does nothing to prejudice the rights of Reform and Conservative converts abroad, so I really think the fuss is unwarranted.
July 13, 2010 11:26 PM
RK said…

Just a side note, Bryan, the plural of “ba’al teshuvah” is “ba’alei teshuvah”. The first word is in smikhut (the construct state).
July 13, 2010 11:28 PM
NormanF said…

Reform and Conservative Jews don’t give a f*ck about Israel. Who moves there? Orthodox and haredi Jews. Until they emulate observant Jews and pay their Zionist dues, they should sit down and shut the heck up!
July 13, 2010 11:30 PM
Lee Ratner said…

NormanF, I disagree entirely with your assesement that most non-Orthodox Jews don’t care about Israel. Most non-Orthodox Jews that I know care immensely about Israel and there are ways to care about Israel without actually moving there. They are active or passive defenders of Israel and Zionism outside of Israel. Many of the Haredi Jews moving to Israel aren’t particularly ardently Zionist and would be happy as dhimmis as long as they get to live in Eretz Israel and have moderate level of access to Jewish holy places. They don’t work or serve in the IDF either.

RK, I believe that a plurality if not a slight majority of Jews are Hilonim or at least about as religious as the average Diaspora Jew. Still, Mr. Lapid does have a point. There are public celebrations of Jewish holidays in Israel in ways that don’t exist in the Diaspora, purim parades, dancing with the Torah on the streets on Simchat Torah, lighting bonfires on lag b’omer, etc. If you combine some public celebration of Jewish holidays with the average Diaspora level of divergence and Hebrew speaking than you get a certain level of observance that is uncommon in the Diaspora.

July 19, 2010 | 3 Comments »

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  1. Lieberman: it’s about money, too

    Continuing his revenge against Netanyahu, Lieberman instructed his ministers to boycott the budget vote. During the elections, he spoke extensively about the need to cut the bloated ministerial budgets, but when the recent cuts touched his own ministries, Lieberman became agitated. He demands more funds even for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which should better be closed down for the lack of immigrants.

    One incompetent ambassador replaced by another

    After having a spat with Netanyahu, Lieberman has found a way to get even. He appointed a new Israeli ambassador to the UN (with the PM’s approval).

    Our new representative at the barbarian conference has previously served as the Israeli ambassador to Bolivia and Paraguay. He lacks meaningful diplomatic experience, and won’t be able to work effectively in the UN. The only good news is that his predecessor was equally incompetent, so no harm done.

  2. It’s the politics, stupid:

    If I undertand it correctly, this whole thing is a pissing contest between Lieberman and Netanyahu, and has nothing at all to do with the Jews who currently choose to live outside of Israel.

    To form his current coalition, Netanyahu gave in and appointed Lieberman Foreign Minister, but then went on to humiliate him by constantly bypassing and ignoring him (most recently by holding secret talks with Turkey).

    Lieberman is striking back by 1) appointing a temporary UN ambassador without consulting Netanyahu. 2) Making an alliance with the Orthodox Israeli Jews against the Israeli seculars, conservative and reform, in the form of the conversion bill. Apparently the deal to come has something to do with the Israeli Orthodox relaxing the rules for an Orthodox marriage in Israel (a longstanding Lieberman desire).

    So the conclusion is that the non-Likud members of Netanyahu’s coalition are showing him that he can only push them around so far, but none of them is currently interested in bringing down the coalition, going to new elections, and possibly losing their cushy jobs.

    And although reform and conservative Jews in America are totally unaffected by all this, they are mad because the Israeli Orthodox are once again delegitimizing the reform and conservative movements within Israel.

  3. 4. The impediment Rotem is trying to get rid of is the Haredi rabbis, who are not interested in lots of secular Russian Israelis becoming secular Jewish Israelis. Don’t ask.

    Then this is all a sham, promoted by a supposedly observant Jew.