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Reform Meddling


I have so often attacked individuals in the Charedi world for the way they play the system. Now the boot’s on the American Reform foot over an attempt to try to resolve the issue of Russian Israelis who are not Jewish, and there are lots of them. A bill before the Knesset would have decentralized conversions in Israel to allow each local rabbinic authority to deal with its specific problems in the ways it sees fit. But as an inevitable quid pro quo, it reasserted the authority of the state rabbinate over such matters.

American Reform lobbies have weighed in. Netanyahu has capitulated. The bill is sabotaged. The Russians are left in the murk. Yet it has done nothing to address the real issue American Reform is worried about. It has simply shown them up to be dogs in the manger.

Their real issue is not conversion. It is that religion and politics have been intertwined since the foundation of the state. Personal religious status is in the hands of the Orthodox (and increasingly intolerant) rabbinate. This affects, primarily, marriage and burial. There is no civil marriage in Israel, for Jew, Christian, or Muslim, though those married civilly abroad are recognized.

I do not like this. I do not subscribe to Reform Judaism and think their decisions have split the Jewish people more than Orthodox revanchism. But I also strongly oppose religious coercion. If Israel would separate “State” from “Religion” there would be no problem at all. As in the Diaspora, Jews would be free to choose whatever brand of religion they want knowing full well that other Jews might not accept their credentials. That’s life. I know if I want Satmar to accept me I’ll have to change the way I dress. I can choose, but in Israel, politics rules. It is a system where you know the Prime minister will give in to Charedi pressure because he wants their votes and to US Reform pressure because he wants their money. I wish secular Israelis had the guts to change their political system and exclude the smaller parties who blackmail in return for votes. But they haven’t, they don’t seem to care enough. Don’t only blame the religious. It’s the seculars’ fault too. Israel is a democracy. If that’s what they want, there’s nothing I can do about that.

Most Israelis come from Sephardi countries where there is no Reform presence. The vast majority of new immigrants to Israel are Orthodox. Your average Israeli is secular and does not keep anything. Nevertheless the Judaism they refer to is a traditional one, even if they don’t like its rabbis. Israel has never recognized Reform Judaism, its rabbis, or its conversions. But this hasn’t stopped Diaspora communities from supporting Israel, any more than many secular Jews support Orthodox mystics or Reform Jews support Lubavitch or, indeed, many Christians support Israel.

I am all in favor of choice. I fully understand anyone not wishing to be associated with fundamentalism or a Judaism nostalgic for the Ghetto. But you can’t kick a tradition in its teeth and then expect it to accept you. Yet that is precisely what Reform Jews are asking of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel when they demand that they accept Reform conversions or Reform rabbis.

Conversion in Israel is subject to politics only because of history. The Knesset decided, not rabbis, to call anyone with a Jewish grandparent Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return. That was a political decision. Now it is faced with thousands of Russian Israelis (encouraged to come for demographic reasons) who are not Jewish by any religious standard, yet as citizens may fight and die for Israel (as do many Bedouin and Druze who have never claimed they were Jewish). Many Russians, faced with the reality of the situation, want to rectify their Jewish status and convert. But the only option currently available is through a rigid and centralized rabbinate.

But is conversion a genuine religious process or simply a convenient sham? Some rabbis in Israel, as in the USA, Reform and Orthodox, have tried to resolve these issues by making conversion easy. They make up their own standards and I am sorry to say, often take backhanders. They are perfectly entitled to act as they see fit. But the State Rabbinate cannot be expected to recognize these converts. Why the heck should they? Since when can an applicant for US citizenship tell the US how much of a citizen he is prepared to be?

MK Rothem’s bill tried to solve the Israeli problem. It was give and take. He got the rabbinate to agree to be flexible about standards, to allow conversion to be open to all state-employed rabbis with their variations, but in return had its status as the arbiter of Jewish identity confirmed. It is not ideal. But it would have helped the Russians and not changed anything as far as American Reform is concerned. But it has been scuppered because of American Reform meddling. So now no one wins. The Israeli Rabbinate still does not recognize Reform converts, and rabbis and Russian Jews won’t get an easier path to conversion. Well done, the Yanks.

It is nonsense to claim the bill would have divided Jewry anymore than it already is. We are split between Zionists and non-Zionists, secular and religious, and Reform and Orthodox. Concern for Israel is an important common denominator. But a united Jewry on any issue is as much a myth as a united Christianity or a united Islam. Can you imagine Sunni accepting Shia authority or vice versa? Still they all support the Palestinians.

Of course the answer is to separate state and religion. Until that happens, by all means Reform should fight to strengthen its presence and values, positively. It should stop pretending that this issue is splitting Jewry any more than it has already. It should pressurize to separate State and Religion, not to impose its own religious values, for that is to play the very game it claims to abhor. Meanwhile leave the Israelis to sort their own problems out in the haphazard way they have always done. Eventually they might get right, politically and religiously!

13 thoughts on “Reform Meddling

  1. a truly great article Jeremy. Unfortunately, we have so few in the rabbinate that are rational. Saychel is in short supply.

  2. Religious parties should have no role in State politics – we can all see the ultimate horror of Iran.

    Israel has an awful dilemma which I would start fixing by refusing the vote to people who do not work and pay taxes to the State. Of course this would not affect those injured or disabled. I am also unhappy with those who will not take up arms on Israel's behalf because they do not recognize the State.

    Leosch, too, is right. Saychel is in drerd and always will be when power politics is in play, be it on the Left or the Right, in Israel or elsewhere.

    A wonderful article, Jeremy. Shabbat shalom.

  3. Leila:
    You know, I used to think that just giving women only the vote might help, but Israel is producing some pretty fanatical right-wing women nowadays! Still, on balance, if I had a choice….

  4. If I said I agree with you ….would you be surprised? The Hilonim in Israel (other than the far, far left) tend to complain but not to lobby which brought us to this problem in the first place. It is easy to blame the Haredim, and often the blame is fair, but if given unlimited power why should they give it up unless a strong lobby changes the law?
    Loved the comment SAYCHEL IS IN DRERD" – let's find a solution instead of creating further problems.

  5. Thank you Rabbi for your insightful post.

    re: "Most Israelis come from Sephardi countries where there is no Reform presence.

    Before the aliya from the FSU, approximately half of Israeli Jews were considered Ashkenazi, and half Sephardi. Today, this is no longer the case. (I believe you meant to write "Israeli Jews".)

    re: "The vast majority of new immigrants to Israel are Orthodox."

    I believe you are referring to new immigrants from 'Western' countries. Certainly, few immigrants from the FSU are Orthodox.

    re: "Your average Israeli is secular and does not keep anything. Nevertheless the Judaism they refer to is a traditional one, even if they don’t like its rabbis."

    Demographic surveys usually provide a choice of "Secular", "Masorti" (traditional), "Dati" (religious) and "Haredi".
    If what you mean by "average" as being 50% or more — then the average Israeli Jew is Masorti/Religious.

    Thank you again for your thought-provoking post.

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel

  6. Sorry Rabbi, you're trying to have it both ways. On the one hand you praise making Orthodox conversions easier and then demean so called "easy" Reform conversions on the other. If the Rabbinate in Israel really wanted to help Russian immigrants they could ease their requirements without any need to change the law. The face that they require a "quid pro quo" shows they really could care less about the poor Russians.

    Stephen Prestwood, Alpharetta, GA

  7. Anonymous:

    I hold absolutely no brief for the rabbinate, which has mishandled almost every wave immigration from the Yemenites and Indian Benei Yisrael in the early fifties onwards.

    I am in favor of freedom of religious choice. My essential point is that I expect political horse trading in Israel, sadly, for which I blame Israelis, but I object to Diaspora interests interfering because of their Diaspora agenda. Regardless of who.


  8. Joel:

    I am so grateful to you for pointing out my inaccuracies. Replies like yours are one of the delights of blogging, because they keep one on one's toes and teach one that sometimes being cavalier has its limitations.

    Of course I should have specified Israeli Jews, fancy ignoring the huge Muslim population, not to mention Christians and large numbers of 'guest workers', and indeed refugees from Asia and Africa. But in my defense the issue at hand is irrelevant to most of them.
    As for proportions, again I was wrong because I was thinking of my student years in Israel in the fifties and sixties.

    It is also true that almost half of the Jewish Israeli population regards itself as 'traditional' in a very loose sense according to the parameters you mentioned and I should have qualified it to say the vast majority have no love or respect for Orthodox authorities such as the Rabbanut.

    And yes, of course I meant immigration is mainly Orthodox from Western countries (I don't think of Russia quite yet as Western, perhaps I should, after all the Cold War officially is over).

    Thanks again, I am indebted.


  9. Sheila, how do we get beyond theorising to motivate people of common humanity to maximise their potential in terms of power?

    By the way, I found your column and loved it!

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