There are few things that are not politicized in Israel and none more so than the interface of religion and state. Add to that society’s tendency to see every disagreement as a tempest and every tempest as a conflagration, and the news cycle loudly trumpets every innovation or deviation, extracts from them what is necessary to further the media or various interest groups’ agendas – and then moves on.
That and more explains the controversial decision this week by a group of Religious-Zionist rabbis to initiate their own conversion program, largely aimed at averting what is perceived as the crisis of status of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to halacha – numbering at least 300,000 people and perhaps many more. The subtext is an attempt to bypass, weaken and perhaps even replace the Chief Rabbinate and all its constituents.
As there are already a small number of independent conversion courts, why then is this one – headed by Rav David Stav – so controversial? Why is the Chief Rabbinate against it? And why have many other Religious-Zionist rabbis – luminaries such as Rav Druckman, Rav Lior, Rav Levanon, Rav Baruch Efrati and others – come out vehemently in opposition to this new Bet Din?
Parenthetically, many of the main protagonists here are personally known to me, and I respect all of them. And, granted, it is never good when rabbis argue in public (or in private, for that matter). Of course, all rabbinic disputes are conducted for the sake of Heaven, except when they are not, and sometimes “for the sake of Heaven” has to be defined somewhat loosely. So what is going on?
There is a combustible mix of personalities, hashkafa, normative v. lenient interpretations of halacha, the perceived Haredization of the Rabbinate, bitterness over election defeats and genuine concern over the status of the olim from the FSU who are not construed as full Jews. Where to begin?
Proponents of the new Bet Din announced this week that they had converted a number of children, and child conversion has always been perceived as a way out of this morass. While adult conversion requires the full acceptance of mitzvot, the conversion of a minor who cannot formally accept mitzvot is done “al daat Bet Din,” upon the authority and with the approval and guidance of the Jewish court. It is as if the Bet Din stands in loco parentis and issues its guarantee that the child will be observant when he/she comes of age and has the right to renounce the conversion done on his/her behalf.
The operative principle is the Talmudic notion that we are allowed to confer a benefit on someone even if they are unaware it (as opposed to the assessment of a liability, which requires his knowledge and consent. The working assumption is that attaining the status of a Jew is a benefit – but (so holds the majority opinion) only if the child will be a practicing, observant Jew. To take a non-Jew, convert him, and serve him a ham sandwich renders him liable for actions that were permitted to him in his prior situation. That would be unfair to the convert.
Here’s the dilemma: if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, or is adopted from two non-Jewish parents, and is then raised in a home that is not observant of mitzvot, can the Bet Din credibly say that the child will live as an observant Jew? On what grounds could such a presumption be made? In a centralized conversion system with defined rules, such a child might be converted only if the parents embrace fundamental mitzvot such as Shabbat, Kashrut, membership in an Orthodox shul and a commitment to send the child to yeshiva. That gives confidence to the Bet Din that the child will not only be Jewish but live and behave like a Jew.
It is an open question whether such is possible in a decentralized, independent system in which no demands are made on the parents and the motivation to convert lies outside the system of halacha and is rooted in nationalist concerns.
Thus, the other day on the radio, one of the proponents of the new Bet Din was underscoring its importance to Israeli society by engaging, unbeknownst to him, in a series of non sequiturs. He explained that leniency is required in all these conversions because there are too many people living in Israel who are not Jews but speak Hebrew, serve in the army, interact with society and marry Jews. “The rate of intermarriage is escalating!” All that might be true but is not really relevant. Hebrew speech, army service, and participation in Israeli society may define someone as an Israeli but it does not make them a Jew according to halacha. There are thousands of Sudanese children who speak Hebrew; that doesn’t make them Jews. Even the fear of intermarriage cannot be allayed by mass conversion of those ineligible, as the American experience teaches us. Frivolous conversions designed to forestall intermarriages just lead the parties to discount the necessity of conversion altogether. Becoming a Jew should require something more than becoming a member of AAA.
Some want to rely on a minority view that people with Jewish fathers (“zera Yisrael”) should have an easier route to conversion. There is some logic to that, especially when those individuals always saw themselves as Jews. They do not feel the sense of displacement of their prior lives that converts who are complete outsiders have. But the classical sources recognize only the full acceptance of mitzvot – accompanied by the requisite ritual acts – as the tickets of entry into the Jewish people. Zera Yisrael, as a mitigator of Kabbalat Hamitzvot, is something new, as it tends to undermine the conventional standard of Jewishness determined by the mother’s status.
The ease with which the radio speaker conflated Israeli-hood with Jewishness belied the reality that those two designations intersect but are not identical. The proof is that there are over one million Israelis who are not Jews. Moreover, the speaker’s contention that the conversions planned for adults will entail full “Kabbalat Hamitzvot” is also not credible; if it were, the authorized Bet Din of the Rabbanut could do (and does) the same. Obviously, then, the standards have to be reduced in order to accommodate the purported masses who wish to convert but cannot do so (only a few thousand apply to convert now annually in Israel) because they cannot or will not embrace the mitzvot.
This is not to belittle the problem, which was caused by the mass immigration of Soviet citizens under a Law of Return that employed Hitler’s standard of Jewishness (one Jewish grandparent) rather than that of the Torah. But the problem is not solved by creating a second tier of converts whose status will be disputed from generation to generation. And, as noted here repeatedly, the Knesset or Supreme Court can determine who is an Israeli. It has no authority to alter the requirements for conversion to Judaism any more than it can change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Of course if the parents genuinely grow in their Torah commitment then the conversion of minors will be effective and resolve most of the problem within a generation or two.
But the solution to a Torah problem does not rest in abrogating Torah principles but in handling all cases individually and sensitively.
That is easier said than done. The Rabbanut has been plagued for quite some time by the presence of some petty bureaucrats who seem to delight in posing obstacles, fabricating demands and even challenging the acceptability of conversions from rabbis whose conversions were properly accepted – and for a long, long time. In truth, little of this is ever known by the Chief Rabbis, any more than the CEO of a manufacturing company will know whether or not the floor worker is tightening every screw. He won’t – but he will have to pick up the pieces when it is discovered that the screws were not tightened properly.
These indignities are too common. A venerable rabbi originally from North America just told me of his dismay in having a conversion of his rejected by a bureaucrat forty years younger than him who merely said “I don’t know who you are,” even if older rabbis there did know and accept him. That is disgraceful, but not as much as the rejection of the young woman who had converted as an infant, was raised fully observant and now told she had to re-convert in order to marry in Israel.
That type of “tormenting the convert,” a Torah prohibition, should invalidate any rabbinic bureaucrat from serving in that capacity, for he is less observant that the people on whom he is sitting in judgment. That too has to change, and competition in that sphere would be wonderful except for the chaos that it causes.
And chaos is would be. Rav Stav ran for Chief Rabbi, campaigning for the establishment of the very Bet Din that he has now established. But he lost, and post-election recriminations never look good. And changes are afoot even in the Rabbanut, but all bureaucracies grind slowly if they grind at all. The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but...and what if he were? If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.
The irony is that Rav Kook wrote that the galut was noted for its fragmentation of Jewish life whereas as we move closer to the Messianic era – including the re-establishment of the Jewish state – we would once again merit “rikuziyut,” centralization of religious function and national life. Centralization – the bane of modernists who seek the freedom to innovate and compromise without consequences – is actually an indicator of growing unity in the Jewish world that will render us amenable to the coming of Moshiach. Odd, indeed, that the so-called Haredim wish to preserve the Rabbanut (of course, I recognize that they use it largely for their own purposes and discount it when they wish…) while some of the followers of Rav Kook wish to dismantle it. Strange world!
Not every single problem can be resolved. Life is complicated, and the complicated is complicated for a reason. But individuals who genuinely want to be – or have been for decades – part of the Torah world should never be scorned, turned away or disparaged.
What cannot be gainsaid is the assault on rabbinic authority implicit in this new Bet Din (as well as others that have sprung up across the Jewish world because they have found “solutions” to intractable problems, those “solutions” simply being rejected past practices). As this Bet Din undermines the authority of the Rabbanut, so too some other group will reject the authority of the new Bet Din, as a fourth will then spurn the authority of the third. The result is anarchy and the complete collapse of any enduring sense of Jewish nationhood and the unity of Torah.
There is a better way, and it would be best if all parties stepped back from the precipice and found that better way through dialogue of the wise rather than the acts of the impatient.