In 1999, Y immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine. The 19-year-old, whose father was Jewish but whose mother was not, chose to move to the Jewish state for a combination of Zionist and economic motivations. He settled on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley and served in a hi-tech unit in Israel’s army. During Y’s compulsory stint in the Israel Defense Forces, he received an invitation to join a course called NATIV. This program teaches Jewish history and culture and prepares soldiers like Y to convert to Orthodox Judaism. There are in Israel approximately 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who, like Y, were eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return because they are closely related to a Jew but are not considered Jewish according to halacha—Jewish religious law—because it recognizes only persons born of a Jewish mother. These newcomers have for the most part integrated into Israeli society, but due to the Orthodox monopoly over religious services and marriage rites, they cannot wed in Israel, where there is no civil marriage.
Y eventually completed the course and, after performing the rituals integral to conversion, stood before a rabbinical court of three rabbis and accepted the Orthodox Jewish faith. He later received a conversion certificate from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel verifying his Jewishness. After finishing IDF service, Y fell in love with N, a fellow immigrant from the Ukraine. She is considered Jewish under religious law because her mother is Jewish. They married in the town of Rishon Le’Zion on June 24, 2009, under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Two weeks after their marriage, the couple arrived at the local religious council (a state-funded body that controls life-cycle events and officially recognizes religious institutions in each locality) to receive their state marriage certificate. However, the chief rabbi of the town, Yehuda David Wolpe, refused to hand it over. His reason was that, by his lights, the Zionist rabbis who performed Y’s conversion did not abide by halacha.
Wolpe, who is Haredi, exemplifies the widening gap between the most religious and other sectors of Israeli society. Haredim, commonly referred to as ultra-Orthodox, practice a stringent version of Judaism and utterly reject the influences of modern secular society and also have an attitude toward Zionism that ranges from passive acquiescence to outright hostility. Such hostility extends to Modern Orthodoxy, a branch of Judaism that has enthusiastically embraced Zionism. Since political advances by the Haredim, as well as a drift to the right among the most devout in Israel, have put them in control of many local religious councils, Haredi rabbis have used the relative autonomy enjoyed by these bodies to advance their own agendas and to impose their own views on cases such as that of Y and N. Thus, as far as Wolpe was concerned, despite the state-endorsed conversion certificate, Y was to be considered a full-fledged Gentile who could not marry a Jew in a religious ceremony. Wolpe offered as proof Y’s admission that he drove on the Sabbath. Since Wolpe, like all local chief rabbis, monopolized marriage registration for all citizens of his city, and since Israelis must register for marriage in the city in which they live, the couple was blocked by Wolpe’s intransigence.
It was people like Y that David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee and member of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu Party, set out to help when he presented the first draft of conversion-reform legislation in 2009. It was the votes of such immigrants as well as others who came from the former Soviet Union that vaulted Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu Party into power in the hopes that such injustices would be righted. One solution to the problem is easing conversion to Orthodox Judaism. But with rabbis like Wolpe guarding the entrance gate to Orthodoxy, this would prove difficult. Rotem’s idea was to propose reforms that would effectively bypass Haredi strictures and local religious councils, but in the process he unwittingly sparked a major crisis that threatens to undermine the already shaky relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The avowed purpose of Rotem’s legislation is both to neutralize the influence of these ultra-Orthodox religious figures and to maintain the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriages and conversions, as well as state funding earmarked for building synagogues and for paying the salaries of city rabbis. By making it easier for potential converts to find more moderate-minded rabbis and by breaking the monopoly of local rabbis like Wolpe over marriage registration, Rotem’s bill would help make the conversion process a viable Jewish naturalization procedure. Yet in the parliamentary give-and-take to garner support for passage of the new legislation, Haredi legislators agreed to compromise on some of Rotem’s reforms in exchange for an important gain: a precedent-making conferral of “responsibility over conversions” on the Chief Rabbinate. Uncompromising Haredim presently rule over this office, which controls all matters of religious import in the state, such as marriage, divorce, burial, kosher certification, as well as the religious court system.
Where once ultra-Orthodox Jewry was merely a splinter group within the minority of Israelis who identified themselves as religious rather than members of the secular majority, the “black hat” Haredim have grown in terms of both absolute numbers and political influence in recent decades. This ultra-religious sector of Orthodoxy—many of whose adherents do not identify with Zionism or the Jewish state and rarely serve in the military but are quite willing to have their educational facilities and families supported by that state—has become, in effect, Israel’s last and most disciplined voting bloc. Their power is magnified by a proportional electoral system that gives the political parties who represent this community in Israel’s Knesset disproportionate influence. Thus while Diaspora Jews see Israeli controversies over Jewish identity as existential dilemmas, the reality is quite different. Queries as to “Who is a Jew?” are in Israel largely a matter of who is a rabbi, and in a country where rabbis are paid by the state, that is an inherently political question whose outcome is determined by the results of the ballot box. Under these circumstances, rabbinical councils that possess a monopoly over life-cycle ceremonies are largely creatures of political patronage, and control of these agencies is strictly a matter of political muscle. Attempts to create a more convert-friendly system or to foster Jewish religious pluralism in Israel face opposition in which adversaries of these schemes are not merely ideologically opposed to these ideas but are also in danger of losing their livelihoods and power.
In the case of the Rotem bill, Diaspora Jews feared that the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, which does not hide its contempt for liberal forms of Jewish expression, was trying to roll back past advances, such as the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad for the purpose of Israeli citizenship. Rotem has assured them it would not but that hasn’t done the trick. If ratified in its present form, which is looking increasingly unlikely since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly expressed his opposition, the bill would dispel the blissful ambiguity currently surrounding the “Who is a Jew?” question and in effect notify non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in no uncertain terms that from the point of view of the State of Israel, their religious authorities and institutions were bogus.
The controversy, the latest in a long line of “Who is a Jew?” crises, comes at a particularly inopportune time.
In recent years, Jewish leaders and thinkers both in Israel and in the Diaspora have attempted to improve Jewish unity by moving away from narrow definitions of Judaism based on strict religious and ethnic criteria toward a broader more inclusive concept known as “peoplehood.” This is in part a reaction to the Reform Movement’s 1983 recognition of patrilineal descent as a determinant of Jewishness, a move that contravened Jewish tradition but that appealed greatly to an American Jewish community in which intermarriage had become more the norm than the exception. The Reform decision led to a deterioration of relations with Orthodox and some Conservative Jews; the rise of various “personalized” definitions and expressions for Jewishness; and the formation of a uniquely Israeli identity in Israel and in the Diaspora, which is not necessarily connected to any religious definitions of Jewishness. The broad, catchall definition of “peoplehood,” first coined by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, is “the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people.” Revival of Kaplan’s “peoplehood” concept, evidenced most prominently in the Jewish Agency’s new programming policy shift away from encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel and toward enhancing worldwide Jewish unity, is an attempt to somehow bridge the terrifying rifts that split the disparate groups making up the Jewish people, especially those that distance liberal-minded Diaspora Jewry from their nationalist Israeli brethren.
Israel and Diaspora Jews, especially those in America, have always differed on the issue of Jewish identity. Wide Israeli support for Orthodoxy’s monopoly over religion in Israel goes back to the establishment of the state. Of all the secular Jewish movements that grew out of the 19th-century Jewish enlightenment, known as the Haskala, Zionism was the one that integrated itself most profoundly with its people’s tradition. In their push to reestablish Jewish sovereignty, and their goal of creating a “new Jew,” Zionists needed tradition to explain the Jewish people’s special connection to the land of Israel, to co-opt the idea of chosenness, and to promote social cohesion as a nation. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood the centrality of tradition to Jewish nationalism and made a pact with the Orthodox establishment of his day, giving it control over strictly religious matters such as marriage and divorce, building synagogues and mikvaot [ritual baths], and assuming responsibility over burials. Secular Zionists, who had been the driving force behind the creation of the state, would control everything else. Ben-Gurion, good socialist that he was, thought the ultra-Orthodox were a remnant of Diaspora life that would soon wither away. Instead, building on the support they received from the new state, and the exemptions from military service their young men received in the deal, the Haredim thrived. By contrast, Reform and Conservative Judaism—creations of Western Europe and later refined in the United States and therefore foreign to the vast majority of Eastern European immigrants who made up the Zionist leadership—never established an indigenous claim to state recognition. The waves of immigration from Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s only reinforced this lack of special status.
Under the circumstances, a Jeffersonian separation of Church—or Synagogue—and State, so highly praised by Alexis de Tocqueville and therefore instrumental in the diversity of religious expression in America, was out of the question in Israel. In the Diaspora, Jewish practice could be restricted to one’s private life. In Israel, by contrast, issues such as determining citizenship in a nominally Jewish state obligated a working definition of who exactly was a Jew. But the fusion of traditional Judaism with the revolutionary aspects of Zionism was choked with tension. The formation of the Jewish people is tied to its Covenant with God, an inherently religious concept. One was either born into the Jewish people or joined them by accepting the covenant with God via conversion. Zionism was a movement whose purpose was to create a Jewish sovereignty that was also a liberal democracy. In such a state, how could an inherently religious act such as conversion be a criterion for citizenship? Why couldn’t non-Jews who identified with Zionism join as well?
To this day, the tension exists. The State of Israel’s official stance is that the conversion of immigrants is an integral part of their successful “absorption and integration” into Israeli society. But clearly, to be a good Israeli citizen one need not necessarily adhere to the strictures of Orthodoxy. In fact, the vast majority of Israelis don’t. And being a good Israeli—which should certainly include proud service in the military and support for the country—is not integral to the conversion process (though some nationalist-minded rabbis choose to take it into consideration). Many non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose numbers comprise approximately 5 percent of the state’s total population at present, understand this. They learn perfect Hebrew, serve in the army, and become intimately familiar with Israeli culture. In fact, some secular Israelis, such as the leftist politician Yossi Beilin, have in the past called for replacing the traditional conversion with a “sociological conversion.” Ironically, even Beilin, a self-avowed secularist, seems unable to shake the deep-seated, quintessentially Jewish conception that there is need for some kind of “conversion” to join the people of Israel. On the other hand, one can be an Orthodox Jew and a bad Israeli citizen. For instance, a hardcore Haredi who refuses to serve in the army and who might refrain from productive work in favor of religious study, thereby consigning his family to a meager existence while he is supported by the efforts of the largely nonreligious Israeli taxpayer, is far from integrated into Israeli society, fundamentally opposed as he is to the creation of the Jewish state, which he sees as an open rebellion against God.
If most Israeli citizens do not adhere to an Orthodox lifestyle, and many who do are not Zionists, why does the State of Israel support only Orthodox conversions? Why couldn’t they be Conservative or Reform? According to Ovad Yehezkel, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was responsible for overseeing the administrative side of the state-funded conversion apparatus, “Halacha is the mechanism that preserved the existence of this people for 3,000 years. That is a code that is impervious to every threat. The state has no intention of annulling that code. Its intention is to preserve it, develop and sanctify it. That needs to be clear. This state is the place where a Jew will become a Jew according to Halacha.”
However, Yehezkel’s position, which probably reflects the opinion of a large swath of Israelis who are not Orthodox in their lifestyle but who are traditional-minded, is highly controversial. Reform and Conservative Jews oppose a state-backed Orthodox monopoly over conversions. They argue that non-Jews who identify with other approaches to Judaism should have the right to choose the stream with which they feel the most comfortable. Reform and Conservative forms of conversion are good enough for the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora. According to a December 1986 Supreme Court ruling, these conversions are recognized by Israel for the purpose of obtaining Israeli citizenship. And so they should be good enough for non-Jewish immigrants living in Israel. In that decision, Judge Meir Shamgar quoted a former chief justice, Simon Agranat, who said that “the great event of the establishment of the State of Israel, namely, the renewal of the statehood of the Jewish People in the land of its birth, did not occur in order to drive a wedge into the people who dwell in Zion, and divide it into two peoples, Jews and Israelis.
“Such a division—should it, Heaven forbid, ever occur—would contradict the national aspirations for which the state was established, and would mean the frustration of those aspirations, and the undermining of the unity of the Jewish People as a whole.”
Meanwhile, Orthodox rabbis, especially those with a Haredi outlook, resent the fact that government officials like Yehezkel are meddling with conversions. It is a desecration of Judaism in their eyes to use conversions simply as a way of integrating non-Jewish immigrants into Israeli society. They believe a convert to Judaism must undergo a radical transformation and embrace Orthodoxy. Unlike the impression given by Yehezkel, potential converts cannot simply “go through the motions,” knowing that at the end of the process they will revert to a secular lifestyle. To the Haredim, such a conversion is meaningless.
However, some Jewish scholars, such as Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi in their book Giyur Ve’Zehut Yehudit (Conversion and Jewish Identity), claim that the extreme emphasis placed by Orthodox rabbis on embracing an Orthodox way of life as a precondition for conversion while ignoring other aspects of being Jewish, such as a feeling of belonging to the Jewish people, is a relatively new phenomenon developed in response to the secular movements of the 19th century. Before then, as long as the majority of Jews accepted in principle the tenets of traditional Judaism, the act of conversion could be seen as an act symbolizing a non-Jew’s decision to join that majority. However, in the 19th century, faced with the challenge of Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism and with an increasing number of Jews who rebelled against tradition, Orthodox rabbis developed more clearly delineated criteria for what constituted “normative” Judaism. Conversion to Judaism was also affected. A non-Jew’s interest in becoming a member of the Jewish people was no longer sufficient for conversion, because the question could immediately be asked, “Which group of Jews do you want to join—Bundists, Zionists, Reform Jews, or Yiddishists?”
But there are contemporary Orthodox rabbis, especially Sephardi and religious Zionist halachic authorities, who are more broad-minded in their outlook. Former IDF and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, the independent-minded legislator Rabbi Haim Amsalem, and others have taken into consideration the fact that many of the prospective converts in Israel either have a Jewish father or a paternal grandfather who is Jewish. These people might not be considered bona fide Jews according to religious law, but they nevertheless are considered “the seed of Israel,” which means they should be encouraged to convert. These rabbis have also been more lenient with potential converts who intend to remain in Israel and tie their destiny to that of the Jewish people. And they view conversion as the acceptance in principle of the obligation to lead an Orthodox lifestyle, even if the potential convert openly admits that he or she will not be observant. Finally, these rabbis and others view conversion as a means of preventing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.
The existence of the State of Israel has also influenced these rabbis. No longer are the Jewish people an embattled minority living under the constant threat of assimilation and intermarriage. In Israel they are the dominant culture. Throughout the long centuries of exile, Jews developed a survival strategy that emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and downplayed its nationalist dimensions. But the return to the land of Israel signaled for some rabbis that it was time to once again awaken the long dormant national aspects of Judaism. Conversion, the religious ritual of joining the Jewish people, should reflect this change, claimed some rabbis.
However, a different approach that sees conversion as solely a religious transformation that necessitates embracing a strictly Orthodox lifestyle has been gaining traction as more Haredi rabbinic elements have consolidated their strength within the Chief Rabbinate. The National Religious Party, which spoke for most Modern Orthodox Jews, was once a regular fixture of every Israeli governing coalition. But it has gradually lost its political clout over the past two decades due to various political trends, among them a singular emphasis on settlements. An increasing number of religious Zionists who wished to be represented on a wider range of issues have been voting for centrist political parties such as Likud and Kadima, while internal ideological disputes have resulted in the splintering of the NRP into smaller religious Zionist political parties. Deterioration of the NRP’s political power has led to the weakening of religious Zionism’s hold on the Chief Rabbinate, since it is itself a political institution as much as anything else. In parallel, the amazing political success of Shas, a Sephardi religious party that chose to form an alliance with the Haredi Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment and not with the NRP, has also strengthened Haredi influence within the Chief Rabbinate.
And the Haredim have been on the offensive. In May 2008 in an obiter dictum, a Haredi judge sitting on the High Rabbinical Court of Appeals suggested that thousands of conversions performed by Orthodox religious Zionist rabbis were invalid. The judge, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, argued that Zionist, nationalist sympathies irrelevant to the religious observance of the conversion candidate had corrupted their halachic judgment. When Rishon Le’Zion’s Rabbi Wolpe ruled that Y was not a Jew, Sherman’s ruling probably influenced him. Haredi city rabbis in Beersheba, Petach Tikva, Ma’ale Adumim, and Rehovot have adopted a similar policy.
Rotem, the author of the new conversion law, is aware that the extremism and intransigence of Haredi rabbinic leadership is liable to lead to a secular-led grassroots backlash against the already unpopular Chief Rabbinate’s hegemony on religious affairs. But while Rotem’s legislation might smooth the way for immigrants like Y to convert, the part of the bill added later under Haredi pressure that is so offensive to non-Orthodox Jews threatens Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry. At the same time as non-halachic immigrants and their political representatives have been battling the rabbinate, the non-Orthodox streams have been pursuing their own separate struggle against the Orthodox establishment. The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on the status of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for the sake of citizenship. The possibility of their suit succeeding has caused all the religious parties—both the Haredim and their Modern Orthodox foes—to fear that if Rotem’s bill is not passed, the Supreme Court will step in. The irony of this multifaceted dispute is that even moderate Orthodox Jews would prefer to see Haredi control over conversions set in stone rather than see the Reform and Conservative movements triumph by way of the Supreme Court.
What is the solution to this deadlock? The first order of business is to defuse the crisis, at least temporarily. Prime Minister Netanyahu, realizing the potential danger that the bill could cause to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry, has frozen Rotem’s legislation, though the Haredi parties in the government coalition—Shas and United Torah Judaism—and Israel Beiteinu are opposed to the freeze. In parallel, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have temporarily pulled their petition from the Supreme Court. This is not such a big concession, since the Supreme Court would be reluctant to issue a ruling as long as legislators show signs of intending to pass a law that clarifies once and for all the issue of Jewish identity or are willing to reach a compromise that is satisfactory to the Reform and Conservative movements.
Legislation alone is not advisable, because there is still no clear-cut answer to the “Who is a Jew?” question that is acceptable to all sides. Granting Orthodoxy a monopoly in law, as the compromised version of Rotem’s bill intends to do, would, as Justice Agranat pointed out, “drive a wedge” between Israel and the Diaspora. And despite general dissatisfaction with the power of the rabbinate, Israeli politicians are not yet prepared to grant non-Orthodox streams the right to convert in Israel for the purpose of citizenship. Besides, Reform and Conservative communities in Israel remain tiny and without political influence. American-style Jewish denominationalism, which was so strongly influenced by the example of diverse Protestant religious expression in the United States, is not readily applicable to Israeli culture. As a result, the non-Orthodox movements have failed to make inroads within the Jewish state. However, there is a growing interest in nondenominational or post-denominational versions of Jewish expression, much of which is being articulated by male and female rabbis and educators trained by Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements.
A renewed effort must be made to incorporate diverse approaches to Judaism in a uniquely Israeli educational process that leads to conversion. Meanwhile, the status quo according to which Orthodox conversion courts will have the final say on conversions will stand for the time being, even if this is not explicitly legislated. However, these Orthodox conversion courts should strive to be lenient, taking into consideration the unique challenges facing the Jewish state. Such a solution is foreign to an American sensibility accustomed to a complete separation of Church and State. But considering the realities of Israeli society and politics, a compromise of this sort may be the only operative option.
Sadly, the chances of even a compromise such as this succeeding are slim. The Haredi rabbinic leadership that effectively controls the Chief Rabbinate and that wields significant political clout via Shas and United Torah Judaism rejects any cooperation with liberal streams of Judaism. The Reform and Conservative movements, meanwhile, rightly wager that they can achieve a better deal from the Supreme Court than from Israeli politicians. Nor is it clear that Modern Orthodox rabbis, who have been sliding to the religious right in recent decades, would be willing to adopt a more liberal approach to conversions, as this could lead to a split within Orthodoxy that would create a situation in which one camp of Orthodoxy (Haredim) would cease to recognize the conversions of the other (Modern Orthodox).
More likely is a widening of the present rift between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry, with their sharply different understanding of Jewish identity. After all, the culture of a Jewry living in “exile” as a minority is inevitably going to develop a fundamentally different conception of their Jewishness from that of Israelis grappling with what it means to govern a sovereign Jewish state while living in the shadow of a constant existential threat. Tragically, this growing rift is likely to further exacerbate the Jewish state’s vulnerability in the face of this threat.
Inside Israel, non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union will continue to challenge the religious status quo. Only about 2,000 a year choose to convert. The rest will undoubtedly demand civil marriage in an ever-more-strident tone, an option not currently available, as will thousands of non-Jewish foreign workers who have received residency rights and have no intention of converting. Intermarriage, once unheard of in Israel, will become a reality.
Y and N, meanwhile, have managed to bypass Wolpe and have obtained a marriage certificate from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which was obligated to recognize the authority of the Modern Orthodox rabbis that officiated at Y’s conversion. But the clarification of Jewish identity for tens of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants who choose not to convert will be more complicated. So will the resolution of the “Who is a Jew?” question, which will undoubtedly vex and torment the Jewish people for generations to come.