Declaring victory: But who are the victors?
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
In the latter half of July, much rabbinic and political energy was expended by Diaspora Jewish communities to express protest in rejection of a bill before Knesset that would have modified conversion protocols in Israel. An unusual coalition of agencies all found themselves aligned on the same side of the issue – reform rabbis, conservative rabbis, many orthodox rabbis, Jewish Federations, and even The Jewish Agency. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the legislation would cause more harm and ill will than benefit, and the bill was removed from immediate consideration. It has been sent back to committee with instructions that, over a period of no less than six months, it be reviewed and revised.
Many people were quick to declare victory. The Jews of the Diaspora had flexed their muscles and the leaders of Israeli government listened. But who were the real victors? Who won, if anyone? It will be a mistake to think that those in opposition to the bill were the winners, for the matter in contest was not about them. The debates about protocols of conversions and standards of acceptance are not about rabbis or federations or agencies. They are about people, human beings endowed with feelings and souls. They are about men and women, and children, who wish to identify with and cast their lots with the Jewish People. It is their dignity and collective spiritual security that should bring a sense of urgency to bear.
Conversions and the challenges to conversions can trigger fear and animus; whereas it is the exact opposite that should be true. In several verses, the Torah commands us to love the convert (Deuteronomy 10:19); Torah commands us to apply its statutes equally and uniformly (Exodus 12:49). We are not to set a higher or lower standard for the convert than we do for ourselves. We have been outsiders in many places and strangers in many lands. It was never the vision or intent of Torah for us to treat others with comparable suspicion, similar coldness or parallel reserve. Quite to the contrary, it was to have been our experiences that enlightened us to a better way.
Pirkei Avot (5:17) distinguishes debates of virtue from those that are based in ego or other ignoble agendas. As the dust settles on this latest scuffle and there emerges another chance to address this compelling issue, let it be in the spirit of clarifying and reframing the debate to be one wherein the focus is on the wellbeing of those whose souls hang in the balance. This dialogue should not be about the vindication of specific denominations or movements; it should be about the validation of sincerity. The resolution should be about Klal Yisroel and those people who wish to be counted among B’nai Yisroel.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler is spiritual leader of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford.