“Behold, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
This portion opens with the third Covenant that God establishes with the Israelites just as they are about to enter the Promised Land of Israel. This is a re-emphasis of the earlier national Covenant with Abraham whereby God committed to make his seed into a nation with a national homeland. It also re-emphasizes the religious Covenant expressed to all of Israel at Mount Sinai. The Almighty is defining the dual relationship He has with Israel, a unique nation as well as a unique religion.
On the one hand, herein lies a great strength: “Lapsed” and even atheist Jews with strong Jewish national ties and feelings remain Jews. In the words of the Sages of the Talmud, “A Jew even though he has sinned (wandered astray from Jewish religious practice and values) still remains a Jew.” On the other hand, despite close to 2,000 years of exile from our national homeland, we continued to mourn its loss within our religious traditions, keeping alive our desire to return, and – against every rule of history and sociology – we managed to return to it.
However, this unique and hybrid dual role makes any clear-cut division between religion and state in Israel, similar to the church-state division in America, a virtual impossibility. While it is perfectly logical to forbid teaching the Christian Gospels in American public schools, it would be inconceivable not to teach the Bible – the matrix of our national culture – in Israeli secular schools.
Undoubtedly, the most knotty conundrum to emerge from this complex, hybrid status is “Who is a Jew?”
Traditional Jewish law considers one to be Jewish only if he has either been born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism before a religious court of three Orthodox rabbis. These three religious judges oversee a process comprising circumcision for males (entering into the Covenant of Abraham), a general acceptance of the commandments (the religious covenant) and ritual immersion in a mikva (the national covenant) for both males and females.
Additionally, Israel’s Law of Return, a fundamental statute of the Jewish state, grants automatic citizenship to any individual who would have been considered Jewish enough to be sent to Auschwitz under the Nazi regime: anyone who had one Jewish great-grandparent, even from a paternal line.
Miraculously 1.5 million people from the former Soviet Union were freed to seek haven in Israel, including more than 350,000 who are not halachically Jewish but whose children study in Jewish schools, and serve in the IDF, even risking their lives for the Jewish state.
If allowed to remain demographically as is, our intermarriage rate in Israel will rival the intermarriage rate in the Diaspora in only one more generation. As a result of Israel’s coalition democracy, the religious high court of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has been “taken over” by haredi religious judges. These judges are generally not “user-friendly” to would-be converts and many of them are strict constructionalists regarding the criterion of “acceptance of the commandments.” As a result, only a paltry number of these Israeli citizens have succeeded in converting over the last five years.
Enter Rotem, last year, with a conversion bill which will enable every “city rabbi” to open religious courts of conversion and facilitate the marriage of the successful converts. Several of these city rabbis will be more user-friendly and more lenient in their interpretation of the law, and their conversions will not be subject to annulment by external courts. Indeed, the only grounds for annulment would be if it is proven that the conversion was made on the basis of fraudulent or deceptive information.
This bill certainly appears to open the door for a more sensitive and responsible conversion policy which will give a more welcoming face to the laws of conversion. So what caused the international storm of protest?
The Conservative and Reform leadership in America objected vociferously to the “Rotem Bill” because it would place within the corpus of Israeli law the fact that conversions within the State of Israel are to be conducted under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate. Here, however, nothing has changed; the chief rabbinate has been the de-facto imprimatur for conversions since the founding of the state. This was done to ensure the ability of every Jew to marry any other Jew within the State of Israel.
David Rotem’s conversion bill will ameliorate a tragic situation for the 350,000 Israelis from the FSU, without worsening the situation for Diaspora Jewry. I do not believe the objection of Diaspora Jewry is fair to those Israeli citizens whose situation will only be helped by the Rotem Bill.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.