Time for Resolution?

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The Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel recently called into question the validity of conversions performed under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces. In this article, which is an abridged version of an article that was originally published in Hebrew in the Makor Rishon weekly newspaper, IDI researcher Netanel Fisher analyzes developments in this debate and calls for the formation of a coalition of the moderate Jewish majority.

Ever so quietly, almost undetected, one of the most volatile issues to face the Jewish world in recent years came to a conclusion. Two years ago, the High Rabbinical Court annulled state-sponsored conversions performed by Rabbi Druckman and his associates based on a claim that they are unfit to serve as dayanim (religious judges). The ruling cast doubt on the validity of thousands of conversions conducted in Israel during the past two decades. It was therefore described—and rightfully so—as an act of aggression on the part of the ultra-Orthodox aimed at the Zionist and secular-Jewish character of the State of Israel.

In response to the public uproar that ensued, Chief Rabbi Amar referred the ruling for review by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, which reconfirmed the validity of the conversions a few weeks ago. A conversion, the dayanim determined, cannot be annulled so recklessly and in opposition to the opinion of the leading halakhic decision-makers.

Despite this seemingly positive ruling, the problem was not solved. In fact, the situation became more complicated as a result. Despite the "annulment of the annulment," many rabbis are refusing to register converts for marriage, thereby applying de facto the annulment of the conversion of hundreds—even thousands—of converts every year.

One week ago, following pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Amar set up a committee to investigate conversions done within the framework of service in the Israel Defense Forces. Investigating the legitimacy of IDF conversions runs in direct contrast to attempts to advance and simplify the conversion process in Israel.

In the political sphere, MK David Rotem tried to fight the conversion annulments, but his final legislative proposal was an insult to US Jews. His proposed bill transformed the question of Israeli conversion into a worldwide Jewish issue and put a strain on Israel-Diaspora relations.

In the legal sphere, the State Attorney's Office reported problems in the IDF's conversion process to the Supreme Court. Despite the retraction of these statements, the State Attorney's Office imposed additional hardships on an already threatened institution.

The current place of the conversion debate in Israel is unclear. We have lost our bearings, and there are few leaders carrying the mantle of state-sponsored conversion. Israel is faced with a poignant question: How is it that a handful of ultra-Orthodox rabbis managed to put the State and the institution of conversion in such a quandary? After all, the extremist position of challenging the legitimacy of rabbis to serve as dayanim is unacceptable to most rabbis, and certainly to the general public. Proof of this can be seen in the ruling by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, which is not typically sympathetic to the challenges of the State or Religious Zionism. The members of this Court flatly rejected the precedent set by their colleagues, who had determined that any rabbi lacking the "correct" religious worldview can be deemed unfit. "It is disturbing," the rabbis wrote in their ruling, "that we have reached a state of affairs where an outstanding Torah scholar...[who] does not rule in accordance with a rabbi who is seen as the halakhic authority, is no longer called a rabbi or an authority, and all of his rulings are annulled, not just the conversions he performed."

Today, Israel's leadership is afraid to confront a minority of ultra-Orthodox extremists. This applies not only to the heads of state, but also to the ultra-Orthodox leadership itself, which suffers from a powerful minority of extremists. Conversion is only one of a number of areas in which the most radical voices have been allowed to dominate the debate; other areas include female modesty, Sabbath observance, and issues related to burial and gravesites.

Ben Gurion diagnosed the situation over 50 years ago. He held that there was no chance for religious law and the modern state to cleanly interact and compromise, since "the Chief Rabbinate is afraid of the Council of Torah Sages, and the Council of Torah Sages is afraid of Neturei Karta." The same holds true today, when a small fringe group casts fear over everyone.

Today it is clear that the struggle is not just over conversion, but over Judaism's very ability to remain relevant in the Israeli public arena. Ben Gurion's remarks pose a vital question: How long will the Jewish majority—the religious and the secular citizens, Zionists and ultra-Orthodox alike—abandon its fate to a fringe and extremist minority? Hasn't the time come to form a coalition of the moderate Jewish majority, those yearning for a living, modern Judaism? Will we have the sense to create and preserve a Jewish consensus before we crumble into sectarian camps? And when will a brave leadership arise that is willing to champion this vital cause? 

This article is an abridged version of an article that was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon on October 17, 2010.

Netanel Fisher is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. A Ph.D. candidate at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he wrote his dissertation on conversion policy and is working with IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern on promoting conversion reform in Israel