One of the most poignant and overlooked aspects of the religious pluralism crisis between Israel and American Jewry is that the Ne’eman committee that was set up to find a compromise managed to achieve its goal. That remarkable accomplishment — devising ways to include Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israeli conversions and marriages under the framework of halacha — underscores the fact that the problem threatening to further erode Israel-diaspora relations is more political than religious.When the compromises came to light in Israel last week, they were immediately shot down by the chief rabbinate in the strongest terms. This factor, plus the Conservative and particularly the Reform movement’s insistence on driving this emotional issue as hard as possible, increases the prospect that the Knesset will pass a controversial conversion bill whose net result will mean a short-term victory for the chief rabbinate and its proponents and an incalculable defeat for the Jewish people.Indeed, the only hope of staving off a disaster is in the realization among all parties that to go over the brink — in this case by passing the conversion legislation — would divide Jews in ways too painful to contemplate, from the loss of philanthropic dollars for Israel to the rendering of social, political and spiritual ties between diaspora Jews and the Jewish state.
A major national Jewish fund-raising official confided that if the bill passes, we will see “a Jewish nuclear meltdown,” which he described as the loss of up to $40 million in the national UJA campaign from angry non-Orthodox donors. This, in turn, could close UJA down, he said.Rabbis of every denomination say it will become increasingly difficult to bring Jews together and to evoke support for Israel if the legislation passes.What makes all this so painful is that if the leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements genuinely placed the concept of Clal Yisrael, maintaining Jewish unity, over political gains, the abyss could be avoided. This was proven by the work of the Ne’eman committee, whose fate remains unsettled this week.The committee, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last spring, has been chaired, tirelessly and sincerely, by Finance Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman, himself an Orthodox Jew. It is comprised of seven representatives — five Orthodox, one Conservative and one Reform — whose task was to head off proposed legislation in the Knesset that would allow only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at conversions in Israel.After months of discussions, the committee came up with proposals that seemed to satisfy the needs of the various parties. While details are sketchy, it is believed that the conversion proposal calls for candidates to be prepared by a joint body made up of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform officials. The actual conversion would then be officiated by an Orthodox rabbinical court.The marriage plan would allow Conservative and Reform rabbis to officiate at weddings as long as two representatives of the chief rabbinate are in attendance to serve as witnesses and assure that traditional Jewish standards are met.If these proposals, or ones like them, are not accepted, it will be because power, politics and emotions outweighed the historical imperative to preserve the concept of Jewish unity.
That would be more than a shame; already there is plenty of blame to go around.The chief rabbinate and its proponents perceive of Conservative and Reform Judaism as a spiritual threat to the Jewish future and ignore the reality of the movements’ strength and depth in this country.Many Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. express pain, privately, over the rigid resistance by the chief rabbinate to any form of political — not religious — compromise. But they say they cannot speak out against the proposed legislation without risking their own status.The Conservative and Reform movements, in turn, have animated their constituents at home with the perceived inequity of their status as second-rate Jews in the eyes of Israel rather than making efforts to establish a serious presence in Israel, through aliya and outreach to Israelis. Will their legal efforts in the courts win them supporters among the Israeli population?Then there is the prime minister, who has sought to avoid taking a stand on the issue, juggling his political concerns — the Orthodox parties in his coalition are threatening to bolt if this legislation isn’t passed — and his moral obligation to maintain Jewish unity by working to ensure that the bill is not approved. So far he has tried to sidestep a showdown by urging American Jews not to impose their standards of democracy and religious practice on Israel. It’s a good point, but it may be too late for logic in this crisis. We’ve reached an emotional level that goes beyond the fact that the conversion legislation would only affect a handful of people a year, that it only codifies the existing status quo, that it does not speak to the religious status of non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora.The prime minister must now support the work of the Ne’eman committee rather than just push for further delays. Indeed, the crisis will only be averted if leaders of all stripes accept their primary responsibility to put Jewish unity over political gain. Otherwise we will have one party or another win the battle and the Jewish people lose the war.