The struggle for Reform and Conservative legitimacy in Israel remained clouded this week as the chief rabbinate studied the recommendation of a government committee to effectively recognize them yet preserve Orthodox hegemony over conversions in Israel.
Chief Rabbis Yisrael Lau and Eliahu Bakshi-Doron were to meet this week with members of the Knesset Absorption Committee, who favor the Neeman Committee’s proposals, and with the chairman of the government committee, Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman.
In remarks here last week to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Neeman said he believed “the Orthodox rabbis do not understand the major change and the new attitude of both the Reform and Conservative movements. The fact that by our agreement the two movements agreed to our rule over conversions, which is the rule of conversion for the last 3,000 years … is such a major change. I think this fact is ignored.”
He also lashed out at a proposed so-called technical solution signed by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives under which the government would register as Jews all persons converted in Israel. The proposal, hammered out by Jewish Agency Chairman Avram Burg, calls for government records to note who performed the conversion. It also specifies that all citizens’ identity cards contain a born-Jews’ date of birth and a convert’s date of conversion.
“It’s not technical, it’s not tactical and it’s not a solution,” fumed Neeman. “Why? It’s against Jewish law and Jewish tradition. You can’t earmark a ger [convert]. Once somebody converts, he has the same rights as a chief rabbi. Such a mark [on the identity card] reminds me of regimes when Jews were earmarked with a yellow Star of David. It is something that shouldn’t be considered, that is unconstitutional and against any law of any country. This ‘no solution’ is putting oil on the flame of disunity. It would create bigger problems in the future.”
So far, Rabbi Lau has asked the backers of the proposals not to “sit over the chief rabbinate with a stopwatch,” while Rabbi Bakshi-Doron said in an interview with an ultra-Orthodox paper last weekend that he expected the committee’s proposals to be rejected.
Next week, the Chief Rabbinical Council is to decide whether to back either of the two proposals. President Ezer Weizman has publicly supported the Neeman proposal. He told a delegation from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations on Sunday that he believed Neeman had “done a good job.” The OU representatives said they would support the chief rabbinate no matter what position it took.
“It’s our belief that the institution of the chief rabbinate was established to arbitrate halachic issues related to the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the OU. “Therefore, it is our position that it should be the final arbiters of the appropriateness of any kind of a compromise or decision as to the future status of Jewish aspects of life in Israel.”
He said his group spent time with Rabbis Lau and Bakshi-Doron and that it was clear “this is a very difficult issue. Everybody would like to seek an appropriate resolution and exactly what that means is up for discussion. This is a work in progress and nobody has rejected anything out of hand.”
If the chief rabbinate does not announce support for either proposal by Tuesday, a court case dealing with the issue would proceed. The Conservative movement filed suit against the state for its refusal to register as Jews 16 people its rabbis converted to Judaism in 1996. That case was postponed while the Neeman Committee met and the government must submit its response on Tuesday. A hearing will be held 30 days later.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, said in an interview from Jerusalem that the Chief Rabbinate is faced with “a choice of two things — a cease fire or a peace treaty.”
A delegation of 350 rabbis from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly will be meeting in convention in Jerusalem the week of Feb. 16 and plans to meet with Netanyahu and leaders of other political parties. The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, said the rabbis will be coming from North and South America, England, France and Germany.
“Our goal is to get from various people — in government, the academic world and the media — a better feel for what is happening, not only issues confronting us religiously but in society, like the peace process,” he said. “We will be there to demonstrate our absolute love and support for Israel and its 50th anniversary and express support for the Conservative movement in Israel.”
Delegations of rabbis will also be in Israel next week from the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and from the rabbinic cabinet of State of Israel Bonds. They will all be receiving similar briefings on the conversion issue.
The board of directors of UJA-Federation, while not taking a position on either the Burg or Neeman proposals, issued a statement calling for Jewish unity and respect.
“Although we do not pretend to speak with one voice, we cling to a common vision of caring for each other and we view ourselves as part of a larger, diverse family,” it said. “Today, the potential for us to become splintered is great. If we are to sustain ourselves as a community, we cannot allow our people to be shattered into segments that bear no relationship to one another.”
It noted that UJA-Federation sent delegations to Israel last year to “convey to government leaders the concern in our community about actions considered harmful to Jewish unity. At home, we are working with national organizations to encourage respect for all Jews and all streams of Judaism.”
The executive vice president of UJA-Federation, Stephen Solender, said the statement was prompted by a desire “to say we want to be united and stay focused on the UJA-Federation mission, and not make UJA-Federation a battleground. … We are supportive of the Jewish Agency’s decision to double the amount of money going to projects to foster diversity in Israel. And we’re trying to figure out ways to deal with the issue of diversity in a way that would be acceptable to the vast majority of the community.”