If there is to remain any meaning to the terms Chief Rabbinate and Religious Zionism, then the recent decision casting aspersions on conversions by the Israel Defense Forces, should be “last straw” in our relationship with the rabbinate.
As a religious Zionist who believes that Israel is the beginning of our redemption, it is not easy for me to come to terms with this realization, but it seems to me that that the time has come to say honestly, and painfully, that the Chief Rabbinate as it stands today has run its course.
The Rabbinate’s resolution regarding IDF conversions, besides transgressing the biblical prohibition of oppressing converts, (reason enough to reject it), clearly demonstrates its complete abnegation of responsibility to Clal Yisrael and the Jewish character of the state. And it shows a preference for a sectarian approach that sees reality through an ultra-Orthodox lens .We have reached an absurd situation in which the state’s own Rabbinate, bowing to the haredi position, is endangering the past achievements and future potential of Israel.
The high degrees of assimilation of the Jewish people in exile means that Am Yisrael is losing thousands of Jews each year. Israel was until recent decades the only place in the world where assimilation was nearly non-existent. Marriage between Jews and gentiles living in Israel, Arabs and Druze, etc. are rare, and Israel was the only place that guaranteed the demographic future of the Jewish people.
As is well known, in the last decade, things have changed. The large immigration from the former Soviet Union included hundreds of thousands of descendants of Jews who themselves are not Jewish according to halacha. They have in an impressive fashion integrated into the army, the economy and Israeli society in general. The stage that should complete their integration into a normative Jewish life is marriage with Israeli Jews.
Our people have never faced a challenge like this, and now is the time to engage in a national campaign to encourage halachic conversion of large segments of this population. This should be a watershed moment for a state Rabbinate, which has the considerations of the entire Jewish people before its eyes.
There are only two options here: One is a sweeping effort towards creating a halachic, friendly and welcoming conversion process based on the large body of lenient opinions articulated in the halachic corpus over generations; this would allow acceptance of many of these immigrants into the Jewish people. The alternative is an unyielding adherence to the most stringent positions in halacha, according to which one may not accept conversions of these immigrants. The price of the second option would be to create thousands of mixed marriages between Jews and gentiles.
There is an accepted principle in Jewish law that, under pressing circumstances, one may rely on a minority opinion. It seems that there could be no greater emergency than the current one. Moreover, there is no need to rely on isolated or obscure opinions, but rather there is ample and prevalent precedent in Jewish law for a more permissive approach to conversions.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who adopt the strict approach are apparently unconcerned about the demographic disaster of assimilation. According to them, intermarriage is a phenomenon only in the secular society, and they can therefore absolve themselves by saying, “It’s not our problem.” However, those who are concerned for the future of Israel as a Jewish state cannot remain indifferent to the present situation developing before our eyes. In only a few years, we will split into two separate peoples. Both will be Israelis, Hebrew speakers and self-identified as Jewish, but only one will be technically and halachically Jewish.
As important as issues such as kashrut, Shabbat and religious observance are, there is currently no more pressing Jewish communal matter than the conversion issue. We must admit that the current Chief Rabbinate, as an institution, has neither the desire nor the ability to cope with this challenge. Unfortunately, it buries its head in the sand and even kowtows to the haredi community, which is ambivalent at best, and antagonistic at worst to the very state the Rabbinate is meant to serve.
Despite the pain and difficulty involved in breaking with this institution that we had great dreams for, I hereby call upon the lay people and the rabbis of the religious Zionist community to say openly what many of us have already felt in our hearts for some time: The Chief Rabbinate has run its course. n
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi.