Jerusalem — Legitimacy, long sought here by the Reform and Conservative rabbinate, was denied again this week by the Orthodox chief rabbinate, but advanced by the state — leaving the door ajar for a resolution to the religious wars.
Despite the chief rabbinate’s strong disapproval of a key element of the Neeman Committee proposal on conversion, two-thirds of the Knesset is expected to endorse the plan this week.
The plan calls for the establishment of conversion schools, run by the Jewish Agency, with the participation of the three major streams of Judaism.
The chief rabbinate said in a statement Monday that it would not cooperate with the commission’s plan to establish conversion schools — even though it was never asked about such schools. But it did agree to the commission’s request to create special conversion courts to handle the expected influx of conversion candidates from the schools.
The statement by the chief rabbis, the focus of intense discussion and debate, included a harsh swipe at the liberal movements as well as a subtle indication that the Orthodox leaders would take a more moderate stand on potential converts.
Not surprisingly, then, the Reform and Conservative movements claimed the chief rabbinate had “declared war” on them, while government and Orthodox officials encouraged the leaders of those branches to ignore the insult and move the Neeman recommendations forward through the Knesset.
Citing the chief rabbinate’s statement that “there can be no cooperation” with those “who try to shake the foundation of the Jewish religion,” the liberal branches said the chief rabbinate had “closed the door of dialogue and cooperation among the streams of Judaism. … In taking this step, the chief rabbinate endangers splitting the Jewish people.”
As a result, the Reform and Conservative movements have resumed their quest for an order from Israel’s top court requiring the state to accept conversions performed by their members. But Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, who chaired the committee, and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opted to view the chief rabbinate’s response in a positive light, saying the chief rabbis agreed to do exactly what they were asked — create new conversion courts.
Not only did government leaders ignore the chief rabbis’ rebuke of the Reform and Conservative movements but Netanyahu, anxious to avoid splits within his coalition as well as between Israeli and diaspora Jewry, praised the chief rabbis. He described their statement as one “which advances Jewish consensus in the Jewish people and in the State of Israel.”
“It’s not dead yet,” Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown, said of the Neeman Committee recommendations. “We still believe it is the best solution.”
Brown said the cabinet would be asked to endorse the recommendations on Sunday. Neeman told a public forum Tuesday evening that he expected 80 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset to sign a resolution endorsing the proposals. Seventy members, including Netanyahu, already have signed on.
In effect, Neeman is pleading that the chief rabbis’ negative comments, including a specific reference forbidding any cooperation with the liberal branches, be ignored.
“You have to seek the positive in [the chief rabbinate’s action],” Neeman said. “I want the Knesset to accept these proposals. … [The joint conversion school] is not within the authority of the chief rabbinate. It wasn’t asked about it and didn’t give an answer about it.”
In fact, the chief rabbinate said that although it did not believe in the principle of conversion schools, it would judge each applicant individually without regard to where he or she studied for conversion.
It was not clear how the government expected to carry out the Neeman proposals, however, because Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israeli Religious Action Center and a member of the Neeman Committee, said the chief rabbinate had taken the proposals off the board by its refusal to accept a joint conversion school.
Rabbi Regev noted that Tuesday evening the chief Askenazic rabbi, Yisrael Lau, had said Conservative and Reform rabbis mislead the masses and fraudulently claimed to be rabbis. Rabbi Lau rejected any cooperation.
“If they imagine that they can meet together in the teachers’ room of some institute and that will bring Jewish unity, while they continue to defraud the public, they are mistaken,” said Rabbi Lau, sounding less than conciliatory.
“The idea behind [the proposal] was to create a forum of mutual respect and cooperation,” said Rabbi Regev. “We agreed that the only [conversions] in Israel would be those performed by the Orthodox. But there has to be a give and take.”
Asked about Neeman and Brown’s disregard of the chief rabbinate’s rejection of joint conversion schools because they are not within its purview, Rabbi Regev said: “One cannot claim that religious life is under the authority of the chief rabbinate and at the same time claim [that authority] doesn’t exist.”
But Knesset member Alex Lubotzky, who from the outset has been deeply involved in the work of the Neeman Committee, told The Jewish Week that despite the friction, “This is a moment of optimism.” He said that the Knesset will go forward with the Neeman proposals and that Conservative and Reform leaders should put aside the chief rabbis’ insults and focus on future efforts to resolve the longstanding conflict over religious freedom and identity in Israel.
But Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the Conservative representative on the Neeman Committee, said this was “a sad day for the Jewish people” because despite its good intentions, “the Knesset does not issue rabbinic conversions and cannot replace the real partners, the rabbinic courts.”
And so it went throughout the week, as Jewish leaders responded to the chief rabbis’ statement positively or negatively, depending on their own point of view.
The conflict was the subject of lively discussions among the 88 rabbis at the annual State of Israel Bonds Rabbinic Conference here. A half-dozen Reform, 24 Orthodox and 58 Conservative American rabbis attended the conference, to which The Jewish Week was invited.
The conversion issue was the subject of an often heated panel discussion and was the first question posed to Netanyahu when he addressed the group. The prime minister said he supported the commission’s proposals. Natan Sharansky, the minister of industry and trade, told the rabbis it would be “unforgivable if we lose this opportunity” to resolve the problem.
“We are not only building a state but the Jewish nation after years of Jewish exile,” he said, adding that “it is very important that all Jews feel connected to the State of Israel.”
President Ezer Weizman told the rabbis that if the conversion issue is not solved, “we are in trouble.” He said the issue did not surface here until a few years ago and that it was imported from the United States.
“It is your problem that it started and now we have to solve it,” he said.
The rabbis themselves expressed a variety of views on the subject.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” said Rabbi Edward Maline, a Reform rabbi from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of the chief rabbinate’s statement. “It’s a shameful act when any group abrogates to itself the power to rule out [others] from the Jewish community.”
Marvin Sugarman, an Orthodox rabbi from Valley Villas, Calif., acknowledged that the Reform and Conservative rabbinates are disenfranchised in Israel and argued that they should be because “love requires commitment, and they have not committed themselves to following mitzvot.”
But another Orthodox rabbi, Pesach Levovitz of Lakewood, N.J., said he supported the commission’s proposals and agreed with Neeman that they could still be implemented. He said the chief rabbis’ “political zing” was irrelevant.
“They did what they were asked to do. I think it’s great,” he said.
A Conservative rabbi from Elkins Park, Pa., Aaron Landes, expressed similar regret over the decision of the chief rabbinate as well as the outcry of the Reform and Conservative rabbinic leaders.
“I think they jumped the gun,” he said of the non-Orthodox rabbis, suggesting that the chief rabbinate’s decision not to explicitly close the door on all conversion applicants from a joint school left room for the commission’s proposal to work.
Rabbi Landes noted that some liberal Orthodox government officials hoped to have input in the selection of the rabbis for the new rabbinical courts to help ensure that a liberal approach to the conversionary process was followed.
Rabbi Landes said it would be regrettable if this “historic opportunity to standardize the halacha of conversion in Israel” was lost because it could have paved the way to the standardization of marriages, divorce and other rituals. He said the chief rabbinate agreed to do what was asked of it and suggested that its rebuke of the non-Orthodox was just to protect itself from criticism from the haredi right.
Rabbi Solom Stern, a Conservative rabbi from Woodmere, L.I., said the latest actions demonstrated that the “non-Orthodox world fails to comprehend what the Orthodox world is all about … [and the] Orthodox fail to grasp the real spiritual yearnings [of the non-Orthodox]. Ultimately, the only real answer has to be a greater influx of Conservative and Reform Jews here who don’t share the orientation of the chief rabbinate.
“Without that, it is very difficult for a minority to influence those with power.”
Bruce Ginsburg, a Conservative rabbi in Woodmere, L.I., said he believed the entire issue had been blown out of proportion and was “unnecessarily undercutting American Jewish support for the State of Israel,” which he viewed as “tragic.”
Rabbi Ginsburg, president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, said he is urging his colleagues to convey to their congregants “the greater importance of Israel’s strength in the search for peace and to put the question of pluralism in Israel into a more modest perspective.”
But Allan Blaine, a Conservative rabbi from Rockaway Park, Queens, said he feared the long-range consequences of the pluralism split will be “more divisive and destructive” because now “instead of working with the chief rabbinate, we will be working through the courts” to secure the right of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions recognized by the state.