Maybe some Orthodox Jews are feeling “triumphalist” these days, with their high birthrates, high degrees of Jewish literacy and low assimilation rates, but to read the papers lately is to see Orthodoxy as a Palooka getting pummeled in a Pier 6 brawl. Between Chelsea Clinton’s intermarriage and the shelved conversion bill in Israel, the Orthodox are certainly getting the worst of it.
The Orthodox rabbis in Israel, favoring legislation institutionalizing the classic standards of conversion to Judaism, have been widely described as “fundamentalists,” “extremists,” “ultra-Orthodox, ” “militant” and “aggressive.”
In one opinion piece by Alana Newhouse in The New York Times (July 15), we’re told that the bill’s advocates are “demonstrably corrupt,” advocating something with “harrowing” implications, that “will destroy religious life in Israel,” let alone “threatening to sever the vital connection” between Israel and American Jews.
There were no balancing op-eds in the Times from even one person who supported the legislation.
Rabbi Mark S. Golub, the non-haredi president of Shalom TV, and a veteran of Newsweek’s “Top 50 Influential Rabbis” list, declared (July 27) that the campaign against the bill “overstated the threat the bill posed to non-Orthodox American Jewry and unnecessarily angered large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which actually does not address them at all. The Anglo Jewish media joined in the chorus warning of dire consequences were the bill to become law, while failing to separate fact from hysteria for their readers.”
Golub, a Reform rabbi, said the Newhouse piece “announced to all America” that the bill was “telling 85 percent” of the diaspora “that their rabbis weren’t rabbis, their religious practices were a sham, [their] conversions were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews. In point of fact, the Rotem Conversion Bill says nothing of the kind.” Nevertheless, in most American media, to slander the bill was to be enlightened; to support it was to be extreme.
A Google search of “Israel conversion extreme fundamentalist” delivered 1,350,000 links.
And what of Rabbi James Ponet? He officiated on Shabbat with a Methodist minister at Chelsea Clinton’s intermarriage. Is that “ultra” or “extreme?”
A Google search of “Rabbi James Ponet,” along with “ultra” or “extreme” produced only six links. He’s not extreme; he’s Reform. The nerve of Israel’s chief rabbinate not to trust Rabbi Ponet with conversions.
Even at “On Faith,” the online Washington Post site for the discussion of religion, Sally Quinn founder of the site, said intermarriage makes her “hopeful.” It produces children who “grow up open-minded … respecting of people of all or no faiths rather than narrow their perspectives.”
One of the “On Faith” contributors, Rabbi David Wolpe, couldn’t help but say a kind word for being “narrow.”
“Intermarriage is a serious threat to Jewish survival,” writes Rabbi Wolpe. “We are a vanishingly small people.” A home where the mother is not Jewish, as Clinton is not, “is even more likely to result in children who do not identify as Jews.”
Yes, says Rabbi Wolpe, “Love vaults over boundaries and that is often both beautiful and compelling. Much can be lost along the way however, and it is difficult to keep both the integrity of a tradition and its universal messages. As with all great blessings, the blessings of America exact a considerable cost.”
Danielle Berrin, in L.A.’s Jewish Journal (Aug. 1) said there will be those “disappointed” by Clinton and Mezvinsky “for refusing to choose,” and presenting religious inconsistencies. “Well,” says Berrin, “we don’t live in a black-and-white world.” The critics are “silly and shortsighted. It is precisely the kind of all-or-nothing extremism that has fueled religious fundamentalism in Israel…. Chelsea Clinton may not be halachically (legally) Jewish, but then, who is?”
“Who is” — along with the “extremism” name-calling — brings us back to Israel’s conversion bill. Why doesn’t the Knesset seem to want to trust the Rabbi Ponets and Danielle Berrins of American Jewry with matters of Jewish identity?
If American liberal Jews increasingly want to give Israel “tough love” politically, Israelis increasingly aren’t afraid to give “tough love” back to American Jews, religiously.
In the liberal Haaretz (July 27), Israel Harel notes that opposition to the bill “has been joined by some who take a positive view of mixed marriage and of the secularization and de-Zionization of Israel.” He says you can’t make Israelis make religious choices they don’t want to make. There are “fewer than 100 congregations in Israel that describe themselves as Reform or Conservative,” writes Harel, “and most are small; compare that to thousands of active and growing Orthodox congregations.”
Harel adds, “The bill’s opponents are concealing the fact that it would not revoke Israel’s recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad. The only split in the Jewish people is thus the one carried out daily by those who split off from it. The hundreds of thousands of people who have turned away from Judaism did so irrespective of the admitted difficulties of converting in Israel, and this will hold for those who desert in the future, too.”
Israelis don’t think Reform and Conservative Jews will be around much longer. In Yediot (July 27), Aliza Lavi writes that the Clinton intermarriage illuminates a “new era where large parts of the young generation of U.S. Jews are no longer with us.” This is “a reality that threatens us all, both religious and seculars…. [The] cocktail of mixed marriages and declining attachment to Israel” is leading to a situation where “within a generation or two we’ll mostly be left with members of the Orthodox and haredi communities.”
In the end, writes Rabbi Golub of Shalom TV, the misinformation campaign “to generate American opposition to the Rotem Conversion Bill in Israel was remarkably successful.”
Shmuel Rosner, in his Jerusalem Post blog, agreed (July 14): “I know that progressive Jews around the U.S. are furious … Their anger has made a difference … In fact, progressive leaders should thank [the sponsors of the bill] for providing them with the rare opportunity of actually winning a battle against the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. In some bizarre way, they might want to consider this week as good one.”