The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a longtime leader of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate here, is only the most recent and flagrant example of a dysfunctional religious bureaucracy in Jerusalem causing personal pain to sincere, would-be converts and dishonoring rabbis as it widens the gap between diaspora and Israeli Jews.
Until now much of the criticism has been leveled at the increasingly fundamentalist approach of the Chief Rabbinate, which has sought to protect and raise the standards for conversion rather than find ways within Jewish law to embrace those who would join the Jewish people. Most pointedly, there are hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israeli citizens who would prefer to become Jews but are intimidated by the insistence on full observance of every mitzvah. Unless and until a more accepting halachic approach is allowed, they and their offspring will remain in a kind of limbo, fully Israeli but apart from Judaism. It is a situation that is not only morally troubling but could lead to an existential threat, deeply dividing a small society.
For all the talk of lists of approved rabbis that the Chief Rabbinate refers to in determining who can perform a kosher conversion, the fact is that no such authentic list exists. Instead, decisions that impact on the personal lives of men and women seeking to live fully Jewish lives and on the reputation of respected Orthodox rabbis are made randomly, casually and cavalierly.
Yet for all of our complaints against the Chief Rabbinate, it is clear that the situation will not improve unless and until the government steps in. Rabbi Seth Farber, whose nonprofit organization Itim has helped lead the effort to revamp and revitalize the religious bureaucracy, noted in an Opinion essay (see page 19): “If Israel really sees its role as the homeland for the Jewish people, then it is Israel’s government, not Israel’s rabbinate, that must take responsibility.”
Israeli politicians may express empathy for the plight of converts, but, bottom line, they calculate that diaspora Jews don’t vote for Knesset members, so why support calls to change the system? They also know that American Jews who identify with Israel will never stop supporting the Jewish state. So we are, in effect, held hostage by our loyalty.
But Israeli leaders should be aware that times are changing. Devotion to Israel among younger American Jews is no longer a given. If Jerusalem really cares about Klal Yisrael and Jewish Peoplehood, it needs to take action before it is too late.