There will never be a “religious” solution to the bitter “Who is a Jew” issue in Israel — despite intense pressure from the White House. But there still could be a “technical solution.”
That’s the undiluted opinion of Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, leader of Israel’s Orthodox right-wing United Torah Judaism party, which holds four seats in the Knesset.
“I really don’t think there is a [religious] solution,” declared Rabbi Ravitz, the Knesset’s finance committee chairman, during a New York visit last week. “I don’t see how there can ever be,” explaining that a religious man in Israel cannot accept any approach to Judaism other than Orthodox.
Rabbi Ravitz, 64, said Israel’s Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, whom he called “a good friend,” made a terrible mistake in believing that Orthodox powers in Israel would accept the compromise proposal of a joint conversion school to include teachers and conversion candidates from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
Ravitz said he could not accept the joint school claiming that it would lead to “a mixed-up gentile.”
“A religious man can’t teach in a school like this,” Rabbi Ravitz explained.
He described an untenable situation in which an Orthodox teacher would teach a ‘gentile about the unalterable Torah law and commandments one day, and a Reform teacher coming the next day “telling the candidate that you can be a good Jew by being a humanistic person and you don’t have to follow the mitzvot because the [Reform] rabbi himself doesn’t keep them.”
But Rabbi Marc Schneier, the Orthodox president of the inter-denominational New York Board of Rabbis, said Rabbi Ravitz is wrong about the possibilities of cooperation.
“In point of fact Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic in Israel, and for him to make a blanket statement that no Orthodox can work with Reform and Conservative is simply wrong,” said Rabbi Schneier, who noted that 250 Orthodox rabbis work with their colleagues at the board. “He [Ravitz] may be speaking for his followers but he is clearly not speaking for all Orthodox Jews. I would like to invite him to come to our board to see how effectively rabbis from all streams can work together on a host of issues.”
Rabbi Ravitz accused the White House of leveling intense pressure on Israel to solve the conversion issue. He said the pressure from the Clinton administration has been greater on this issue than that to resolve the peace process.
When asked if it came from President Clinton, Rabbi Ravitz said diplomatically “those around the president.”
He said these White House officials are not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between supporting democracy and opposing pluralism.
He said it was wrong to charge Israel with being against freedom of religion. To illustrate, he noted that “there are eight types of churches in Israel and they are all recognized.
While blaming American Jews for making the conversion situation into a crisis, Rabbi Ravitz said he was a realist politician and would not oppose an unfavorable “technical solution” rather than bring down the Israeli government, as some other ultra-Orthodox political parties have been threatening.
But the 64-year-old father of 12 said he would “not fight against” a potential parliamentary proposal to remove the listing of nationality from citizen identity cards.
In this scenario, the Knesset would approve the removal of the word Jewish from identity cards. Personal information about religion would be private and held by the Interior Ministry.
“As a politician I have to choose the less bad solution,” he said.
Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, predicted that some form this technical solution would ultimately win the day in Israel.
He said this technical solution would have the government formally recognize Conservative and Reform converts in Israel.
But the chief rabbinate would not recognize the non-Orthodox converts for purposes of marriage and burial, which Rabbi Hirsch says leaves a major problem for the future.
Regarding the Iraqi crisis, Rabbi Ravitz called Saddam Hussein a dictator who is only interested in himself.
Rabbi Ravitz said preparing for an Iraqi conflict has already cost Israel a half billion shekels out of its reserve funds, and he expects another half billion shekels expended to protect all Israelis, foreign workers and students before it is over.