Israel's Jewish question

Israelis pray at the Western Wall, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 5770, in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 18, 2009. During Rosh Hashana Jews examine their deeds from the past year and pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. UPI/Debbie Hill Photo via Newscom

There have been a lot of stories in the past week about the conversion bill that was steamrolling through the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, before being tabled for the next few months. Few prospective laws in the Middle East draw much attention, but this one did, largely because of it's potential consequences for American Jews and future American Jews. What is at stake, as David Horovitz, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, wrote, is the very connection between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora -- a very, very, very important relationship for American Jews, and an even more important one for Israelis.

What we are facing is an explosive global crisis over Jewish identity -- a huge, snow-balling disaster that is ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations.

I'm not to keen on doing a general survey of all this coverage. Instead, I'd like to compare two stories from two publications that really should get this story right. One is from the paper of record for Los Angeles' Jewish community; the other is just from the paper of record.

First the story from The New York Times:

The bill that so angered American Jewish leaders was actually aimed at making conversion easier for the 300,000 Israelis among the 1 million who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Those Israelis are not, by Orthodox rabbinic law, considered Jewish because they come from mixed parentage. The law would have tried to make conversion easier by granting conversion powers to local rabbis across the country, a group considered closer to their communities.

But after objections from the ultra-Orthodox, the bill formally placed authority for conversion in the hands of the chief rabbinate and declared Orthodox Jewish law to be the basis of conversion, making Americans fear that their more lenient conversion processes would be invalidated. ...

Rabbi David Schuck of the Pelham Jewish Center in Westchester County, N.Y., said of the religious conversion bill, "It spits in the face of Diaspora Jews in particular, and if passed, it would be an acquiescence of the majority of Israeli Jews to a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism."

That's easy enough to understand, and the NYT's Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner does well to close this context-filled story with the aforementioned comment from the JPost's Horovitz. Bronner also mentions something that I've noted before when discussing issues of Jewish identity and that unresolvable question:

The question of "who is a Jew?" is as old as the state of Israel. The more liberal forms of Jewish practice advocated by the Reform and Conservative movements, with which most American Jews are affiliated, have never taken root here. Israel has left liturgy in the hands of the Orthodox, with most Israeli Jews leading almost completely secular lives, seeking out rabbis only at birth, marriage and death.

I've spent eight days in Israel, and it doesn't even take that long to recognize how secular most of Israel is. (Remember that story about long beards and black hats?) But Bronner, who had a son in the IDF, has been there much longer, and it shows in this story.

Now let's see how handicapped Jonah Lowenfeld, my replacement at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, for which I write The God Blog, was by being stuck stateside. After leding with the "who is a Jew?" question, Lowenfeld wrote in this past week's cover story, "The Israeli Conversion Bill: What it means and why everyone's so mad":

There is much confusion about what the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Amendment — Jurisdiction Regarding Conversions) Bill, 5770-2010 does and does not say. Some observers wonder what -- if any -- practical impact it would have if passed. ...

Few people can say exactly what the Rotem bill will do. "If you were to read a translation, it would be baffling," said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO and president of the Israeli educational and advocacy organization Hiddush, which is dedicated to "Freedom of Religion and Equality." According to Regev, Rotem's three-page bill claims to accomplish two things: "One, to provide greater availability of conversion venues for the new immigrants -- namely authorizing more rabbis, and among them hopefully some lenient rabbis to do conversions." The bill's other stated aim, Regev said, is to address "the phenomenon of rabbinic courts that hold that Orthodox conversions are null and void." ...

Nobody knows what will happen if the bill passes. The former Soviet Union olim are "clearly not particularly religious," Regev said, "and clearly not going to be particularly adherent to mitzvot," which would make it unlikely that they would convert within the rabbinate's Orthodox framework. "Fewer and fewer immigrants are interested in conversion," Regev said, "on two counts: One, they realize what kind of hoops they will have to go through." Also, "They realize that it's really a conditional status," Regev said of the status of even Orthodox converts in Israel today -- one that can be revoked at any time. Secondly, "They realize that life really isn't impossible for them without conversion," Regev said. "They have become accustomed to living their lives without going through conversions."

Lowenfeld's story is much longer than Bronner's, but captures less of the dynamic in Israel. It was also hamstrung by an earlier deadline that predated the tabling of the bill. Lowenfeld did, however, offer more perspectives from the American Jewish community, nationally and in Los Angeles, and captured the most important aspect of this bill:


No one really knows what this bill would mean, particularly for American Jews who have gone through the more lax conversion processes of Conservative, Reform and other non-traditional strains of Judaism.

I guess we may find out if the conversion bill is resurrected in 2011.

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