Mazel tov to Maayan Torah Day School on their 10th anniversary and to Greater Portland Hillel on their 13th anniversary! Both organizations do such an incredible job educating and engaging young Jewish people.
Israel’s Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking ruling on Monday where the State of Israel (through the Interior Ministry) must grant citizenship to Jews who converted to Judaism in Israel under non-Orthodox auspices. This law “closes a loophole” that has existed since 1970 in which a convert outside of Israel under non-Orthodox authority could gain citizenship via the Law of Return. This may spark a dramatic uptick in the country’s religious culture wars and, quite possibly, find the Knesset trying to minimize the role of the court.
The petition to the court started in 2005, but was postponed for more than a decade because the court wanted to give the government time to resolve the matter through legislation. “We refrained from issuing a ruling in order to allow the state to advance legislation on the issue,” wrote Judge Dafna Barak-Erez.
Unaffected by the ruling is the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) controlled state rabbinate's responsibility for life-cycle events. This means non-Orthodox converts will face restrictions. Issues of personal status in Israel, including marriage, divorce, and burial in a Jewish cemetery are controlled by the country’s Chief Rabbinate. Because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox converts as Jews, they have no way to participate in such activities legally in Israel.
This decision does provide some type of a "stamp of approval" for the Reform and Conservative movements. Israel has long refused to fully recognize the institutions of the Reform and Conservative movements in the country. This is rooted in the political power of the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist political parties.
Despite this, the majority of Israelis support recognition of the non-Orthodox movements. There has been a growth in the number of Reform and Conservative synagogues around the country, even without government support. And more and more secular Israelis are studying Jewish texts in non-Orthodox grassroots groups.
This issue is not easy and there are certainly multiple viewpoints. Here are several comments from Israeli leaders on both sides (note how politics enters the fray):
"Israel must have equal rights for all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. We all need to live here together with tolerance and mutual respect."
“The High Court issued a ruling that endangers the Law of Return, which is a foundational pillar of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Only a vote for Likud will ensure a stable right-wing government that will restore sovereignty to the people and the Knesset.”
"We will continue to work towards a pluralistic and egalitarian society that recognizes all streams of Judaism."
“The State of Israel's recognition of conversion [to Judaism] will be determined by the democratically elected representatives of the people, and not jurists.”
"Judaism has many varieties – Israel is the home for all Jews."
“What the Reform and Conservative [movements] term ‘conversion’ is nothing but a falsification of Judaism….”
“As the Nation-State of the Jewish People, anyone who is willing to become a Jew, and convert by any recognized stream, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, must be allowed to gain citizenship."
“We support legislation that will prevent the court from intervening in such matters in the future.”
Several Portland-area rabbis shared their thoughts in this week’s Jewish Review
Sadly, you can feel the political nature of this issue, especially with Israeli elections on March 23. By recognizing for the first-time non-Orthodox conversions done inside Israel, many feel Israel is formally recognizing the Reform and Conservative movements themselves. At the same time, coming just a few weeks before the election, the court ruling promises to become a rallying cry for religious conservatives and liberals alike. Opponents of the court in general, and especially of this ruling, are promising to speedily advance legislation to overturn the justices’ decision.
At stake, too, is Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, much of which identifies with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Perhaps it is too early to tell, but the substance of the ruling does not represent much progress towards genuine religious pluralism any more than it represents much of a threat to the institutional power of the Orthodox rabbinate, let alone to Judaism. While many cheer the Court’s decision, it seems that this has more to do with the ongoing battle over how much power the Supreme Court should have relative to that of the Knesset than it does about pluralism.
As one commentator noted, “If true religious pluralism for the different streams of Judaism is to come to Israel – and that is a cause both just and necessary to promote unity between Israel and the Diaspora – it cannot be imposed solely by the courts or by the pleas of Diaspora communities. In order for that day to come, it must, instead, be a product of the democratic will of the Israeli people.” It is Israel's voters who will determine what control the Haredi rabbis will have on religious and cultural affairs while retaining Judaism's special place in the laws of the Jewish state.
More to come.