Sunday, June 8, 2008

Conversion crisis reflects fundamental changes in Religious Zionism

Haaretz has a thought provoking article by Avirama Golan

This Shavuot will find N. preoccupied and anguished. N., a young woman born in Switzerland, visited her local rabbinate a few weeks ago to register to get married and suddenly discovered she was not qualified to do so. All lobbying efforts were of no avail, including those waged by senior Orthodox rabbis. When she handed in her parents' ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), as requested by the dayanim (religious court judges), their eyes gravitated immediately to her mother's name, Bat Avraham Avinu, "daughter of our father, Abraham" - a code for "convert." The rabbinical court refused to register her, the validity of her mother's conversion was questioned, and N. was sent back to the drawing board. There is simply no one to talk to about it.

N. is humiliated and shocked. Her grandmother, the daughter of a well-to-do Christian family, married a Jewish refugee who fled from Eastern Europe to Switzerland, and paid a heavy price for it. Her grandfather, who became a successful businessman, dedicated his life to Zionist activities and to helping the State of Israel. N.'s mother was raised Jewish.


N.'s experiences constitute a mere corollary to the events of the last few weeks. The rabbinical court in Jerusalem retroactively canceled the conversion of a married woman with children, thus nullifying her marriage and the Jewish status of her children as well. In the course of these proceedings, one of the leading rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, Rabbi Haim Druckman, who was involved in the case, was treated like one of the worst enemies of Judaism by the court. This once again illustrates the change that has taken place in the religious Zionist movement as a whole and among its leadership in particular.

The public did not fully understand the rabbinical court's ruling and its bitter outcome. The media hype focused almost entirely on the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court judges' "hazing" of Druckman; in the end, it seemed he had been dismissed from his position as head of the Conversion Administration. Between this media uproar and the facts there is a substantial gap. In any event, Druckman was nearing retirement age. The Civil Service Commission, following the state comptroller's harsh report, sent home several other senior conversion officials. Druckman was not among them.

The current Conversion Administration, which was hastily created by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon with the goal of bypassing ultra-Orthodox bureaucracy, suffered from its inception from internal power struggles, external pressures and efforts to delegitimize its decisions. In retrospect, it was clear also to the sworn supporters of Druckman (who is an educator, but not an authorized dayan - a halakhic conundrum that was resolved only in part with the approval of the chief rabbis and which was never accepted by the ultra-Orthodox establishment), that the idea of an administration that is separate from the rabbinical establishment is totally flawed. Its existence was a permanent subject of dispute, and the idea that conversions would be overturned and that over 1,000 converts would turn into Jews with questionable status constantly hovered above it.

Differences of opinion

The differences of opinion on conversion between the different streams of Orthodoxy (ultra-Orthodox and hardalim - a combination of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist) are very clear-cut, and focus on the legal and halakhic (i.e., relating to traditional Jewish law) question of whether a person who will not maintain a religious lifestyle can even be converted. This is similar, for example, to the question of whether it is permissible to marry a couple that will clearly not observe the laws of family purity, or to mourn someone who violates the Sabbath. These are serious halakhic questions, the answers to which are definitive and well reasoned.

The ruling of Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who was responsible for revoking the conversions in Jerusalem, answers this question unequivocally: As far as halakha goes, a person who tries to convert despite the fact that it is known (or even suspected) that he will not observe the mitzvot, will not be converted. The phrase "converts are as problematic for Israel as psoriasis," was never so fitting.

Sherman argued, based on detailed halakhic arguments, that anyone who converts such people is tainted by sin, and even went so far as to annul the ruling of the former head of the Tel Aviv rabbinical court, Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky (who was always attacked for his enlightened positions), who ruled several years ago in a similar case that the rabbinical court is not authorized to annul a conversion executed by a special court. This matter will be presented soon before the High Court of Justice, but the dispute between those who want to protect the threshold of halakha and those who seek leniency for social-nationalist reasons, will remain in force.

Ever since the advent of religious Zionism, creative solutions have been found to social-national-halakhic disputes. Today there is no chance of that happening. Among the religious Zionists, not a single respected rabbi today would dare express what many conversion court judges would be willing to accept - that the vital need to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants, not the ultra-Orthodox viewpoint, is the determining factor in the process, and that society and the nation are more important than the intricate, fine points of halakha.

Authorities ranging from the Tzohar rabbis (a young modern Orthodox organization of rabbis) to Israel's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar know that conversion can turn into a sweeping national-social means to ensure the acceptance of thousands of people, all of whom tremble before the wrath of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who heads the Lithuanian sect of Israel's Haredi society. They explain their evasiveness by claiming that only a few thousand individuals want to convert, and many get married in Cyprus or don't get married at all, as if they did not know that this is not the cause but the result, whose main victims are those who observe tradition.

The Zionist rabbis have always tried to walk a fine line and upset the "blacks" - ultra-Orthodox - as little as possible, but there were times when leaders of great stature dared to breach the limits of halakha for the sake of social and nationalist values. What a difference from the Hardali rabbis of today, who speak out mostly on issues relating to modesty (or the "wickedness" of the state), and from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who told the pioneers of Merhavia in 1913 that he came "not to influence, but to be influenced," and danced in a circle with them dressed in pioneers' clothes. Or, take, for that matter, the former chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, who explained his decision to absolve the status of a brother and a sister who are considered mamzerim (bastards) according to halakha, saying that the "commandment to settle the Land of Israel is as important as conversion."

Back to Haredi basics

The ultra-Orthodox Sherman, well aware of the tension between the needs of society, the nation and Jewish law, waved a red flag before the nationalist religious rabbis in ruling that halakha overrode any other circumstance - but they responded with silence. Their silence does not stem from a weak capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox. It is the reflection of a process that goes much deeper and is far more serious.

The concept of the Greater Land of Israel as a central theme is gradually losing steam. The settlements are indeed still standing, but the Israeli public's attitude toward them has changed. The connection, which for a dramatic and limited period of time seemed so enchanting, between religion and the nation and between messianic faith and the state, which attracted many ultra-Orthodox to the cause, was abruptly torn apart during the disengagement. The disengagement is not the cause. It just provided a signal to mark the peak of the ongoing process, which was accelerated following the Oslo Accords and the Rabin assassination, but started even before, as rabbis, guides and educators preferred to withdraw to ultra-Orthodox values and gradually abandon the official state.

Now it seems that the circle, which evolved some 100 years ago when a handful of rabbis bravely joined the inherently secular Zionist movement, is gradually being closed. A substantial proportion of religious Zionists have been absorbed back into ultra-Orthodoxy, even if the latter is not receiving them with open arms. The almost exclusive narrative of religious Zionism concerns a spiritual return to Zion - not pragmatic political nationalism - and prominent rabbis are reverting back to the Diaspora conception that places halakha above any other principle, and primarily above society.

In this process, conversion has become a symbol. It holds the key to the gate to the Jewish people and/or Israeli society, and it pits the social-national agenda against halakha, Israeliness against the Judaism that favors "a nation that dwells alone," and the choice of forming a civil society dwelling on its land against the old longing for an existence outside history and time.

The annulment of the conversion and the denunciation of Druckman revealed a gap that is hard to breach among the religious Zionist public, and optimists hope that some kind of change for the better will emerge from it. However, it seems that the religious and secular majority, Jewish and non-Jewish, is incapable of and uninterested in waging the fight to wrest power from rabbinical tyrants.

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