In this month’s Israel Insight, I would like to take a break from the Intifada and related controversies (I wish that Israel could do so too!) and relate to one of Israel’s long-term problems: conversion, intermarriage and “who is a Jew?”. I relate to this issue not as an objective observer, but as someone who has been actively involved for three years in trying to solve this problem. This problem has two different aspects, which sometimes lead in opposite directions.
1) The Masorti/Conservative Dilemma:
Until the early 1990s, Conservative/Masorti rabbis in Israel did not perform conversions. This was not because it was illegal – the law was and is ambiguous – but because the Masorti Movement was very small and did not want to “take on” the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. In 1989, the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly decided to start performing conversions. This was because more and more people asked us to convert them because they were turned away or turned off by the Rabbinate or because they simply were attracted by Masorti Judaism. The Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly turned to the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) which I chair, and Rabbi Theodore Friedman z”l wrote a responsum in which he explained the halakhic parameters of conversion (Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah, Vol. 3, pp. 59-68). Then a Bet Din was set up with Rabbi Friedman as Av Bet Din followed by Rabbi Pesach Schindler and Rabbi Reuven Hammer and since then, hundreds of conversions have been performed. Nevertheless, the Ministry of the Interior refused to recognize Masorti (and Reform) conversions performed in Israel, which meant that hundreds of converts converted by our Bet Din according to halakhah were not recognized as Jews by the State of Israel.
This issue reached the Supreme Court in November 1995, which ruled that a Reform convert does not need authorization from the Chief Rabbinate in order to be registered as a Jew by the Interior Ministry. But instead of forcing the Interior Ministry to register the woman in question as a Jew, the Supreme Court threw the issue back at the Knesset. In October 1996 and March 1997, the Orthodox parties tried to pass two different laws, which would clearly outlaw Masorti and Reform conversions. Thanks to heavy pressure from North American Jewry, Prime Minster Netanyahu did not go along with the Orthodox initiatives. He, rather, set up the Ne’eman Commission which met between June 1997 and January 1998 and was composed of representatives of all three movements – which was, in and of itself, an historic breakthrough. (I testified before the Commission in July 1997 along with Prof. Ismar Schorsch and I felt that we were participating in an historic event.) The Ne’eman Commission recommended that a Joint Institute of Jewish Studies be set up by all three streams, but that the actual conversion be performed by the Chief Rabbinate. This recommendation was officially rejected by the Chief Rabbinate, but was soundly endorsed by 80 members of Knesset in February 1998. The Joint Institute of Jewish Studies was set up in May 1998 and I have served since its inception as one of the Conservative representatives along with Rabbi Reuven Hammer.
The Ne’eman Commission did not solve the problem of non-recognition of Masorti and Reform conversions in Israel. Both movements continue to perform their own conversions and their separate cases are still pending before the Supreme Court. But the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies is of historic importance. For the first time, a group of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and educators has begun to solve one of Israel’s greatest social and religious problems – the conversion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who made aliyah under the Law of Return, yet are not halakhically Jewish.
2) The Russian Immigrant Dilemma:
One) Beween 1991-2000, 785,000 people from the Former Soviet Union made aliyah to Israel and became citizens under the Law of Return, which allows spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah, even though they may not be Jewish according to halakhah. Experts estimate that 215,000-250,000 of these immigrants are not halakhically Jewish.
Two) In the early nineties, 10% of the immigrants were not halakhically Jewish; today over 50% are not halakhically Jewish.
Three) It is estimated that 80% of the young people currently in the Jewish Agency programs in the FSU are not halakhically Jewish.
Four) Between 1996-1999 only about 6,000 Russian immigrants converted, an average of about 1,500 a year.
Five) The result has been a growing number of intermarriages. Twenty percent of the young couples getting married today do so outside of the Chief Rabbinate and in many cases the husband or the wife or both are Russian immigrants who are not halakhically Jewish.
What is the solution?
Minister of Justice Dr. Yossi Beilin has suggested a “secular conversion” process, not according to Jewish law, while Rabbi Uri Regev of the Reform Movement in Israel has suggested adopting patrilineal descent, following the Reform decision in North America in 1983. As a Conservative rabbi, I am opposed to these solutions both because they contradict 2,000 years of Jewish law and tradition and because they will solve nothing. The Russian immigrants need to be converted in such a way that all Israelis will consider them Jewish, so that they can become full citizens in every respect and not cause thousands of cases of intermarriage.
A Five-Point Plan
Therefore, in light of the facts presented above, I propose a five-point plan:
1) Israel needs to emend the Law of Return. Paragraph 4a, which was added in 1970, says that grandchildren of Jews are considered Jewish under the Law of Return, even if both their parents are not Jewish. In 1990, 1.2% of the immigrants fit that category; today over 10% of the immigrants fit that category.
2) The Jewish Agency in the FSU must change its policy. It must stop looking for people who are “Jewish” under the Law of Return in order to fill immigration quotas.
3) The Joint Institute of Jewish Studies should teach Judaica in the FSU automatically to all potential immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish, so that they make aliyah after at least one hundred hours of Jewish studies.
4) There are now over 100 classes in Israel of the Joint Institute (up from five last June!). Every immigrant from the FSU should automatically study in the Joint Institute as part of the ulpan/absorption process. In that way, every immigrant from the FSU will have studied 400 hours of Jewish studies, regardless of whether they need to convert.
5) Finally, the special rabbinic courts for conversion should continue to follow the lenient halakhic approach to conversion and acceptance of the commandments, which is very similar to the Masorti approach.
If these steps are taken, we will be able to convert tens of thousands of immigrants within a few years. If not, the number of non-Jews and intermarriages in the State of Israel will continue to grow.
The first half of this article is based primarily on my own personal experience. The second half is based on Moment, April 1997, p. 48 ff.; The Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2000, p. B6; Aviad Hacohen, Meimad, No. 19, April 2000, pp. 4-7; Ha’aretz, Dec. 24, 2000, pp. A1 and 7; The Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2001, p. 4; The Jewish Week, New York, January 19, 2001; The Jerusalem Report, January 29, 2001, pp. 26-29.[/vc_column_text]