American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew — especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel — but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But — there’s always a but — it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate — the religious establishment — is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:

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The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.

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Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:

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Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.

Praying for conversion is fine, Jewish scholar says

Here’s another Jewish view on whether Catholics — in a revised version of their Latin Good Friday liturgy — should pray for the conversion of Jews.

neusner_jacob.jpgOf course they can, writes Jacob Neusner, professor of history and theology of Judaism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson (and, already, a favorite theologian of Pope Benedict XVI).

He notes that there is a daily Jewish prayer for the conversion of gentiles.

Neusner writes in The Forward:

The text is uniform in the worship of Judaism. In it Israel — the holy people, not to be confused with the State of Israel — thanks God for not making the holy people like the other nations. In worship, holy Israel asks that the world be perfected when all mankind calls upon God’s name and knows that to God, every knee must bow.

The text of the prayer reads, “It is our duty to praise the Lord of all things.” It offers thanks to God for giving Israel its own “portion,” its own destiny and lot in life, and making it different from the other nations of the world. God is asked to remove “the abominations from the earth” when the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty.

This prayer for the conversion of “all the wicked of the earth,” who are “all the inhabitants of the world,” is recited in normative Judaism not once a year, but every day.

Normative Judaism, it can reasonably be argued, asks God to enlighten the nations and bring them into his kingdom. As if to underscore this aspiration, the prayer “It is our duty” is followed by the Kaddish: “May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time.” I do not see how in spirit or in intent these prayers differ from the Tridentine Mass.

Conversion popular — but not always easy

Americans love to switch faiths.

The new Pew Forum study shows that 28% have left the faith of their childhood (and if you count switching brands of Protestantism, the percentage soars to 44).

But for the small numbers who convert to Judaism, well, things sure get complicated.

The different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards for conversion. Who acknowledges whose conversions has long been a tricky question.

The question periodically becomes quite serious because of the reluctance of the Jewish establishment in Israel — which is uniformly Orthodox — to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

But even within the world of Orthodoxy, where there are multiple religious gradations between “ultra Orthodox” and “modern Orthodox,” there are disagreements over the standards for conversion (and who can oversee conversions).

In recent years, the Israeli rabbinic establishment has sometimes looked askew at conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

A few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis group in the U.S., announced that it was establishing a network of rabbinical courts to oversee conversions. The statement said:

The network, established with the enthusiastic agreement of the RCA membership at large, creates uniform standards of Orthodox conversion. The network will benefit genuine converts and their offspring, by facilitating their acceptance in Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, in Israel.

The new Jewish Week reports that there is a bit of discord of whether the RCA capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel by adopting conversion standards that require ultra-Orthodox observance on the part of would-be converts.

The report says:

basil-herring-pic_medium.jpgThe newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.

But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?

“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,� said (RCA Executive Vice President) Rabbi (Basil) Herring. “Everything here is in the details.�

The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring (pictured), “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt� by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.

(Picture: RCA)