Israel’s Supreme Court decided a few days ago that conversions to Judaism by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel must be recognized by the state for the purposes of the Law of Return. Until now, the state has somewhat illogically recognized non-Orthodox conversions done outside of the country, but has not accepted those that took place here.
Despite what many of us think about the Court, it did not make this decision out of rampant leftism and desire to destroy Judaism. In fact, the justices probably would have preferred not to have to take up this issue, which is the hottest potato in Israeli politics.
At the time of the founding of the state David Ben Gurion negotiated a historic agreement with the religious Agudat Israel party in return for its support. This compromise, which is often referred to as the “status quo,” included stipulations about state observance of Shabbat and kashrut, separate streams of education, and – very significantly – that the state would “satisfy the needs of the religiously observant” in connection with “marital affairs.” This came to mean that the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate (the Rabbanut) would be the sole authority concerning marriage, divorce, burial, and so on, of Israeli Jews.
Until recently, the only authority in Israel whose conversions to Judaism were recognized for any purpose was the Rabbanut. About 15 years ago, two petitions were filed with the Court by people who were denied citizenship under the law of return because they had non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism in Israel. At that time, the Court said that it was up to the Knesset to legislate the conversion issue, which was problematic for many reasons besides immigration, and set a deadline for it to do so.
One of the most pressing aspects was that a large percentage of the roughly one million Russian immigrants to Israel were not accepted as Jewish by the Rabbanut, although they had been considered Jewish by the state for the purposes of immigration. Documentation of Jewish parentage was very hard to obtain in the former Soviet Union, where records had been destroyed during the war, and where the Soviet government had discouraged the practice of Judaism. Orthodox conversion via the Rabbanut was long, difficult, and required the adoption of a Haredi lifestyle which many secular Russian Jews were not willing to adopt – although they considered themselves part of the Jewish people (and so did almost everyone else). But if they weren’t Jewish according to the Rabbanut, then they and their descendants were unable to marry, divorce, or be buried in the Jewish part of a cemetery (unless they served in the IDF!)
In order to solve this problem (and satisfy the Supreme Court), various arrangements and compromises were proposed, involving the establishment of Orthodox (but not Haredi) conversion courts outside the control of the Rabbanut. This was shut down by the political power of the religious parties. Conversions in Israel still had to be under the auspices of the Rabbanut. In 2016, the Supreme Court decided that private, Orthodox conversions in Israel would be recognized by the state – but only for the purposes of the Law of Return, and not for matters of family law.
But the old petitions of the Reform and Conservative Jews had still not been acted upon after 15 years, and the Knesset, after the appointment of a commission and countless extensions of the Supreme Court’s deadline, still had not legislated on the matter. It became clear that the religious parties would continue to stonewall any attempts to introduce leniency into the conversion process. Former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim, who headed the legislative commission, said,
At the time I proposed establishing courts for conversion and determined that the conversion would be done according to Torah law and the judges would be certified by the Chief Rabbinate … They didn’t accept the proposal because the words “under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate” did not appear in it.
So the Supreme Court had no choice but to rule, and in light of its prior decision to accept Orthodox conversions outside the Rabbanut and not wanting to be put in the position of deciding which branches of Judaism were legitimate, extended its recognition to Reform and Conservative conversions.
Practically speaking, the ruling has little effect. It does not include family law and other matters, which remain under the control of the Rabbanut. Very few people in Israel who are not citizens convert to Judaism via the Reform or Conservative movements; the movements say they number 30 or 40 a year.
But the decision is symbolically important, because it constitutes a form of state recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements as Jewish institutions, something that Haredim and many other Orthodox Jews do not accept any more than they accept “Jews for Jesus.” They especially object to what they see as the liberal movements’ lax standards for conversion and recognition of a person’s Judaism.
Full-time rabbis of larger congregations in Israel receive salaries from the state, but until 2014 only Orthodox rabbis were eligible. In response to a petition by a (female) Reform rabbi, the Supreme Court decided that Reform and Conservative rabbis must be included. The government had no choice but to comply, but the religious parties insisted that the payments come from the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Ministry of Religious Services!
So now I will give my personal opinion: the Rabbanut has always been Orthodox, but it has not always been Haredi. The organization today is corrupt, slow, and intolerant, and needs to be at least reformed (not Reformed!) and possibly abolished. I believe the refusal to permit Orthodox conversions outside of the Rabbanut is harmful and should be ended, as well as the Rabbanut’s monopoly on kashrut certification. I would also like to see an option for civil marriage and divorce in addition to traditional religious marriage. It’s ridiculous that many Israelis have to jump through demeaning hoops or leave the country to get married.
What about Reform and Conservative Judaism? I think a good argument can be made that Conservative Judaism is just a less stringent form of Judaism, while the Reform Movement practices a different religion from Judaism. Here are some relevant comparisons:
Early Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism. Beginning with a significant theological divergence – the attribution of divinity to Jesus – it continued to diverge by the introduction of extreme leniency in practice and the mass incorporation of formerly pagan converts. By the time of Constantine, and probably well before then, nobody would have said that Christianity and Judaism are the “same religion.” Protestantism (which is in itself very diverse) was a later offshoot of Catholicism. There are many theological and practical differences, but the most essential part – the human need for salvation from sin that is provided by Jesus – remained. Most people agree that they are both forms of Christianity.
Now consider Unitarian Universalism, an even more recent offshoot of Protestantism. It has abandoned the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. Today’s Unitarian Universalists do not identify as Christian, and may even be atheists. They have crossed the line and now explicitly practice a “different religion.”
Rabbinical Judaism became the primary form of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. It added to the monotheism and narrative of the Jewish people that had previously characterized Judaism alongside the Temple ritual, an elaboration and codification of the mitzvot found in the Torah. This became the halacha, the laws for Jewish living. Halacha became an essential part of Judaism.
Jews living in Eretz Yisrael and in the various parts of the diaspora placed emphasis on different parts of the halacha or observed it more or less stringently. However, Reform Judaism, from the moment of its creation, rejected the idea that there is an obligation of any sort to follow halacha. The famous “Trefa Banquet” held in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in 1883 was not significant because Reform rabbis ate non-kosher food, but rather because it demonstrated that they did not consider themselves bound by halacha. Their deliberate action defined them not as nonobservant or even “bad” Jews, but as Jews who had stopped observing Judaism.
Since then, the Reform Movement has replaced halacha with a different moral code, one which is very similar to that of Unitarian Universalists and other liberal and progressive people, emphasizing values like diversity, environmentalism, gender and racial equality, and so on. Indeed it is often hard to tell the difference between Reform Jews and Unitarians, and I am acquainted with numerous people that have moved from one to the other faith. But unlike the Unitarians, the Reform Movement does not admit how far it’s come from its roots.
The Conservative Movement observes halacha, although its rabbis have – especially in America – issued halachic rulings that are more lenient than Orthodox Judaism; for example that it is permissible to drive to the synagogue (but only there) on Shabbat. However, if a line must be drawn between Judaism and not-Judaism, I would place the Conservatives on the side of Judaism – and the Reform movement on the other.
The Supreme Court’s decision will change little. The Russian immigrants are already citizens. What they need is to be able to be married (and buried) like anyone else. It would be good for all of us if this could be achieved by making it possible for them to affirm their Jewish identity through a realistic option for conversion.