Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, could not be more wrong in his assessment of the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States or in his understanding of the widespread opposition to the Rotem bill, as evidenced by his opinion piece in the Sept. 10 Jewish Standard. He demonstrated a complete lack of interest as to the real problems with his position on issues relating to conversion, and a complete uninterest in working together with all segments of world Jewry to solve the massive problem of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who, though of Jewish origin or background, are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
This bill, proposed by Knesset member David Rotem of the Yisrael Beteinu party, seeks to address the difficult issue of the many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish by traditional Jewish legal standards (born of a Jewish mother or having completed a valid conversion to Judaism). Despite Rabbi Amar’s statements, the Rotem bill will not expand the scope of conversion. By institutionalizing the conversion process under the sole jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate, the process lends itself to excessive stringencies, limits the number of rabbis who can actually perform such conversions, and worst of all increases what in Hebrew is known as “K’fi’at Datit,” or religious coercion. Such coercion, already considered oppressive by Israel’s secular public, is interfering with the lives of more and more traditionally oriented Israelis as well. Personal choice as well as halachic flexibility are often dismissed by the Chief Rabbinate, whose decisions and rulings are backed by the Israeli government. The Rotem bill grants exclusive control and power over the conversion process to the very rabbis and institutions who are responsible for the problem in the first place – and who have failed to solve this issue for over 20 years. For the good of Klal Yisrael, their efforts must be opposed.
It is not American Jewish organizations that are hurting immigrants from the FSU to Israel, as Amar so piously claims. It is men like Amar, who have been deaf and insensitive to these immigrants’ desire to convert to Judaism from the moment they arrived in Israel, who have been throwing obstacles in their path. And now, if these men are successful, their unjustifiable extremism will be backed by the full faith and credit of the Israeli government.
For all of Amar’s criticism of the non-Orthodox movements in America, he needs to understand that what we call Reform, Conservative, or for that matter Orthodox and even haredi Judaism are all responses to the modern era and how to best practice Judaism despite the challenges of our time. Each movement can trace its origins to the revolutionary changes in Jewish life faced by Western and Central European Jews in the 19th century. I know Amar believes that his vision of Judaism is the authentic one that goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, and I do respect his belief. I just happen to feel the same way about mine. But only he has the government of the State of Israel backing him. And more and more of world Jewry are getting tired of this. Israel has real enemies, and real security threats, and we need klal Yisrael to join together to support Israel against those who threaten her. This is the wrong fight at the wrong time. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows this. Why else would he risk his coalition to oppose this terrible bill?
Perhaps non-Orthodox Judaism has not taken hold in Israel, to Amar’s great relief. That is a fair criticism. But then if so, let Amar tell the whole truth. More than $400 million is spent each year by the government of Israel to support and promote the Chief Rabbinate and the institutions, synagogues, and organizations associated with it. Less than $100 thousand is budgeted for the non-Orthodox movements. Let the government of Israel fund all Jewish institutions on an agreed-upon basis, or better yet, get out of the religion business altogether and let the Jewish people decide. We don’t need the Chief Rabbinate to safeguard and preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel. I am sure that under such a system, a system that exists in every other Jewish community in the world, Rabbi Amar and his cohorts would approach this issue, and so many others, in a far better fashion. After all, in such a system, Amar would be answerable to those he served. Only where there is no accountability could he make the outlandish statements and exhibit the bad behavior for which the Chief Rabbinate has become so famous.
The Chief Rabbinate has failed in its mission, and Amar’s attempt to involve the government of Israel in maintaining its power will continue to have a negative effect on the very problem that the Rotem bill sought to address. Should it be approved by the Knesset, the consequences for klal Yisrael, whether in Israel or the diaspora, will be grave indeed. The process of conversion will remain unnecessarily difficult, leading to increased division among Israel’s citizens; relations with diaspora Judaism will be challenged; and once again, an opportunity to address a pressing issue will be lost.