In 1988, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, seeking to form a new coalition, invited the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties to join. Their price was straightforward: Amend the “who is a Jew” clause in the Law of Return to specify that a convert to Judaism be accepted only if the conversion had been performed by Orthodox rabbis.

Major sectors of American Jewish leadership – federations, liberal religious movements, mainstream organizations – joined forces to lobby the Israeli government against the proposed amendment, arguing that delegitimization of liberal rabbis would alienate American Jews from Israel. Ultimately, Shamir created a national unity government absent the haredi parties.

Three decades later the divisive controversy is again ascendant. In the past few weeks, the government withdrew from a compromise agreement among all parties insuring equal access to the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer services and tabled a bill establishing the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over conversions to Judaism. Adding insult to injury, the Chief Rabbinate released a document naming rabbis of all the religious movements whose letters affirming the Jewish status of particular individuals had been rejected for purposes of marriage registration in Israel.

These events have triggered what is arguably the single greatest rift in Israel’s relations with American Jewry since the 1988 controversy. Underlying the current crisis are critical questions regarding the future of Israeli society and its relationship to world Jewry.

First, the Chief Rabbinate lacks transparency with respect to its procedures. The list of rabbis included individuals now deceased. No reason was given as to why some were on the list while others had their letters approved. Most importantly, absent specific reasons of why particular letters were rejected, individuals seeking to wed within the ancestral Jewish homeland find themselves with little recourse in the face of an obstructionist Chief Rabbinate.

But absence of transparency comprises only the tip of the iceberg. The Chief Rabbinate has long enjoyed a monopoly over marriage between Jews. Civil marriage does not exist as an option. The monopoly itself is both undemocratic and harmful to individuals. But even more galling is that so much power has been vested in an institution so frequently insensitive to, and even ignorant of, Diaspora concerns. The latter was evident most recently when Chief Rabbi David Lau dismissed American Jewish protests by claiming that 85% of American Jews had never set foot inside Israel. In fact, nearly 45% have done so.

Most significantly, what is at stake is Israel’s very self-understanding as the state of the Jewish People. Further legislation enshrining Orthodox Judaism as sole expression of Jewish religion recognized by the state undermines Israel’s very raison d’etre – its claim to being the homeland of the Jewish People.

Instead, Israel appears to be the homeland of some Jews, those who are Orthodox. Aside from risking the alienation of the mass base of committed American Jews – who are overwhelmingly Conservative or Reform – these actions challenge Israel’s very future. Will it continue to strive to be a Jewish democracy, or will the values of liberal democracy be superseded by an incipient theocracy backed by current birthrate and demographic trends? What should be done to contain the damage and repair the rift? First, tabling the conversion bill for six months provides time to work out a uniform conversion process acceptable to diverse parties. In 1988 prime minister Shamir convened the heads of the major rabbinical seminaries to develop such a conversion procedure. Much progress was made although ultimately haredi opposition nullified the proposals. In 1996, the Neeman Committee undertook a similar task. Its positive recommendations, sadly, again were dismissed by haredi opposition. Now is the time to return to the ethos of compromise embedded within these proposals.

Notwithstanding significant opposition, American Jews and Israelis alike must advocate forcefully for their renewed consideration. Clearly, transcending the needs of a particular coalition is necessary so as to advance the collective welfare of Israel and world Jewry.

Second, these episodes once again point to the Chief Rabbinate’s dysfunctionality. As a Jewish state, Israel and the Jewish People require voices of Judaic tradition and the spiritual teachings and values of Judaism. Yet rather than act as moral conscience of state and society, the Chief Rabbinate invokes its coercive power on matters of personal status. The right to marry whom and how one chooses constitutes a human right. Understandably, the Chief Rabbinate itself will not perform marriages between parties who are not eligible for marriage under Jewish law. But civil marriage must become available as an option for those who either cannot, or prefer not, to marry under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

Last, the Modern Orthodox establishment in America must speak out forcefully. Agudath Israel argues that American Jewish protests are ill-advised and unrepresentative of their concerns. Yet the silence of the leading Modern Orthodox institutions – the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshiva University – is even more disturbing. Their members and alumni are under attack for performing conversions outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, and many of their people were named in the so-called “blacklist.”

Nor do there appear to be halachic issues involved in the Western Wall compromise, especially as it had been approved previously even by haredi spokespersons. In the past the Modern Orthodox deferred to the Chief Rabbinate as halachic decisor for the State of Israel. Now they must speak out, as a bridge between the movements, as Jewish leaders concerned with repairing the Israel-Diaspora rift, and, most importantly, as placing the collective welfare of the Jewish People above narrow partisan concerns.

The author is director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which established the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC) to foster religious pluralism and equality within Israel on matters of personal status. 

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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