A Convert Laments the Rotem Bill
Lorin Fife, a recovering attorney, former waiter and accomplished artist, serves on the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors and its Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People. He has co-chaired the Israel and Overseas programming of L.A.’s Jewish Federation as well as its Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.
An early morning on what will surely become another sweltering day in Los Angeles … the haze beginning to clear. Erev Tisha B’Av, 5770 … the eve of destruction … .
Sitting in my study, just off the phone from another not infrequent conversation with an Israeli friend, my usual black kippah srugah with its blue-and-white-patterned border slightly askew atop my thinning hair, I probe our texts pondering the events of the last week. Thirty-plus years of my own Jewish life flash before my eyes, dating back to scenes from first my Reform and then my Orthodox conversion. Thoughts of my initial attraction to Judaism as an 18-year-old in the U.S. Navy mingle with memories of my days as a 20-something suntanned Hebrew-speaking waiter in a beach hotel in Tel Aviv, which in turn coalesce with images of me as a middle-age lawyer and communal leader sitting around conference tables in Jerusalem with fellow members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors discussing issues relating to the unity of the Jewish People.
As I study our sacred books, it is difficult for me not to notice the fact that Eicha follows immediately after Megillat Ruth in my Artscroll Tanakh. Is there a mystical linkage between the lessons to be found in the story of the most famous convert to Judaism after Avraham Avinu on the one hand and the Book of Lamentations on the other?
What lessons can I glean from the story of the impoverished Moabite woman whose conversion and subsequent marriage to Boaz led to her grandson King David — the same David whose son Solomon built the First Temple, from whose line shall come Mashiach and who chose Jerusalem to be our capital? “Your people are my people, your God is my God.” Or from the sad tale of destruction of that same eternal capital, which always evokes the sounds of the mournful Eicha trope in my mind? “Jerusalem sinned greatly, she has therefore become a wanderer.” Jerusalem … our capital and the object of our yearning as a people for centuries.
My mind drifts to the events of the past week back in that same capital city, and my eyes begin to water, emotions verging on anger welling up inside my Jewish heart and soul. I wonder whether there is a contemporary Jeremiah to provide us with prophetic guidance as we approach the annual day of Jewish tragedy. The destruction of both temples, the exaggerations of the spies resulting in 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the expulsion from Spain and countless other indignities we have suffered as a people all tied to Tisha B’Av, consciously or unconsciously, by our enemies. By scrutinizing the causes of our tragedies, can we truly reveal the seeds of our redemption?
I can’t help but reflect on the irony that this is the week proponents have attempted to place before the Knesset, the parliament of our Jewish state, a bill that could disenfranchise me as a Jew in Israel. From mutual friends, I know that the author, David Rotem, is a good man, a well-meaning dati leumi lawyer who initiated this potential tragedy with the best of intentions. But my Jewish identity, the Jewish identity of hundreds of thousands of faithful Jews around the world who happen to be converts or their offspring, the Jewish identity of our own beautiful daughter-in-law, who lived in Israel during the terror of the Second Intifada, who worked for AIPAC and Jewish Big Brothers, and who is the wife of our son, an IDF veteran, and the Jewish identity of our sweet grandson, have become innocent pawns in a game of coalition power politics 7,500 miles away. And I fiercely resent it.
Is Tractate Yoma of our Talmud correct? Was sinat chinam — gratuitous hatred, Jew against Jew — truly the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple on Tisha B’Av so many centuries ago? Is the Rotem bill, which among other ill-advised elements would give the ultra-Orthodox, Charedi, Israeli Chief Rabbinate the power to scrutinize my Jewishness for purposes of Israeli law, part of some divine tragicomedy intended to tear us apart once again as a people?
My mind wanders to the fact that the great commentary Me’am Loez reflects the view of the rabbis that converts are as dear to God as Shabbat, based on the fact that the Torah warns 28 times to treat converts properly, the same number of times that it warns against desecrating the Sabbath and against worshiping idols. I remember that Maimonides also admonishes converts not to belittle our lineage: If born Jews trace their ancestors to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, converts’ genealogical connections, according to the Rambam, are directly with the Master of the Universe.
As Charedi judges in Israeli religious courts now turn their attention to scrutinizing the “sincerity” of even Orthodox conversions like mine, it seems to me that the time has finally come for world Jewry to stand up and put an end to the growing Charedi monopoly on Judaism in Israel, which has the potential to destroy the Zionist dream. This burden must not fall exclusively on the liberal movements within Judaism attempting to maintain a weak pluralistic foothold inIsrael, or even on our Federation system, although we all should be incredibly proud of the role that our Federation leadership, both locally and on a national level, have played in partnership with the leadership of the Jewish Agency in attempting to preserve the integrity of the Jewish people throughout this current debacle.
While secular and even religiously observant Israelis may not worry about this Charedi monopoly except when they are inconvenienced or impacted on a personal level, the irony and danger of these recent developments should not go unnoticed by the Israeli government or the Orthodox community, nor should members of the Israeli Knesset delude themselves into thinking that pluralistic-minded Jews outside of Israel do not notice or are willing to continue to tolerate this state of affairs.
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.
At a time when Iran and its minions in Hezbollah and Hamas continue to mount an existential threat to Israel and an incredibly effective delegitimization campaign challenges Israel’s very right to exist at virtually every turn, I hope we can all get back to worrying about things that really matter — practically and existentially — to Israel and, in the interests of Klal Yisrael, stop focusing on offensive irrelevancies that pit Jew against Jew. Sinat chinam obviously remains a mortal threat to our Jewish nation even today, almost 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple.
The sad, plaintive sounds of the Eicha melody once again penetrate my consciousness, and I return to seek redemption in our texts and in the spirit of the name of our people, Israel, to struggle a while longer with our God. “Bring us back to You, HaShem, and we shall return, renew our days as of old.” Amen.