November 20, 2019

One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

Last week’s landmark decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions as valid for citizenship purposes drew strong reactions from Los Angeles clergy and activists.

"This is a fantastic step forward for progressive Judaism in Israel," said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who compared the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education. "This is not unlike [the situation] in the United States, where had it been left to the Southern states to decide for themselves, it would have taken many more years before there would have been equality. Often the role of the court in a democracy is to lead the way in broadening and protecting civil rights and religious freedom and that’s just what [the Israeli court] has done."

Pacific Southwest Region members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) said they have already received positive feedback on the issue from converts, some of whom said they were now considering traveling to Israel for the first time.

"Obviously, we’re very pleased," said Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, associate regional director of the UAHC, which runs a popular "Introduction to Judaism" course aimed in part at prospective converts. "When one goes through the process of conversion and takes on a new identity it is extraordinarily painful to hear people say, No, you’re not really Jewish. For the entire State of Israel to say that to a person, whatever practical matters may follow, is very painful indeed. This has been a slap in the face to Jews-by-choice and to the non-Orthodox movement; taking it away is a very positive and powerful step."

Maurice Cayne first became involved in the fight for recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel in 1977. Caine, the executive vice-president of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union (ARZA/WU), and a member of its national board, worked on the issue with his wife Marcia, a former national president of ARZA who died in 1995.

While thrilled with the Israeli High Court’s decision, he said he remains cautious about future victories for the progressive movement in Israel.

"Every time we win, someone from the other side finds a way around it," he said. The judiciary has "a habit of ignoring the issue. This is a major victory as far as we’re concerned but we have to continue until we have equal rights. My wife used to say the only democratic nation in the world where Jews do not have equal rights is Israel. And it’s not just Reform Jews; Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews have the same problem. Even some Orthodox Jews are not recognized by other Orthodox Jews there."

Cayne said ARZA will likely turn its attention now to achieving recognition of Reform marriages and burials. Although the High Court’s decision allows non-Orthodox converts to register as Jews on their national identification cards, marriages and burials performed by non-Orthodox clergy are not considered valid or even legal. Under current law, only Orthodox clergy may perform these functions within Israel and over the years secular Jews and non-Orthodox converts in Israel have had to come up with creative ways around this dilemma.

While Reform and Conservative leaders celebrated the decision with cautious optimism, some Orthodox rabbis expressed grave concern for its implications.

Rabbi Gavriel Cohen, head of the West Coast Rabbinical Court (Beth Din) said in his opinion the decision means Conservative and Reform rabbis will need to take "a more responsible approach" in the way they perform conversions.

"They should be a lot more careful about bringing people into the Jewish nation," Cohen said. "Many times rabbis are under pressure because a person in their community wants to make sure the conversion goes through — as in, ‘My son has to get married to this girl, convert her.’ They should not bow to that pressure."

Cohen said the basic minimum for any conversion should be that the convert accept the Torah and all of its laws.

"If you want to be a Jew you must accept the full commitment of the Torah. If you’re not going to, then why become Jewish?"

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City had similar concerns.

"On the one hand, it’s a technical ruling regarding the identification cards but on the other hand it changes the status quo that has existed for 50-plus years, since Ben- Gurion decided the rabbinate should be the ones to make these decisions," said Muskin. "It’s a step backwards as far as unity is concerned because the Orthodox won’t accept it. If a conversion is halachic, everyone agrees [that the person is Jewish]. The Orthodox agree, the Conservative agree, the Reform agree. But it doesn’t work the other way around."

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea argued against the mainstream Orthodox opinion, saying he believed that the power of the Orthodox rabbinate to define how religion is conducted in Israel is not productive for the Jewish people as a whole.

"As an Orthodox rabbi, I would not recognize the vast majority of Conservative and Reform converts as being Jews. In that sense, this ruling is going to create problems," he said. "But I think it is better for Israeli society at large that Conservative and Reform Judaism have the opportunity to bring secular Israelis into the religious fold. In that sense, this gives the Conservative and Reform movements a greater presence there and that is good. Israeli society will be better off when there are more expressions of Judaism to choose from."

Leder agreed. "If stringent Orthodoxy is the only religious option for Israelis, then the overwhelming majority of Israelis will continue to be secular," Leder noted. "Sensible Orthodox rabbis who want Jews to be something rather than nothing understand this."