November 20, 2019

Strengthen Bonds, Don’t Stretch Them

Somerset Maugham could have had the Israeli High Court in mind when he wrote, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, direct — and wrong.”

The decision to register converts of all denominations as Jews will not only be regretted by the Orthodox in the short run, but by Conservative and Reform Jews as well. And for Israel it may prove disastrous.

The Orthodox, though disappointed, are hardly threatened by the decision. The Court’s ruling deliberately steered clear of contravening the rabbinate’s authority to determine Jewishness from a religious standpoint. Even if the court should go further one day, the Orthodox will not be affected, but will continue to look to their own halachic decision makers — and be preserved by their own healthy-birth rates.

The Orthodox concern is ideological and sociological. We are saddened that a millennia-old definition of Jewishness has been yielded — at least bureaucratically — to a “one-size-fits-all” Jewish identity that will include not only Reform and Conservative converts, but, necessarily, those of Humanistic and Messianic “Judaisms” as well. We perceive here the seeds of an accelerated falling away of our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Conservative and Reform leaders understandably hail the decision as a matter of pride, but that emotion will be short-lived. They will come in time to wonder at the wisdom of an alliance with secularist High Court President Aharon Barak, whose goal is a state in which Judaism plays no greater role than Christianity in America. And they will regret the recent decision’s eventual yield: confusion of identity, dashed expectations — and an erosion of the average Israeli’s motivation to continue the struggle for a Jewish state.

Nonobservant Israelis, at the moment, are very conscious of their Jewishness. By contrast, in the United States, where the Conservative and Reform movements are on equal footing with Orthodoxy, most Jews are unaffiliated and estranged from their religious identity: a full 700,000 Jews in the last decade alone chose to characterize themselves as members of a different religious group, according to the recently released American Jewish Identity Study.

And even when Israelis gripe about what they perceive as “religious coercion,” they are primarily concerned with being able to ride buses or attend soccer games on Shabbat, and do not favor a multitude of conversion standards. According to a Guttman Institute survey a few years ago, 67 percent of Israelis said the chief reason people were not observant is that they “lacked proper education,” and 50 percent affirmed they believed that God gave the Torah at Sinai.

The decision of the court will lead to personal heartache too, especially with the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants who will likely now come to see themselves as Jews. As a practicing rabbi, I have seen many couples in tears after learning that one of them, or a parent, had been converted by a rabbi who wrongly assured them that the conversion would be recognized by all Jews. The situation in Israel will be many times worse.

Most regrettable, perhaps, is the timing of the ruling. With anti-Semitism raging anew and so much of the world regarding the Jewish state as an imperialist land thief, Israelis need to point to something deep and strong that will reassure them that their cause is just, and their claim to our land is sanctified as the People of the Book. Ironically, tens of millions of our friends — perhaps our closest friends at this point — in the Christian community understand this. And recent polls show an increase in religious observance among Israelis since the beginning of the Intifada.

Non-Jews, the old saying goes, respect Jews who act like Jews. What are they to make of Jews who cannot even agree on who is in, and who is out? And Israelis, at this critical juncture, would weather the storm far better through a strengthening of the bonds of tradition, rather than the High Court’s pulling them apart.