The Conversion Bill Contradicts the Strategic Needs of the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

by Gedalyah Reback

To pass this piece of legislation would make it much more difficult to repair rifts among the different American denominations and bring about a stabilization on issues of Jewish conversion, intermarriage and divorce that are riling the community. All of these issues relate to Israel’s need to recruit more citizens from the Jewish diaspora, which will inevitably attract more converts and prospective converts to the country.

Before analyzing these points, it is imperative to remind readers of the connection between conversion and immigration in Judaism. Judaism cannot be understood as a religion in the same way Christianity or Islam can. The former is particularly national, even tribal in nature, and sees its adherents as one group among equal groups (some would add that strives to be a leader, first among those equals). The religion got it start as a national culture, with laws and rituals intertwined in daily life. This fusion, for lack of a better term, is still very much apparent in any traditional community, Jewish or not, worldwide.

Given that any member of the nation would be considered an adherent, the only new adherents must have come from outside the country. Hence, the term “ger,” the Hebrew for a convert, has the same root stem as “hagira,” immigration.

Centuries of exile have separated the source of the word from its original definition, and have yet to be remarried with the reestablishment of Israel 62 years ago. Judaism has experienced a flowering of national identity the last 200 years, and the reappearance of many practices that were physically impossible outside of the holy land. This includes the commandments to tithe harvests, give the irst fruits of the season to a priest, and allow the land to lie dormant once every seven years (the “sabbatical” year). But the phenomenon of reintroduction dually includes issues of sovereignty, diplomacy, government and war, which religious scholars have expounded upon more in the last 200 years than at any other point in the Jewish people’s history. Before the current era, there had been no reason to analyze such issues. All the same, immigration is an issue which the State of Israel finds itself grappling with, but separate from the issue of religious conversion and subsequent immigration to the country.

In an ideal state of affairs, any immigrant to Israel would be Jewish already or be making the effort to convert. That is what makes the bill that is up for debate so ironic. It restricts the abilities of converts and would-be converts to become new citizens of the country, while not effectively attacking sex trafficking issues out of Eastern Europe, illegal foreign workers from Southeast Asia and refugees from Africa.

The country’s leaders know that waves of immigrants continue to empower the Middle Eastern Jewish community with human resources and economic power. It is a strong counterbalance against regional and global threats to the country. It also allows the greater concentration of community resources against threats worldwide to the Diaspora and Israel’s allies. Waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants added valuable depth to country’s population and abilities, despite the social issues each community carries with it. Strong immigration has made the country a potent force that merges its own assets with those of the Diaspora.

The Failure of the Diaspora

Ultimately, the State of Israel has a vested interest in ending the tendency to doubt the authenticity of converts’ processes. It’s 320,000 former Soviet citizens who do not have a Jewish mother and hence do not fall under the rubric of Jewish law should be able to be fully integrated into the social affairs of the country’s core population. These 320,000 are a prelude to what Israeli planners would like to facilitate, a massive immigration push from the United States, where there are roughly 10 million people eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Just under half of those people face a similar familial problem.

This is a social anomaly for most members of the American Jewish community and a conundrum for Israeli officials and planners. The problem of intermarriage has created a large population of with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, or a single Jewish grandparent. The response in the United States by the Reform and Conservative movements to convert this population or to recognize their Jewishness does not solve the problem vis a vis Jewish law, since most Conservative Rabbinical authorities do not keep traditional Jewish law and the Reform movement has completely abrogated it. The Orthodox population, as a devout community, does not have the power to mitigate or reform its laws to make the problem disappear, and must demand conversions which are conducted by those keeping and knowledgeable of Jewish law, consequently churning out converts just as cognizant and observant of Jewish law.

The argument that the social crisis the global community is experiencing should mitigate the standards applied to conversion do not preserve the integrity of the process and certainly ignore the roots of the community’s problems in favor of treating the symptoms. It also advocates doing away with the community’s most developed precursor to conversion – education. Though Jewish law seems to permit at its core a conversion conducted without a candidate being schooled in Judaism, the community has developed a basic curriculum over the centuries, understanding new members should be able to independently navigate the community and integrate themselves.

To give in to any sort of compromise on this aspect of the “conversion process” would mirror similar mistakes made by the Reform and Conservative movements relating to their deteriorating school systems and pathetic expectations in Jewish education. Jews in these movements, and some so in Modern Orthodox circles, have weak backgrounds in the Bible, Hebrew and basic laws of daily practice. The result of the faulting Jewish school regime in the United States has been gross assimilation if not total defection from any semblance of Judaism. These mistakes would be repeated in a diluted standard for conversion in Israel.

The Middle Road

But I would be unfairly treating many leaders in these movements if I grouped them all together. The movements understand the shift toward abrogation of law and custom has correlated with heavy trends in assimilation and intermarriage. The Orthodox, while not immune to these trends themselves, are by far more socially stable fending off intermarriage and have strong educational backgrounds to correlate with that fact. From the perspective of the State of Israel, the lack of cohesiveness and initiative in American Judaism is a social nightmare, eating away at a pool of potential professional, active class of immigrants.

Over the years, many failed efforts have been made by community leaders to mend fences between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. That is a failure for which the current generation is paying the price. The efforts by Rabbi Norman Lamm to set up a single conversion authority in the United States, with Reform and Conservative consent, was torpedoed by Agudat Israel in the mid-1990s. That move was an irresponsible gesture by an insular organization, that let the next 15 years see the conversion crisis worsen.

From my perspective, this effort was only helpful in that it resolved a procedural issue in the Jewish community, not the community’s ultimate problems. The leaders of various movements have failed to work together, and these movements are again splitting into subdivisions as a result – equally determined to remain separate and insular from other Jewish groups. This is an inexcusable disaster on the part of activists across the Jewish world – namely the American community.

Liberal movements have been dragged more toward the left and Orthodox groups more toward the right. These trends are socially and culturally arbitrary. They should have no bearing on Judaism as an object of practice. Yet they do, perhaps reflective of other trends worldwide that see moderate parties dissolving in politics, and civil war growing as a point of global concern. Every culture is experiencing it.

What liberal Jews have to implement are far more aspects of Jewish practice in their lives – holidays, keeping kosher, the Sabbath and a greater effort to only involve themselves with Jewish partners. Orthodox Jews, much like what was advocated recently by Nathan Lopes Cardozo in his recent article in the journal Conversations, should be reaffirming the equal authority of minority opinions and dormant practices in normative Jewish law. From here, the gulf between the two basic trends in the Jewish world can begin to close. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of any sane Jew to respect the differences between himself and his fellow.

A combination of pragmatism and the just-mentioned altruism might just drag this community out of the cauldron. In so happening, there will be less to be concerned with regarding the observance and commitment of non-Orthodox Jews. Tradition and community will again be tangible aspects of the entire Jewish community. New leaders will have to rise out of Jews’ grassroots efforts to make such a thing happen, because Diaspora leadership up until this point has been frankly disappointing.

For Israelis, this bill is a response, however inadequate to the problem of not meeting the demand for conversion, making their own immigrations to Israel complete, by becoming members of the Jews who reside there. It relates back to the Diaspora, where Israelis are hoping there will be an awakening of the Jewish community, a reversing trend back toward cohesion and a new centrality for peoplehood and nationality of Jews.

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