A question of rabbinical conscience
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 13, 1998
The Reform and Conservative movements claim to have made a historic concession in recognizing the exclusive authority of the Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions recognized by the State. This week, however, it became clear that their acceptance is conditioned on the Chief Rabbinate's contenting itself with 'halachic-style" conversions - a dunk and a snip.
The heterodox movements convinced themselves that the Chief Rabbis are merely politicians concerned with preserving their power and would therefore agree to sham conversions in return for the preservation of their authority. They believed - or were led to believe - that Chief Rabbinate's batei din (religious courts) would rubberstamp their candidates for conversion. If candidates were asked at all about their intention to observe commandments, it would be in such a pro forma manner that they would be able to hold their fingers crossed behind their backs - 'I didn't say which commandments or whose interpretation.' Now that the chief rabbis have revealed how seriously they take their sacred trust as guardians of Halacha, Uri Regev and Ehud Bandel cry foul.
But the Reform movement always recognized that a decision by the chief rabbis to treat Halacha seriously could be the fly in the ointment. American Reform leaders initially decided to reject the Neeman Committee recommendations because of the lack of explicit assurance that their candidates would automatically pass muster. They refrained in the end only so that the onus of rejection would fall on the Chief Rabbinate.
The Chief Rabbinate made clear that it cannot participate in joint conversion institutes with those who deny that Torah is from Sinai or who teach that commandments may fall into obsolescence when they no longer evoke spiritual uplift. Yet in response to the only question posed to it by Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, the Chief Rabbinate undertook to consider, on an individual basis, any candidate for conversion, including graduates of government or Jewish Agency-created conversion institutes.
At the same time, the Chief Rabbis emphasized that conversion is not a reward for attending classes nor can it be done in assembly-line fashion.
Each convert will have to convince the beit din of his sincere desire to accept the yoke of Torah and commandments.
For following their conscience, and despite their affirmative reply to Neeman, the chief rabbis are accused by the well-oiled Reform and Conservative PR machine of having 'declared war on the Jewish people.' One wonders whether Conservative rabbis 'declare war on the Jewish people' when they refuse, as a matter of conscience, to recognize Reform Jews by virtue of patrilineal descent or to accept Reform converts? For that
matter, did the Reform movement declare war when it unilaterally voted to adopt patrilineal descent?
Heterodox leaders are dissed that the chief rabbis will not meet with them.
But they do not seek a dialogue. They seek a photo opportunity - a newspaper clipping they can show the folks back home with the caption, 'Leaders of three streams of Judaism in historic meeting.' What possible form could dialogue take? Should the chief rabbis discuss with Uri Regev how to split the difference between halacha and its opposite?
Officiating at intermarriages is OK if the couple really love each other and no priest is present. Driving on Shabbat permitted under 30 kph.
No doubt the chief rabbis would readily sit down to study Torah with Regev as a private citizen. But Regev neither seeks their spiritual enlightenment nor to provide his own; he seeks to be accepted as their equal.
RABBI Joseph Soloveitchik, the greatest Modern Orthodox thinker, declared more than forty years ago that Reform is further removed from Orthodox Judaism than the Sadducees were from the Pharisees or the Karaites from the traditionalists. He therefore rejected dialogue on religious issues with heterodox clergymen qua spiritual leaders. 'Has Jewish history ever recorded an instance of a joint community council or joint rabbinical council that consisted of Karaites and Torah-true Jews?' he asked.
The idea of a joint conversion institute with Chief Rabbinate participation partakes of the same oil and vinegar problem. If conversion were a question of passing a minimal Jewish literacy test - Who was Moses? What do Jews eat on Yom Kippur? - it would make little difference who supplied the right answers. But conversion is above all a commitment. How can two groups who hold antithetical views of the nature of that
commitment join together in preparing converts? I have spoken to Reform converts who were specifically told during their conversion classes that Judaism does not require belief in God.
The Neeman Committee recommendations are, at best, a stopgap. As Yossi Sarid, one of the Reform movement's chief allies, said recently, 'The Neeman recommendations are nothing more than a temporary solution in an ongoing struggle.' A few months from now, we will see much more fundamental challenges in the Supreme Court to the Chief Rabbinate's jurisdiction.
Sarid's goal is the extirpation of all official Judaism from the State of the Jews. His crucial insight: If there are three versions of Judaism or 39, there is no Judaism. Thus the more recognition given deviant movements, the faster his goal is achieved.
The Chief Rabbis cannot, and should not, be asked to lend support to that process.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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