It's tempting to dismiss as insignificant the recent Israeli High Court
ruling that the state's Interior Ministry must recognize Israeli converts to
the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews.
Indeed, the decision has no repercussions for religious matters, and no
impact on the Israeli Rabbinate. Its effects are limited to things like
population rolls and identity cards. And no secular court's opinion can
budge the deep-seated belief of Orthodox Jews like me that halacha alone,
not any temporal judge, must define Jewishness.
All the same, though, the ruling carries an undeniable symbolic cachet, and
perhaps even something more. Giddy claims of non-Orthodox leaders
notwithstanding, truly perceptive Jews of all affiliations know that it
bodes ill for the Jewish future.
For starters, it is sure to sow confusion, disillusionment and heartbreak.
With the large number of non-Jews who have immigrated in recent years to
Israel from the former Soviet Union, we can expect (and non-Orthodox leaders
are eagerly awaiting) a surge of non-Orthodox conversion applicants.
Innocent people will come to be convinced that they will be widely accepted
as Jews when, in fact, neither Jewish religious law nor Orthodox Jews
anywhere will be able to recognize their conversions as valid.
What is more, the decision will serve to only further widen the gulf between
Jews who remain faithful to halacha and those who choose to reject or revise
it. Israel, tragically, is now one step closer to our regrettable situation
here in the United States, where there are two distinct "Jewish worlds" -
one that in effect validates all "Judaisms" and all "conversions," and
another that stubbornly clings to what has kept us a single Jewish people
for more than three thousand years.
At the moment, anyone in Israel claiming to be a Jew can likely be assumed
by all other Jews to be just that. Unless a law is enacted to render the
High Court's decision null, that will not long remain the case. The easy
availability of wholesale non-halachic conversions, sweetened now with the
promise of the word "Jew" on an identity card, will see to that.
Ironically, whether the "two Jewish worlds" model indeed spreads, G-d
forbid, to Israeli society or whether some legislation is crafted to avoid
it, we can be sure that non-Orthodox Jewish leaders will inform us who the
villains are: the "rejectionist" Orthodox, the usual suspects.
Yet all that those who remain faithful to halacha have done is uphold the
Jewish religious heritage that lies at the roots of all of us Jews. The
Orthodox have not been the sowers of discord, but, on the contrary, the
nurturers of what forged Jewish unity in the first place, millennia ago.
The story is told of a middle-aged couple in the front seat of a car, back
in the days when bucket seats were the exception. The husband addresses his
wife, the driver, and says in an injured tone of voice, "Remember the days,
dear, when we were young, and would sit close to one another on trips?"
The wife responds with a tear in her eye, "Yes, I do. But I'm still in
front of the steering wheel, where I have always been. It is you who, over
the years, has moved gradually away."
That message, in the context of Jews' relationship to the Jewish religious
tradition, is one that all perceptive non-Orthodox American Jews need to
share with their leaders. Along with another: Israel is facing a challenge
to its very existence, targeted by a violent, cruel and hate-consumed enemy
and bereft of any evident military or political solution. What we Jews
desperately need today is to merit G-d's protection, to affirm, not chip
away, at our spiritual heritage.
We've all just celebrated Purim, whose most basic theme is that seeming
darkness and threat can turn out - through the merits of the Jewish people
and G-d's resultant will - to be light and salvation.
If those who seek to advance their religious agendas in Israel at the cost
of true Jewish unity are confronted by their perceptive congregants'
principled protest, and thereby come to reconsider their dangerous folly,
the recent High Court decision could turn out to be a truly beneficial
turning point indeed for the Jewish people, the beginning of a moving
together rather than a moving apart.
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