JERUSALEM - The Israeli Supreme Court, wading into the long-simmering debate over who is a Jew, issued a watershed ruling yesterday declaring that the state must recognize as Jews people converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel. Orthodox rabbis and politicians, who control religious life in Israel, immediately condemned the ruling and vowed to seek to circumvent or overturn it. Conservative and Reform leaders, struggling to create liberal Jewish alternatives in Israel, hailed the ruling, which they said would give new energy to their efforts to broaden religious pluralism here. The ruling only requires the Israeli government to begin identifying Israelis converted by non-Orthodox rabbis as Jewish on their national identity cards and to count them as Jews for statistical purposes. The ruling will not require Orthodox rabbis to honor those conversions, and Orthodox rabbis in Israel are expected to continue to refuse to allow Israeli weddings for Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism.
But supporters and critics said the ruling has broad significance because it recognizes the legitimacy of the liberal denominations that represent most American Jews and a small but increasing number of Israeli Jews.
"This is a real crack in the wall of Orthodox monopoly," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the Conservative movement in Israel. "It is a crack we are determined to widen."
But the ruling was denounced by Rabbi Hershel Billet, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox group. "This is an incendiary issue," Billet said. "In the long term, the potential is that the Jewish people will be divided into two groups: those considered Jewish by virtue of Jewish tradition and Jewish law, and those considered Jewish by the Supreme Court of Israel."
In Israel, where about 25 percent of the population is strictly observant, the ruling legitimizes the option of liberal conversion rituals for those whose Jewishness is uncertain, particularly immigrants from Russia whose mothers were not Jewish and non- Jewish children adopted by Jewish couples. In the United States, where only about 6 percent of the nearly 6 million Jews are Orthodox, the ruling has energized Jewish denominations that have been pushing for recognition and new adherents in Israel. "This is significant because we regard ourselves as one people, and it has pained Conservative and Reform Jews in America to be considered not fully authentic in the eyes of some small minority in Israel," said Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The Israeli Court ruled in favor of a group of plaintiffs, including the Conservative and Reform movements, Israel's largest women's organization, and a group of parents who adopted babies from abroad, who had all challenged the refusal of the interior minister, the minister of religious affairs, and the chief rabbinate to recognize the conversion of the adopted babies. The judges ruled 9-2 that the state and its official religious authorities could no longer block registration of a person as a Jew if that person had a Reform or Conservative conversion certificate.
"There are various streams of Judaism in Israel and abroad," wrote Chief Justice Aharon Barak. "Each stream acts in accordance with its view. . . .. Our basic concepts grant each individual the liberty to decide his or her affiliation with one stream or another." In Israel, all conversions to Judaism are ritualized with immersion in water and, in the case of men, with circumcision or a symbolic drop of blood. But converts to Orthodoxy agree to follow the 613 commandments of the Torah, while converts to liberal strains of Judaism do not.
"Israel is the only place on Earth where Jewish law has legal force, and there are rights and privileges accorded to Jews that relate to their legal status," said Rabbi David H. Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary in the United States. "Burial, marriage, and immigration rights are contingent on individuals being considered Jewish. "This ruling does not address all the facets of life that we in the non-Orthodox movements would like, but it is of tremendous symbolic importance," Ellenson said.
Interior Minister Eliyahu Yishai, a member of the ultra religious Shas Party, immediately introduced a bill in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to nullify the decision by requiring all converts to have approval from the chief rabbinate, which is restricted to the Orthodox, before their conversions are finalized.
Jonathan Rosenblum - Israel director of Am Echad, a prominent US-based Orthodox group - warned that if the decision stands "rabbis who openly advertise their conversion services for a few, rabbis who officiate with priests and ministers at mixed marriages, rabbis who officiate at same-sex marriages . . . will all be able to issue conversion certificates.
"The Reform movement itself has no uniform criteria for conversion and recognizes the individual autonomy of each rabbi to set his own standards," Rosenblum said.
The decision creates a thicket of potential problems. Under Israeli law, Jewish marriages are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, which is expected to refuse to perform marriages for people who convert to Judaism under Reform or Conservative auspices. Those non-Orthodox converts, as they do today, will have to travel abroad to get married, because there is no civil marriage in Israel.
"Our struggle for equality in the matter of the issue of marriage is the next major issue on the agenda," said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization of the Reform movement.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch - chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative movement's seminary - said: "What this decision actually does is make the introduction of civil marriage even more urgent. The state [of Israel] needs to remove itself from having to determine who is Jewish and who is not Jewish." The decision does not affect Israeli immigration law, which accords Jewish immigrants immediate citizenship. Current Israeli law grants immigration rights to anyone who has converted to Judaism under any Jewish denomination.
Radin reported from Jerusalem and Paulson from Boston. Radin can be reached at [email protected]; Paulson can be reached at [email protected].