Despite all the storm and drama surrounding last week’s Supreme Court decision, Orthodox Jews in America could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.
On a practical level, the decision has no immediate practical consequences. The Court ordered those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to be registered as ``Jews" on the population registry and on their Israeli identity cards. Such registration, however, confers no new rights. The named plaintiffs already had Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The ``conversions" do not confer on them any additional rights to bring in their relatives to Israel under the Law of Return. And the Court emphasized that nothing in the decision affects the Chief Rabbinate’s control of marriage in Israel. Thus the Chief Rabbinate’s halachic standards continue to govern who can marry – at least for now.
Even on a conceptual level, the Court did not break new ground. More than a decade ago, it already recognized conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis abroad as valid for purposes of the Law of Return. Once that step was taken, it was clear to almost every observer that the Court would one day find the distinction between conversions done by Reform rabbis abroad and those done in Israel to be unsustainable, especially since Reform and Conservative clergy in Israel are typically far more traditionally observant than their colleagues abroad.
Finally, the Court’s decision does not legitimize the Reform and Conservative movements. No secular body such as the Court can confer religious legitimacy, and there is something pathetic about a religious group that needs the approval of the Supreme Court or the State to validate its conversions.
Yet for all its superficial plausibility, the foregoing analysis is flawed. The strongest proof of that is the fact that the leading gedolei Yisrael gathered immediately in wake of the decision to chart a response. That the decision required some response was clear to them, and must be clear to us. The gathering conveys another vital message to us: the concern of gedolei Yisrael with all members of Klal Yisrael, not just those who are shomrei Torah u’mitzvos.
The gedolim know that no Orthodox Jew is likely to base any life-decision on the Israeli identity card or to be deceived about the halachic validity or Reform or Conservative conversions. Their concern is with the likely impact on the so-called ``traditional" Jews in Israel, who still bear the name Jew with pride and want their children to marry Jews. Many of the latter have little knowledge of the various heterodox movements, and tend to view Reform Judaism as just another minhag – like the different minhagim of Sephardim and Ashkenazim. They also have little understanding of the halachic requirements of conversion, and are susceptible to the argument that we should not put any barriers in the way of those who want to join the Jewish people in Israel today, given the outside perils we face.
In addition, as we have written before, the gedolim are well aware that millions of Jews around the globe view Israel as the Jewish state, and whatever Israel does as Judaism. For this reason, Israel’s recognition, in any form, of ``conversions" performed in Israel is different than its recognition of those performed abroad. Israel’s recognition of conversions abroad might be compared to Illinois recognizing under the ``full faith and credit" clause, marriages and divorces performed in Nevada. That obviously places less of an imprimatur on those conversions than recognition of those performed in Israel itself.
The jubilation among the heterodox movements set off by the decision provides a second clue to the importance of the decision. ``It was obviously a complete and total victory," declared Andrew Sacks, executive head of the Masorti Movement in Israel. Uri Regev, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, boasted that the decision effectively repeals the Orthodox monopoly in Israel by recognizing the validity of conversions performed by heterodox rabbis.
The reasons for heterodox celebration are not hard to find. As Regev knows well, Chief Justice Barak does not advance his full agenda in one fell swoop, but prefers to move stage by stage to his ultimate objective. First recognition of heterodox conversions performed in chutz l’aretz, then recognition of those performed in Israel for the purposes of the Israeli identity card, and finally, recognition of those conversions for purposes of marriage in Israel. Not surprisingly, the decision was quickly followed by an advertising campaign to end the Chief Rabbinate’s ``monopoly" on marriage.
More importantly, the decision provides a major impetus for hundreds of thousands of non-Jews now living in Israel to seek ``conversions" under the auspicies of the Reform and Conservative movements. The greater contact Israelis have with those movements, the more those movements become identified in the popular mind with Judaism. The old saying, ``The synagogue where I don’t pray is an Orthodox one," may become a thing of the past.
Traditionally, Israelis tended to think of religion in terms of the issue of truth: Are the words, ``And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying . . ." true or not? Of late, however, there is evidence of a move to the typical American understanding of religion as just one more lifestyle choice – everyone picks and chooses the ``commandments" that he likes to create his own custom-made religion.
THE big loser from the Supreme Court decision was, ironically, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father. Far from an observant Jew himself, Ben Gurion nevertheless recognized that the only glue that could possibly hold together immigrants from over a hundred different lands was Jewish identity. In addition, he sought to locate the state of Israel in the continuum of Jewish history, and realized that could only be done if the official religion of the State was Judaism, as it has been understood by Jews over the millennia.
For an identity to bind it must have content. Without rules, one cannot play chess. And by the same token, without some definition of ``Jewish," Jewish identity becomes too amorphous to bind.
Jews have argued about many things over the millennia, but they at least agreed about who was a member of the family and thus entitled to participate in the debate. The common thread was Sinai. Either one was a Jew because one’s ancestors stood at Sinai or because one had personally reenacted the acceptance of Torah at Sinai by accepting the Torah’s commandments.
The Israeli Supreme Court has now determined that the term ``Jew" is incapable of definition – i.e., standardless – and declared equality between the various ``streams." The name Jew, in which most Israelis still take pride, has been devalued by being deprived of any meaning.
The logic of the decision makes access to a printing press the primary criterion for conversion. Conversion certificates issued by Humanistic Judaism, which denies the existence of a deity; or by some completely secular body, as proposed by Yossi Beilin; or by Jews for Jesus would all be valid too, according to the Court’s reasoning.
The Reform movement has no binding standards for conversion and recognizes the autonomy of every rabbi to set his own (just as it recognizes the autonomy of every individual to determine his ``mitzvos"). That includes hundreds of rabbis who openly advertise their conversion services for a fee in the Yellow Pages; thousands who perform intermarriages, and those who consecrate relationships forbidden by the Torah.
If two ``rabbis" belonging to diametrically opposed religions – what one (Torah Judaism) forbids, the other (Reform) permits (actually the latter permits anything so long as one is ``sincere"); what one classifies as an abomination, the other celebrates -- can both issue certificates of conversion to ``Judaism," the word loses all meaning.
The need for some bond between the Jews of Israel is no less pressing today than it was in Ben-Gurion’s time. By determining the words ``Jew" and ``Judaism" to be meaningless, the Court has made the search for that glue all the more difficult.