Yossi Beilin apparently intends to do for his new comrades in Meretz what he did for his former colleagues in Labor: sell them on a big new idea. In the case of Labor, the big idea was Oslo; for Meretz it is "secular conversion."
Most of us have been too preoccupied recently contemplating the happy results of Beilin¹s first big idea to pay much attention to the latest, which he has already been peddling for a few years. Now, however, "secular conversion" has become the platform of Meretz: Anyone who can prove a "connection" to the Jewish people would have the right to citizenship under the Law of Return.
What would be the criteria of eligibility for secular conversion? Beilin notes that many of those born Jews are atheists and asks why a non-Jewish atheist needs a rabbi to become a Jewish atheist. That logic, however, proves too much. Many, perhaps most, born Jews today have scant interest in their Judaism or feeling of connection to their fellow Jews. Does that make non-Jews who also have no interest in Judaism into Jews?
In fact, the answer to Beilin was given long ago by Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, the late head of the London Beit Din. Dayan Abramsky was asked by an English judge why converts to Judaism should be required to accept the halachah as binding when so many Jews do not feel so bound. He replied by asking the judge whether someone applying for English citizenship who listed his profession as pickpocket would be granted citizenship. "Of course not," said the judge. "Why, don’t you have any pickpockets in England?" asked Dayan Abramsky.
Most likely the willingness to live in Israel would become the sine qua non of "secular Judaism." Indeed Beilin’s mentor Shimon Peres recently defined a Jew as anyone who raises children in Israel and sends them to the army. Given the billions of starving people around the globe, Israel will no doubt be able to lure several million souls willing to offer themselves and their children as mercenaries in order to share this parched and overpopulated land with us.
Yet opening up the gates of Israel to all and sundry would only exacerbate the present situation caused by massive loopholes in the Law of Return. Already Jews constitute only 72% of the population, 80% of younger immigrants from the FSU are not Jewish, churches are proliferating, new inductees to the army demand to be sworn in on the New Testament, and works of Holocaust denial are sold by a leading chain of Russian-language bookstores.
The Beilin proposal would do for the spiritual state of the Jews of Israel what Oslo did for our physical security. The bonds of Jewish identity that once provided some sense of national unity are already badly frayed; Beilin’s proposal would destroy the last remaining ties between Israeli Jews shared historical memories and awareness of a common ancestral faith.
Enactment of the proposal would render the very concept of the Jewish people meaningless. A people with a thousand portals of entry, most of them not recognized as valid by those already calling themselves "Jews," is incapable of definition. "Secular converts" would not be able to "connect" to what no longer exists.
THAT ORTHODOX JEWS would oppose Beilin’s secular conversion is obvious. But so do the heterodox denominations. They do not want Beilin’s secular priests horning in on the lucrative conversion market.
Judaism is a religion, they say, and one can only join through a religious ceremony.
Beilin, on the other hand, views Judaism as ultimately a matter of self-definition: I feel Jewish, therefore I am.
The truth is, however, that heterodox conversion too is largely a matter of self-definition. Each Reform rabbi, for instance, is free to establish his own conversion standards, as well as advertise his services in the phone book. Reform has produced neither a creed nor deeds that link its adherents to historical Judaism, or even to one another.
"We are not Christians," is not a creed to supplant Maimonides’ 13 Articles of Faith to which most Jews in the world subscribed until 200 years ago. Judaism cannot be defined in terms of another religion born more than a thousand years later.
Any yet it is doubtful that most Reform members could agree on more than that. The old joke about the striving Jewish parents who send their son to an elite Catholic school pretty much captures the situation. The boy comes home one day and shocks his parents with an animated discussion of the Catholic trinity. At which point his father sits him down and sets him straight, "Son, there is only one God, and we don¹t believe in Him."
Even the claim, "We are not Christians," needs qualification. When the first Germans of the Mosaic faith appeared on the scene, they self-consciously patterned their worship on German Protestant models. And Reform historian Michael Meyer has warned of Reform becoming so syncretized with Christian elements, due to widespread intermarriage, that conversion of non-Jewish spouses will be beside the point.
Law, not creed, has always defined Judaism. But for Reform, which rejects the entire concept of a binding halacha, Judaism cannot be defined by a shared commitment to specific deeds. "Vote Democratic," is a poor basis for a religion. Similarly Conservative theologian Neil Gillman’s definition of a "mitzvah" as whatever one chooses to be bound by for as long as one chooses to be bound is too individualistic to define a faith community. Each person will have a different set of commitments.
In recognizing the validity of Reform and Conservative conversions, the Israeli Supreme Court pointed to the extensive institutions developed by the movements over the last 200 centuries (and in the case of the Conservatives about half that.) But 200 years is a mere blip on the Jewish timeline.
The movements have no more logical claim to the name Judaism than does any set of beliefs or practices declared by any Jew or group of Jews today. If their converts are recognized, so too should any other group be allowed to define "Judaism" or "Jewish" as it wishes, and to proclaim themselves the first adherents of the new "Judaism." That is what the first Christians did two millenia ago and heterodox groups more recently. Indeed since Reform has also redefined "Jew" to include many not recognized as such by halacha, there is no reason to even limit the right to define Judaism to Jews.
Under Beilin’s proposal anyone who wakes up in the morning and declares, "Hallelujah, I’m a Jew" is. We owe him a debt of gratitude for taking the Israeli Supreme Court¹s current approach to conversion to its logical conclusion.