Last week's decision by the Israeli Supreme Court recognizing for purposes of the Law of Return "conversions" by those who studied with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel has been hailed as a major victory for those movements. Yet it is unlikely to bring one more congregant to their houses of worship – presumably the most relevant matter for a religious movement.
Any gentile who seeks to become part of a Reform or Conservative faith community in Israel has always been free to "convert" under their auspices. The Supreme Court decision offers no new "spiritual" incentive to "conversion," only the economic incentive of rights under the Law of Return.
But if the winners are unclear, the losers are obvious: those secular and traditional Jews in Israel who still pride themselves on the name Jew. The Supreme Court ruling further drains the name Jew of any meaning.
Jews have always disagreed about many things, but until recently they agreed about who was party to the argument: someone descended through his mother from those who stood at Mount Sinai. Non-Jews could become Jews only through reenacting the giving of the Torah at Sinai and accepting the yoke of the Torah’s commandments.
Maimonides states the matter clearly: "When a gentile wishes to enter the covenant, and dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence, and accept upon himself the yoke of Torah, then he needs brit milah and immersion . . . . " Acceptance of the mitzvos is the necessary precondition for the procedures that follow. The Court's ruling flies in the face of that 3,500 year understanding.
Under the explicit terms of the Court’s decision, there are no standards to determine who is a Jew, or, more to the point, any standards to determine who is authorized to certify another as a Jew. The Reform movement itself has no uniform criteria for conversion and recognizes the individual autonomy of each rabbi to set his or her own standards. There is no one who cannot find some rabbi somewhere to convert him – if the price is right.
"Rabbis" who openly advertise their conversion services for a fee, "rabbis" who officiate with priests and ministers at mixed "marriages", "rabbis" who officiate at same-sex "marriages" or who are partners to such "marriages" are, under the terms of today's Supreme Court decision, entitled to issue conversion certificates.
It is impossible to identify any core set of beliefs or practices that joins Torah Judaism and the heterodox movements. Israel recognizes 16 different Christian denominations as separate faith communities, but they are far closer to one another than Torah Judaism is to Reform and Conservative. This point is freely admitted by the more honest Reform leaders. The late Alexander Shindler, past president of the American Reform movement, put the matter succinctly: "Either you accept Halacha or you are outside. We have chosen to be outside."
W. Gunther Plaut, a leading Reform thinker, has stated clearly, "Neither G-d nor Torah can be considered universally commanding sources for Reform Halacha." Jacob Petuchowski, the movement's foremost theologian, once likened Reform to Pauline Christianity in its rejection of Law and its desire to return man to his state prior to the Revelation at Sinai.
Conservative thinkers are less open about their rejection of Halacha. Yet they have made the Revelation at Sinai something so amorphous as to deprive it of all binding force. "So long as a [Jew] is serious about his responsibility and concerned about his Jewishness," writes the late Seymour Siegel, a professor of theology at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, "he is doing the right thing in the sight of G-d." Try to find one verse in the Torah to the effect, "Do what you want, as long as you are sincere."
Conservative Jews differ only in their taste for more traditional ritual. Over three-quarters of American Conservative Jews say that one can be religious without observing mitzvos, and 69% of the Movement's converts end up marrying non-Jews.
Given the impossibility of identifying any points of commonality between Orthodox and Reform, the logic of the Court's decision dictates that conversion certificates issued by any other Jewish group should also be recognized. Court President Aharon Barak was obviously sensitive to this difficulty, and therefore limited "conversions" to those overseas communities which are "recognized." But recognized by whom? And once a set of core Jewish beliefs or practices is excluded, what criteria are there for recognition?
It is doubtful, for instance, that Barak would exclude "converts" of the Reconstructionist Movement, which is little more than forty years old and which denies the existence of G-d. Logically there would be nothing to exclude mainstream Jewish organizations from issuing their own "secular" conversions, as Yossi Beilin and others have advocated.
Indeed it is clear that for Israel's elite that conversion is, for all intents and purposes, a secular form of identification with Israel. Thus Ha'Aretz blasted the rabbis for treating with suspicion those "who want to link their lives to the fate of this difficult country." In another editorial, Ha'aretz cited "research" that conversion in Jewish history has largely been an ethnic not religious matter, though the researchers did not explain how one can change one's ethnicity. Ha'aretz and the justices of the Supreme Court have conflated Israel with the Jewish people - a people defined by their millennial old acceptance of a mission from G-d.
With its inexorable march towards full recognition of any "conversion", the Supreme Court drives yet another nail in the dream of David Ben-Gurion that Jewish identity would provide the glue to bind together Jews from over 100 countries and locate Israel in the historical continuum of the Jewish people. As the students of Shammai and Hillel knew, when Jews can no longer rely on one another's representation of fitness as a marriage partner, then we are no longer one people joined together by a common destiny.