The biggest threat to Judaism and the Jewish people is not from outside. It’s not the Muslim extremists who want to drive Israel into the sea. It’s not the white nationalists who seem to believe we are to blame for all of their problems. No. None of that. The biggest threat we face is from inside of Judaism.
How can I say that you wonder? Well, let me explain.
Let’s start with Israel and conversions.
There is a new bill in Israel, is expected to pass, that will give the Orthodox movement total control over conversions in Israel and deny any recognition to conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinical courts, as well as Conservative/Reform conversions.
As it stands now, until this bill is enacted, both Conservative and Reform conversions, which are done through private rabbinical courts, are granted the same rights and benefits as anyone who has converted via an Orthodox Rabbinical Court. An example would be the Right of Return.
When this bill is passed into law, it would deny Conservative and Reform converts, who are not born in Israel, ineligible for the same benefits as other immigrants under the Law of Return.
Now, there is a large and vocal sector of individuals who say that as there are only a handful of non-Israeli citizens who convert through either the Conservative or Reform movements each year, the overall effect of the bill is symbolic.
The original bill was written by Moshe Nissim, a former justice minister and finance minister, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That bill would have denied recognition of all conversions performed in Israel outside of the existing Orthodox state system, which is under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Yes, you read that right. The current system is Orthodox and is under the auspices of Netanyahu, a seemingly non-religious Jew.
In 2016 the High Court ruled that Orthodox conversions outside the state-run system are, for lack of a better term, kosher. This was seen as a victory by the Giyur K’Halakah, a private initiative founded by a group of prominent religious Zionist Rabbis. This group has performed more than 600 conversions in Israel or eighteen percent of the total number of conversions each year. The problem with Giyur K’Halakah, as seen within the Orthodox movement, is their conversion requirements are considered less stringent.
Let’s circle back to the Law of Return.
When the Law of Return was first enacted, it did not define who a Jew was, or what it meant to be Jewish. Who is a Jew is a given, in my mind at least. It 1970 the law was revised to read that a Jew is a person who is born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.
In 1970 the law did not define what that conversion had to be, or who had to conduct it.
By changing the law for conversion in Israel, you are going to change the Law of Return. These changes are going to drive a wedge between Jewish communities in Israel and the rest of the world.
Rabbi Seth Farber, who is the founder and director of ITIM, said he is concerned that this would strain such relations.
“Given the tenuous relationship and increasing distance between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, I don’t think it would benefit the Israeli government to raise this issue now since it would in all likelihood create greater division and more tensions,” he said.
Giyur K’Halakah operates out of the offices of ITIM.
Even though under the new bill, the Chief Rabbinate would be less involved in conversions, the billing, according to Rabbi Farber is “completely unacceptable and [does] not address the existential needs of converts in Israel today.”
Okay, I can hear you right now, saying that this is a law in Israel, not the rest of the world, it won’t affect us. Wrong.
“I come from a Jewish family,” Brian Wiss told me. “My family can trace that back for a long time. But, trying to move to Israel has been a pain. A major pain that has started showing that Israel doesn’t care about me.”
Brian is a Reform Jew. In Germany, his family was far from Orthodox. They were practising Jews. They kept Kosher, wore Tefillin. “They would be considered Reform by today’s standards,” he says of his family.
“They started making deportations of my family in 1942,” says Brian. “Even before that they were killing my family. Not everyone was able to escape.”
When Brian sought a move to Israel under the Law of Return, he didn’t think he would have any problems, or roadblocks tossed before him. He was an active member of his Temple. He supported the Jewish Community at home and in Israel.
“I was told I needed a letter from an Orthodox Rabbi who could verify I was Jewish,” he says.
Keep in mind; Brian was born Jewish. He’s not a convert. Still, his move to Israel stalled.
“There is no Orthodox Synagogue in my town,” says Brian. “The closest one is a couple of towns over, and a close to four-hour drive one way. I called the Rabbi there, and he tells me he cannot provide any letter unless I start going there. That, and I will need to give him my parents Ketubah, and it better have been an Orthodox wedding.”
This is the reality Brian faced in trying to move to Israel under the Law of Return. He says he eventually abandoned the desire to move.
“Why should I even bother to go to Israel?” he asked me. “There is a strange thing happening there. It’s like you can only be Jewish if you are Orthodox, or were born or made a conversion in Israel. They are excluding the rest of us.”
“I try to look at things differently,” says Dov Mandel. “The question should be, ‘Does Reform Judaism accept Orthodox/tradition as a legitimate form of Judaism?”
I thought this an odd way of putting things.
“Reform rejects that the laws as dictated in Torah, the Talmud and the shulchan aruch as mandaded and commanded by G-d, and therefore can and sometimes should be rejected,” says Dov. “Therefore, in founding itself, the Reform movement rejects Orthodox/tradition based on Judaism as the authentic Judaism, and by default sets itself up as the polar opposite thereof.”
Dov spoke of boundaries and limits to what Judaism constitutes.
“For example,” he says, “if I want to sell you a piece of property, and you ask me what the boundaries are, if I can’t show you exactly where they are, I cannot tell you how large or small the property is and how much you are getting for your money. If I showed you that inside that property there are even smaller boundaries that are rock solid, and that is what I am selling you, and the other part of the property which borders other properties is somewhat fluid, then you can pay full price for the rock solid area and maybe less for the shared space property.
“Orthodox has rock-solid boundaries for its core, and there is some fluidity based upon the particular rulings and customs of some communities, but they all have the same core. All other streams cannot tell you what their rock-solid core is because they by definition don’t have one. Anything can change based on the feelings and current morals of the members of the movement.
“All streams outside of orthodoxy believe that there is no rock solid core and that there are no inviolable borders to what can be considered “Judaism”. Orthodoxy absolutely rejects that creed. It believes that the 613 commandments are inviolable and therefore cannot accept any creed that rejects those commandments as ‘Judaism’.”
“Reform Judaism is not a branch,” says Al Berko, “it’s just a degree of freedom in Judaism. It is not about the direction, it’s about the commitment.”
Brian Wiss commits, as does every convert. To be told that you must practice as an Orthodox Jew, or convert through an Orthodox Rabbi to be Jewish is setting us all up for failure.
“Jews represent such a small portion of the world population,” says Daniel Kaplan, “the last thing he needs is to spurn huge (or small) segment of the population.”
Daniel went on to say that, “if some group wants to turn their backs on another group for not being hardcore enough, a shandeh un a charpeh. They’re no better than they should be.”
Back to Israel. Back to conversions.
If we allow Israel, our homeland, our birthright to begin to dictate what conversions are accepted, how long will it be before they begin to dictate who is and who isn’t Jewish? Brian’s is not a unique story. Not by a longshot.
Henri Zimmerman, we are not family, we only share a last name, tried to make Aliyah last year.
“I’m Jewish, I’m Conservative, I’m a New Yorker,” he says.
“I’ve been to Israel twice a year for almost eleven years. It’s my second home, physically,” he says. “For me, for my family, it figured Aliyah was the thing to do.”
Henri is an artist, his wife a teacher.
“The practice of Judaism is central to our lives, our daily lives,” he said.
When they began to process of moving to Israel and seeking citizenship, they found the hurdles almost insurmountable.
“A friend of mine said that we were Jewish enough for the Birthright Israel tour, but not Jewish enough for citizenship.”
What stopped them from accepting the jobs they were offered? “We had to prove we were Jewish,” says Henri.
“When I was just seventeen we had a fire in the home,” says Henri. “We lost it all. Everything. And here I was being asked for my mother’s Ketubah. It was gone. It burned up.”
During this time, Henri and his wife moved and began attending another Synagogue. The other option that was presented to him was to get a letter from his Rabbi. So, his current Rabbi talked to the other Rabbi and wrote a letter. Still wasn’t good enough.
“When they [the Israeli government] paid for us to go to Israel, we didn’t have that much trouble,” says Henri. “It was simple. Getting there to move, that was not so simple.”
The letter from his current Rabbi was rejected simply because the current Rabbi speaking to the former Rabbi didn’t show Henri was in fact Jewish.
This is where we are. This is what is going to be the greatest hurdle to us as a people: why are allowing the definition of who is Jewish and what a conversion is to be changed? Why are we allowing this now, when we need to be able to show a unified community to the rest of the world?
My family was Orthodox, have the ketubah’s and everything. Now, today, I find myself a baal teshuva. But, do I want to go down that road, if the Orthodox are going to actively exclude others? I wonder.
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