Who is a Jew? It’s an age-old inquiry, one that has for decades (if not centuries) provoked debate, discussion and too many punch lines to count — all inspired by what many assumed was the question’s essential unanswerability. But if developments this week are any indication, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, might soon offer an official, surprising answer: almost no one.
On Monday, a Knesset committee approved a bill sponsored by David Rotem, a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, that would give the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel. If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths — and, through them, the fundamental questions of Jewish identity — in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis.
The move has set in motion a sectarian battle that is not only dividing Israeli society but threatening to sever the vital connection between Israel and the American Jewish diaspora.
The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries, who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably corrupt. (To take the most salacious of a slew of examples, an American Haredi rabbi who had become one of the most powerful authorities on the question of conversion resigned from his organization in December after accusations that he solicited phone sex from a hopeful female convert.) Rather, it is that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism, for all Jews.
It is hard to exaggerate the possible ramifications, first and foremost for Jewish Israelis. Rivkah Lubitch, an Orthodox woman who is a lawyer in Israel’s rabbinic court system, painted a harrowing picture of the future in a recent column on the Israeli Web site Ynet.
“Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.”
Why are the rabbis doing this? The process is not being driven, as some say, by a suspicion of new converts — they’re simply a wedge issue. Nor is it, as others argue, a reaction to the influx of Russian Jews, who when they seek permission to wed in Israel are often asked for evidence that their families were registered as Jews in the old Soviet Union.
No, what is driving this process is the desire of a small group of rabbis to expand their authority from narrow questions of conversion to larger questions of Jewish identity. Since what goes for conversion also goes for all other clerical acts, only a few anointed rabbis will be able to determine the authenticity of one’s marriage, divorce, birth, death — and every rite in between.
And lest one imagine that this is just another battle between the more progressive Reform and Conservative denominations and the more observant Orthodox, it must be noted that the criteria used by the rabbinate are driven by internal Haredi politics, not observance. According to the Jewish Week, at one point the number of American rabbis who were officially authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to perform conversions was down to a few dozen. Even if you are Orthodox — and especially if you are Modern Orthodox — your rabbi probably doesn’t make the cut. (Don’t believe it? Go ask him.)
Given that the conversion bill is the latest in a series of similarly motivated efforts, it seems almost useless to note that the stringent approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes bears little connection to the historical experience and religious practice of the majority of Jewish people over the past two millenniums. It will do little good, too, to point out that it is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked.
And it doesn’t help to argue that giving the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate total control over Jewish practice will destroy religious life in Israel just as surely as clerical control hurt the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Spain and France. Or that the Zionist founders, from Herzl to Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion, all believed passionately in the unity of the Jewish people and the need for a secular state.
But perhaps a more practical rallying cry will work: If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.
Why, they will wonder, as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map, did the custodians of the 2,000-year-old national dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?
And, they will also wonder, what of the quiescence of diaspora Jewry? Many American Jews understandably see Israel as under siege and have not wanted to make things worse; they imagined that internal politicking over conversions and marriages was ephemeral, and would change. But the conversion bill is a sign that this silence was a mistake, for it has been interpreted by Israeli politicians as a green light to throw basic questions of Jewish identity into the pot of coalition politics.
The redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong diaspora, which have spoken to each other politically and culturally, and whose successes have mutually reinforced the confidence and capacities of the other. Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities — a dystopian possibility that, if this bill passes, could materialize frightfully soon.
Alana Newhouse, the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, which covers Jewish life and culture.