Only a Revitalized Religious Zionism Can Fight the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism

Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-14-10

As Yisrael Beiteinu’s controversial conversion bill advances, the movement most suited to mediate is stymied. Religious Zionists should have the Halachic standing to forge a suitable Jewish solution to the problem along with the nationalist commitment to avoid alienating many fellow Jews, in Israel and abroad.  Yet rather than being bold visionaries like Caleb and Joshua, too many Religious Zionist Rabbis are exhibiting the ten sniveling spies’ conventional cowardice.

In fairness, the proposed law is not all bad. Some of Israel’s most open-minded rabbis would be empowered as city rabbis to do conversions. But by making the Chief Rabbinate Israel’s dominant authority in conversions, the law rejects Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, risks alienating Diaspora Jews, and rewards a failing institution.

Unfortunately, the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate is the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism.  Necessary initiatives to free Israeli Judaism from the twin curses of state coercion and fetishistic ritualism often get sucked into the Chief Rabbinate’s toxic vacuum, never to be seen again. The Chief Rabbinate – along with the broader Israeli religious establishment – has a catastrophic track record, having alienated generations of Israeli Jews with all-or-nothing, heavy-handed, polarizing, pedantic, narrow-minded, authoritarianism.  The Chief Rabbinate’s arrogance and failure demonstrate why separation of church and state protects the synagogue AND the state.

Religious Zionism is in crisis. Religious Zionists feel betrayed by the state over the Gaza disengagement, outflanked by ultra-Orthodox haredim who call them too soft religiously and too tied to the State politically, yet harassed by the left for being too harsh religiously and politically. Religious Zionism’s stilted silence has harmed Israel. The absence of its moral might in denouncing those settler hooligans who prey on Palestinians, its political impotence despite an increasingly aggressive, anti-Zionist haredi rabbinate, and its failure to find common ground with the Zionist center, let alone the left, has left a gaping ideological vacuum in an increasingly fragmented society.

Last week, an inspiring gathering at Bet Morasha in Jerusalem launching its Israel Institute for Conversion Policy demonstrated the kind of Zionist idealism and moral grandeur that could redeem Religious Zionism – and revitalize Israel.  Approximately 320,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union live in Halachic purgatory, with Rabbis questioning whether they are legally Jewish. By making conversions increasingly difficult, the Chief Rabbinate keeps hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in Halachic hell, unable to marry within the existing legal framework. The new center will promote a more flexible, humane, and Halachic conversion process, especially welcoming young people into the Jewish people.

“The Russian Aliyah of more than one million people is a jewel in our crown, bringing glory to Israel,” Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Beit Morasha’s leader, proclaimed when opening the conference. “We must find a solution to make them feel at home.”

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, insisted we must “welcome every individual who wants to belong to the Jewish people.”  In a tough talk, Sharansky blasted those politicians and rabbis using the crisis to undermine Conservative and Reform conversions.  “Conservative and Reform Jews ask, ‘Why when we are fighting against Israel’s delegitimization abroad, is Israel considering delegitimizing us?’”  Israel’s government should facilitate Jewish unity, not spark denominational civil wars.

In one panel, three leading lights of Religious Zionism embraced this conversion crisis as an opportunity to welcome more Jews, save Religious Zionism, and strengthen Israel. Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar Rabbinical organization warned that by “failing to address this great challenge, Israel risks creating five distinct people within one country of seven million”: the questionably Jewish, secular Jews, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs.  Rabbi Benjamin Lau, also of Bet Morasha, blasted the Chief Rabbinate for creating a culture whereby “Rabbis boast about not making any conversions in a given year.” Instead, “we need a national movement to push conversion,” to incorporate these Jews.

Finally, defining the conversion issue as one of basic “social justice,” as well as essential to Zionism’s future, Maj-Gen (res.) Elazar Stern identified the underlying metastasizing, political cancer few Religious Zionists will confront directly. “Israel has given the keys to its kingdom to people who question its very existence,” Stern declared, assailing the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox grip on the Chief Rabbinate. To Stern, Religious Zionists who accept this absurdity are betraying Israel.  How can Jews, how can Zionists, fail to protect the weak, the marginalized, Stern asked, demanding that a mass movement of Religious Zionists embrace these people.

It was great hearing some righteous indignation from Religious Zionists about a compelling moral question that could unite most Israelis and most Jews. “Religious Zionism has been too concerned with land and not enough with people – it is changing now,” Rabbi Barry Gelman, of United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston, Texas, subsequently explained. Rabbi Gelman, who is President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, put the issue in historical context, saying: “Haredim still treat Halacha like a private matter – which is the Diaspora approach. In a Jewish state, Halacha is a matter of public concern. Therefore, approaches to Halacha should consider national realities, such as applying well-known broader approaches to conversion.”  This broader approach includes asking converts about Judaism’s moral principles and fundamental values, not just what the correct blessing is over an olive or cheese.

Sometimes movements, like individuals, get stuck. If they can find their voice in one area, it frequently returns elsewhere too. Taking a nationalist, humane, welcoming yet traditionally Jewish approach to the conversion crisis could galvanize Religious Zionism.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must demonstrate political leadership not coalition stewardship here, Religious Zionists have the standing to liberate the rabbinate – and Israel – from the grip of non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Some Religious Zionists have a vision that could unite religious and non-religious Israeli Jews in a compelling, quality-of-life issue central to the Jewish people.  Ethics of the Fathers teaches: “say little, do much.” These Religious Zionists have said a lot. They must do even more, including defeating this harmful, divisive, anti-Zionist conversion bill – and pioneering new solutions.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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