An unholy alliance
The Supreme Rabbinic Court's ruling on conversions must serve as a touchstone for relations between Israeli society and the rabbinic courts.
The Supreme Rabbinic Court's ruling on conversions must serve as a touchstone for relations between Israeli society and the rabbinic courts. The Supreme Rabbinic Court, which operates by the Rabbinical Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law, and does not have clear authority over conversion matters, essentially trampled the entire system of parallel rabbinic courts that were established by law. These were set up in order to do justice and provide an appropriate solution to the question of the Jewishness of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and others who have linked their fate with that of the Jewish people and State of Israel.
The conversion courts, in recent years under the directorship of Rabbi Haim Druckman, converted thousands - after a period of intensive study and passing an exam that most Jewish-born Israelis would fail. They created an unhurried and moderate gateway to the Jewish people.
This is what aroused the wrath of the Supreme Rabbinic Court authorities. In their view, so long as converts do not join in a total manner the patterns of behavior, dress code and lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox public, then their conversion is null and void. According to them, Judaism takes only one form, and authorities on Jewish law (poskei halakha) of only one sort are accorded respect and recognition: the ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist form that takes no account of the Jewish cultural world of the general Israel public.
But the ruling's authors are merely representatives of the real lords of the rabbinic courts, before whom Israeli governments have subjected themselves. Successive governments paid the ultra-Orthodox political parties by giving them control over Judaism. The government handed them the rabbinic courts, the judges' appointment, the conversion policy, and control over the issue of women whose husbands refuse to grant them an official bill of divorce, or cannot be located. They are the ones who appoint chief rabbis and determine the Jewish character of the state.
Moreover, the government pays the ultra-Orthodox coalition with an exemption from oversight of their school curriculum and the core curriculum requirement, and with generous budgets. The military service exemption for yeshiva students is also expanding. And all this, the Jewish agenda, has been placed in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox in return for coalition peace and quiet and acquiescing in any peace plan, whatever its price. A safety net for political survival in exchange for total control over Israel's Jewishness.
In the past there was "the historic alliance" - the partnership of Labor Zionist governments with the Zionist Orthodox parties. David Ben-Gurion opted for a coalition with the Zionist Orthodox. The government gave them substantial control over the Jewish agenda in the country, but it was not abused.
On the contrary, a military rabbinate was created, enabling a single military service for Orthodox and secular alike, and conversions were performed according to the less strict school of thought. State religious schools became an integral part of the Education Ministry, and the curricula used there educated toward Israeliness and mutual appreciation. Studies at Zionist Orthodox yeshivas educate toward military service and complete integration in civilian life. The prominent role of the Orthodox in science and medicine, law and economics, the army and security services is evident and well-known.
But this alliance was abandoned because of coalition needs. We recall how Ariel Sharon ousted, in a dubious and demeaning manner, the Orthodox ministers who opposed the disengagement plan so he could gain a majority for the vote. It was not the Orthodox who violated the alliance, but rather prime ministers who did not bear responsibility for the shared future of Israeli society.
This is the Israeli dilemma: Forfeiting Israeli Jewishness in exchange for coalition peace, or restraining the government's political freedom in exchange for a return to a responsible Jewishness that works on behalf of all the country's citizens. Both the restraint and the return to control over the Jewish agenda are among the State of Israel's uppermost interests. In order to reshape a responsible Jewish agenda for Israeli society, in order to acquire control of the conversion process and rabbinic court policy, in order to change the poverty rate and dependence on stipends within ultra-Orthodox society, and in order to demand that core-curriculum studies exist - the principle of that historic alliance must be renewed.
For this, however, any government must reach a fateful decision: that "payment" in return for the alliance is to be paid in peace-process currency. It is necessary to agree on a more responsible peace policy, one that is based on facts and not on wishful thinking. It is necessary to refrain from pointlessly uprooting communities, and to create change in several areas vital to our shared life. Then peace and moderation will return to both our Jewish life and the defense policy shared by all.
The writer is the rabbi of Ofra, and chairman of the Religious Public Education Council.