Knesset Set to Launch Caucus for Secular Conversion

Forum, headed by Meretz Chair Beilin, aims to institute civil marriage and divorce, secular conversion to Judaism.

The founding conference of a Knesset caucus for secular Judaism will take place Tuesday afternoon. If it succeeds, its founder, Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin, hopes that in the not so distant future, it will serve as the basis for founding and institutionalizing a secular Judaism movement alongside the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.

The new forum's goals include instituting some kind of civil marriage and divorce, instituting secular conversions to Judaism and obtaining state funding for secular yeshivas. It will also work to promote separation of religion and state.

The forum's long-term goal is creating a secular Judaism movement, including secular conversions. Such conversions, according to Beilin, will require familiarity with Hebrew culture, the Hebrew language and Jewish history. "Secular conversion might be harder and more complex than religious conversion," he said, adding that such conversions would be the real revolution.

Nevertheless, Beilin anticipates many arguments within the forum on whether to establish such a movement. "Some say a secular movement is antithetical to secular Judaism," he explained.

Shabbat is also likely to be a subject of controversy. Beilin wants Jews to be able to work on Shabbat and to choose any other day of the week as their day off, as members of other religions can. But many secular Jews support the proposed Shabbat Law, which would permit cultural activities, entertainment and public transportation on Shabbat, but forbid commerce.

Beilin admits that the chances of passing a civil marriage law are slim. He therefore suggests that the secular movement offer financial assistance to needy Israelis who want to marry in Cyprus. "There will be an organized body that transports them, brings them back and apologizes for the fact that Israel, unlike most countries in the enlightened world, offers no possibility of marrying without God."

How does his goal of obtaining state funds for secular yeshivas - which, he said, are currently discriminated against compared to religious yeshivas - mesh with his goal of separating religion and state? Beilin explained that he does not support an American-style separation, in which the government is barred from financing religious services. He believes that the state should build synagogues and mikvehs (ritual baths), but opposes religious legislation, such as the law banning the sale of bread on Passover.

The new body's official name is "the forum of MKs for advancing secular Judaism." Beilin apparently wanted to avoid the word "caucus." Eight MKs have thus far expressed interest in joining, including Yisrael Hasson of Yisrael Beiteinu, Amira Dotan and Shai Hermesh of Kadima, and Sara Marom Shalev of the Pensioners' Party.

But even these MKs do not really seem to know why they are coming. Hermesh said merely, "The initiative looks interesting, and I'm curious to see what it is." MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), who is also considering attending, said that in his view, secular Judaism is "an entire world and a whole agenda," but that he is unfamiliar with Beilin's initiative.

Many organizations have been established in recent years to promote secular Judaism, and Beilin hopes his caucus will serve as a forum for cooperation among them. Representatives of several such groups have agreed to attend the conference.

"This is not a pluralism forum," Beilin said. "I don't want to promote the Reform or Conservative [Movements], but the secular one."

But Meir Yaffe, head of the Panim secular Judaism organization, believes that it is vital not to exacerbate differences within the pluralistic community. What unites secular Judaism with the Reform and Conservative varieties is far greater than what divides them, he said.

The Reform Movement has still not decided whether it belongs in the forum, though it is sending Rabbi Gilad Kariv to the conference. Kariv said that if the new group promotes pluralism and separation of religion and state, his movement will join. If instead, its goal is to establish the secular Judaism movement, the Reform Movement will still support it, but "from outside."