New legislation has been proposed in Israel that would give ultimate authority on matters of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate. While its intent may be to empower the more moderate rabbis employed by local governments to perform conversions in order to help hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants, it can be expected to have the opposite effect. Not only would the bill, which has thankfully been shelved for the time being, give the Chief Rabbinate, which is known for its stringency on this issue, final say over any conversion in Israel, it also signals that its power might soon extend to the Diaspora as well. The consequence of the bill would then be to grant Israel's Chief Rabbinate full authority to determine one's Jewishness with regard to the Law of Return. This possibility has justifiably upset Conservative and Reform rabbinic leaders in the United States, whose conversions are not currently recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
I write as an Orthodox rabbi who is passionate about his belief. It is part and parcel of my very being, and it is from this perspective that I raise a voice of protest against the proposed legislation. It is bad not only for Conservative and Reform Jews - it's bad for Orthodox Judaism as well.
At present, Israel's Chief Rabbinate recognizes only those conversions performed by a select group of American Orthodox rabbis. Even conversions performed by some Israeli Orthodox rabbis are not accepted. And even Orthodox rabbis who have worked closely with the Chief Rabbinate's committee on conversion have had their conversions questioned and sometimes, shamefully, even revoked years later. The new legislation, therefore, further discriminates not only against Conservative and Reform Jews, but also against many streams within the Orthodox community.
While Conservative and Reform Judaism are by and large each united within one denomination, there are countless strains within Orthodoxy. Orthodox Jews range from Hasidic - and even among those sects there are serious divisions and disagreements - to Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Agudah, religious Zionist and modern Orthodox. The Chief Rabbinate is controlled by only one of these groups - the Haredi extreme right-wing element of Orthodoxy, which is often unwelcoming to Orthodox people who are outside their camp.
But even if every conversion performed by an Orthodox rabbi were accepted, the new legislation would still be bad law. Israel today is a diverse society. Religious and non-religious Jews are often at odds with each other. The feelings of the non-Orthodox toward the Orthodox are especially bitter. This discord can often be traced to negative feelings regarding the Chief Rabbinate, which is seen by many (especially the non-religious ) as the symbol of a monopolizing Orthodoxy in Israel and throughout the world.
What Israelis find intolerable is a rabbinate that is religiously coercive. Coercion turns people off Judaism - and specifically Orthodoxy. Legislation that allows the Chief Rabbinate to unilaterally determine who is Jewish will only serve to alienate countless more Jews - a dynamic that we, as a people, can ill afford.
The law would not only split Israeli Jews, it would divide American Jews as well. Apart from the obvious concern of Conservative and Reform rabbis, the more open Orthodox camp is troubled about the proposal too, but many have remained silent, concerned that any criticism would jeopardize their chances of being accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.
In opposing this new legislation, I nevertheless support the expansion of the role of local Israeli rabbis in conversion. It is they who should have responsibility for ruling on the Jewishness of a particular individual as well as with regard to synagogue membership or a ritual honor, or in order to consecrate a marriage. Much like in the United States, such decisions are best left to the local rabbi.
The Chief Rabbinate is of the opinion that coercion is a necessary means to maintain the Jewish character of the state. The reality, however, is that any form of coercion is a turn-off to the majority of Jews in Israel and around the world, who do not subscribe to their brand of Orthodoxy. It alienates them and drives them away.
Quite simply, coercion and religious growth are mutually exclusive. The pathway to religious commitment and spiritual striving is through choosing to grow and commit, not through force and coercion.
The best way to promote Judaism and, for that matter Orthodoxy - indeed, the best way to inspire hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants to seek out conversion - is through openness. The more one is open and offers choices, and the more one speaks and acts with love, the more others will be inspired to live a life of greater commitment to Jewish values and Jewish law. It is that commitment which, I believe with all my heart, will preserve and strengthen the Jewish character and identity of Israel.
Rabbi Avraham (Avi ) Weiss is Senior Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. The opinions presented here are his alone.