Zionism Must Reject ultra-Orthodox View on Conversion

The ultra-Orthodox attitude toward converts causes serious injustice to thousands of people who want to live as Jews and raise their children that way.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The conversion scandal has hit new heights in recent weeks, with the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox declaring war on Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's approval of the army's conversions. But what is particularly shameful about this story is the silence of Israel's secular majority.

This silence does not stem from the perception that conversion is a matter of halakha (Jewish law ), in which secular Israelis purportedly have no say. Secular public figures are quite capable of raising their voices (though not enough ) against the injustices of the rabbinical courts when it comes to divorce. That means the source of this apathy is not the halakhic irrelevance, but the human irrelevance: Members of the secular elite need the rabbinate from time to time for the purpose of divorce, but not for conversion.

It is important to understand that beyond the basic fact that the ultra-Orthodox attitude toward converts causes serious injustice to thousands of people who want to live as Jews and raise their children that way, this attitude also symbolizes the ultra-Orthodox challenge to the very essence of the Zionist enterprise. After all, according to the Zionist vision, the State of Israel is not supposed to be a shtetl with an army. Zionism is essentially a revolution in the very concept of Jewish identity.

Jewish identity has always had both a national and a religious aspect, and that is what enabled the Jewish people to survive thousands of years in the Diaspora. But there is still significance to the question of which of these two elements is the fundamental one. The Zionist worldview claims that the national aspect is fundamental, while the ultra-Orthodox continue to uphold the precedence of the religious aspect. That is the root of their opposition to Zionism.

Thus a Zionist conversion ought to examine the seriousness of the candidate's intentions to join the Jewish people, not necessarily the seriousness of his intentions to observe the religious commandments. Such an examination would obviously be more difficult, and because of the link between the national and the religious aspects, it does not allow for the acceptance of those who are not of the Jewish faith. But if those responsible for conversion had been satisfied with examining the candidate's knowledge of Jewish history and heritage and ensuring that the holidays he observes are the Jewish ones, that would have fit the Zionist worldview much better.

Accepting the ultra-Orthodox worldview, which holds that observance of the religious commandments is the only criterion for conversion, is tantamount to asserting that Zionism has not changed a thing in the perception of Jewish identity. But if Jewish identity is essentially religious, then Jews do not deserve a state at all, since there are no religious states in our world (except the Vatican, which is a purely symbolic state ), only nation states.

Therefore, anyone who views himself as a Zionist must categorically reject the ultra-Orthodox view. Agreeing to continued ultra-Orthodox abuse of converts for the sake of keeping the peace within the governing coalition is tantamount to agreeing to change the state symbol or the national anthem out of such considerations.

There must be no compromise with the ultra-Orthodox on this matter. And if they want to separate from the nation of Israel over this matter, they should remember two things.

First, it is only because previous generations of Zionists rebelled against the ultra-Orthodox position that their descendents enjoy the achievements and support of the Zionist state today. Second, if they wish to separate from the nation of Israel, it would be fitting, if they have even a modicum of integrity, to separate themselves from its economic support as well: They should ask the Finance Ministry to keep budgetary pedigree records, under which only Torah students who see themselves as part of the nation of Israel would be eligible for the special benefits the state can give them. All the rest would have to make do with the minimum that the state grants all its citizens - or perhaps what it gives resident aliens.



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