The festival of Shavuot raises questions about conversion, marriage, divorce and family reunification. These issues are not simply theoretical, but take real, institutional form in Israel, thanks to the established Orthodox religious hierarchy here: Religious industries, vast enterprises that reap revenues of millions of shekels annually. The religious establishment looks after its own survival – ever alert to block any change on these issues, either through legislation or judicial verdicts that could cause them economic damage and endanger their monopolistic power.
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The custom of reading the Book of Ruth over Shavuot was already set in Babylonia in the 8th century C.E. This book, or scroll, tells the story of a wealthy family from Judea who migrated to Moab during a famine. The family of Elimelech was well integrated into local society, and his sons Mahlon and Kilion married Moabite women. A decade later, after the death of Elimelech, her husband, and her sons, Naomi decided to return home to Judea and start a new life. She said goodbye to her Moabite daughters-in-law, thanked them for their support in her hour of need. Orpah left, but Ruth decided to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi to join the People of Israel.
I read this as a feminist text, which is subversive in some ways. Ruth is the symbol of an independent and courageous woman, who was a foreigner in every place she lived, yet always maintained her freedom. In Moab, Ruth was seen as the wife of a Jew, while in Judea, she was considered a Moabite woman. Yet wherever she lived, she maintained her faith, she did not surrender nor change. Her declaration to Naomi is immortalized as the ultimate expression of loyalty for the generations when she said: “...whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). With these words, Ruth the Moabite joined the People of Israel, and over the generations, gave birth to the great-grandmother of King David.
American Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote, “In the thousands of years since Ruth spoke these words, no one has better defined the combination of peoplehood and religion that characterizes Judaism: ‘Your people shall be my people’ (‘I wish to join the Jewish nation’), ‘Your God shall be my God’ (‘I wish to accept the Jewish religion’).”
The scroll teaches us that the concept of conversion and acceptance of Jewish life depends first and foremost on the heart and conscience. Yet, in Israel, the lessons of the Book of Ruth were forgotten long ago. We have forgotten tolerance for foreigners. We have forgotten acceptance of non-Jews. We have forgotten derech eretz – the primacy of human respect over the tenets of the law. We have forgotten what true Torah is.
The right to a family
The State of Israel has forgotten that the human right to family is a right that transcends religious authority. Every individual should have the right to start a family. But in Israel, hundreds of thousands of couples cannot start a family due to difficulties in converting to Judaism through the Rabbinate. Hundreds of thousands of other couples cannot wed in Israel because they are of different faiths and don’t wish to convert, can’t document their heritage, are “religion-less,” or are the same sex.
While traditional Judaism accepts the foreigner and respects his or her rights, the State of Israel tramples, in the name of religion, the stranger who seeks to become a part of it. Ruth’s statement of loyalty and commitment to the People of Israel is much stronger than the mandatory 14 months of study for those who wish to convert to Judaism in modern Israel. Ruth’s conversion emanated from her conscience and her inner truth rather than from rigorous studies culminating in a generic examination.
Today’s conversion process is a remnant of antiquated medieval practices which had an absolute aversion to accepting foreigners. Today, neither Reform nor Conservative conversions, to which the majority of Jews worldwide adhere, are accepted in Israel. Though the majority of world conversions to Jewry are Reform or Conservative, the State of Israel remains a prisoner of the Orthodox monopoly embodied in the Chief Rabbinate. The very necessity of this conversion as a condition for marriage is a violent act that better fits fundamentalist regimes and not the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
This Shavuot, it seems that nothing has really changed. Back in 2002, I petitioned the High Court of Justice in the name of the New Family Organization to eliminate the Jewish status investigations before granting marriage licenses. Religious status investigations particularly harm new immigrants arriving in Israel with the status of a “questionable Jew,” whose Judaism was doubted due to generations of living in the Diaspora without the Rabbinate knowing how carefully Judaism was observed.
For years, courts that specialized in clarifying an individual’s Jewishness, established in contravention of the law and which charged fees from their subjects, investigated the heritage of those who sought to marry. A compromise reached with the High Court ordered the cancelation of the Jewish clarification courts and the amending of regulations of rabbinical courts. But for nearly a decade, the courts have continued to operate in contravention of the law.
Only three years ago the regulations were finally amended, and instead of carrying out the High Court orders to cancel the courts, they were granted new and excessive powers; the illegal Judaism clarification courts were legalized by the Knesset. So there has been a regression in the status of immigrants. The Chief Rabbinate continues to humiliate immigrants and the public is silent.
A new generation, a new hope
Yet, we should be optimistic about change, not by government action, but from the revolution in family life enacted by the people. A new generation was born in the 20 years following the waves of immigration from the Soviet Union. The younger generation is unwilling to endure the insults their parents faced. Many young people proudly choose to hold an independent commitment ceremony and be recognized as common-law spouses instead of seeking legal marriage through the Rabbinate. The growing status of the common-law couple in Israel is reflected in changes in case law and a revolution in public discourse. The Israeli public increasingly supports Ruth the Moabite and opposes those who seek to reject her.
The Israeli government continues its political acrobatics to empower religious institutions. However, despite the absence of positive legislative developments to break this monopoly, the public has taken a stand: The number of Rabbinate marriages has not increased for several years. I predict that within a generation, half of the marriage arrangements will take place outside the Israeli Rabbinate. How we have strayed from the biblical vision of the Book of Ruth, and have been corrupted by intermarrying religion and state, and the rabbinic establishment and civil laws.
This Shavuot, we must go back to the inspiring story of Ruth and begin soul-searching. We must understand that the necessary change does not contradict the spirit of Judaism, but the opposite: The rabbinical establishment and the “circles of hell” it imposes on those wishing to simply realize their love is the real deviation from original Jewish values.
Irit Rosenblum is the founder and executive director of the New Family Organization.