Rabbis, Cowards and Cynics: Why Religious Freedom Has Few Champions in Israel

Want to convert to Judaism in Israel? You’ll need more than good faith. Let by Netanyahu, political cynicism at its worst has now stymied legislation towards a more reasonable, welcoming process.

A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
Haaretz

Wherever you look right now in the Jewish press, you find distressing stories about conversion to Judaism - and about the ugly politics of the conversion process.

Conversion should be moving and sublime, demanding but profoundly meaningful, and reflective of Judaism’s broadly inclusive values. Sadly, what we see in the media in the last few weeks is how human weakness and political opportunism have caused pain and suffering to candidates for conversion in America and turned conversion in Israel into a political football. Whatever else happens, this much is certain: Sacred values have been trampled.

The “voyeur case,” as it’s been called in the press, involves Rabbi Barry Freundel, a Washington, D.C. rabbi accused of videotaping women candidates for conversion while they were naked in the mikveh (ritual bath). The Jewish world has responded to these accusations with outrage and revulsion. But since Rabbi Freundel denies the charges and nothing as yet has been proven, full consideration of the matter will have to wait.

For now, it can simply be noted that in some ways the case is not about conversion at all; it is about rabbinic misconduct and exploitation of religious authority, of the sort that can happen in a variety of settings and by clergy of all movements and all faiths. At the same time, it does raise questions about the problems of conversion in the American Orthodox world, which in recent years has adapted its procedures, usually not for the better, to accommodate the demands of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. At a later point, these matters will need to be discussed.

What can be discussed now is the conversion bill charade that is currently playing out in Israel. Conversion in Israel is controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which does its best to keep the number of conversions to a minimum. The conversion courts that operate in Israel under its auspices have tough requirements that make conversion virtually impossible for most of those Israelis who might be interested. For more than two decades, Israel’s leaders have been attempting to pressure the Chief Rabbinate into a more flexible stance.

The latest attempt is a conversion reform bill initially proposed by Knesset member Elazar Stern of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party. The proposed reforms would allow local rabbis to set up conversion courts, some of which would presumably have more moderate standards than those now demanded by the conversion courts controlled by the Chief Rabbinate. In addition, candidates for conversion would no longer be obligated to go to the rabbinic court closest to their home; they would be entitled to approach any rabbinic court in Israel that performs conversions, and the majority of candidates would likely gravitate toward those courts that become known for an approach to conversion that is both reasonable and welcoming.

Elazar Stern is an honorable man with the best of intentions. He believes that his bill will create something of a “free market” in the conversion realm and will make a real difference. But, sadly, even if it passes, it won’t.

Israel has a massive religious bureaucracy, made up of a variety of institutions including a large network of rabbinic courts, neighborhood and community rabbis, a kashrut establishment, and government-sponsored religious schools. Some historians suggest that it is comparable in size to the Catholic Church in medieval France. The Chief Rabbinate remains the dominant religious voice in this bureaucracy. While in theory local rabbis could decide to break with the Chief Rabbinate and find ways within the scope of halakhah to make conversion easier for those committed to joining the Jewish people, the reality is that only a tiny number of rabbis, if any at all, will dare to do so. The Chief Rabbis have said that they will demand adherence to their standards and their approval, formal or otherwise, for all conversions, and virtually all local rabbis will comply. Israel’s centralized, hierarchical religious structure makes any other outcome impossible.

Of course, the law may not pass. The Prime Minister who previously supported it no longer does; reportedly he fears the reaction of the Haredim, whom he might need as coalition partners in the next government. But then, some say that even though he indicates that he does not support it, he actually expects it to pass without his approval; in this view, his strategy is to get the law approved without the need for him to pay the political price of backing it. In other words, even for the Prime Minister, we are reaching new heights of cynicism. Netanyahu supports and does not support the law, is and is not wooing the Haredim, does not want the law passed but really does. Is it any wonder that it is so hard to advance the cause of religious freedom in Israel?

And do Bogie Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid really believe that this bill will create a conversion revolution? I doubt it very much. They are too smart for that. But they know that a significant religious breakthrough is not in the cards, and they are desperate to produce something that will give the appearance of progress.
But in their hearts they know the truth: Religious freedom in Israel will require courage, daring, and willingness to dismantle, piece by piece, the religious structures that are strangling Judaism in the Jewish state. Until that day comes, they are just playing games.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.