The great nineteenth-century American novelist, Herman Melville, observed: Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?....Where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?
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The question can be expanded. Who can draw the exact line from where religion has moved from being a spiritual and compassionate vision of life, to being a political entity bent on increasing its worldly power? When does a religious establishment cross the line from being an agent in service of God and humanity, to becoming a self-serving bureaucracy devoted to its own preservation?
There is a rainbow-like continuum bridging pure, idealistic religion on one side, and crass power-grabbing religion on the other. Much of religious life flows between these two end points. In the best scenarios, religious life stays as close as possible to the spiritual, compassionate pole. In the worst scenarios, it glides—almost without realizing it—closer to the extreme of hard-headed bureaucratic power politics.
In the matter of conversions to Judaism, we can actually see where one tint blends into the other, where religion has slipped into power politics. It was in 2006 when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that it would no longer accept the validity of conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora. It later modified its stance by agreeing to accept only those conversions performed by rabbinic courts in the Diaspora that conformed to the demands of the Rabbinate.
This policy had little to do with religion, and much to do with power grabbing. In one fell swoop, the Rabbinate of Israel cast aspersions on the credentials of many hundreds of Orthodox rabbis throughout the world; cast doubt on the conversions of thousands of people and their families; and created painful obstacles to those Orthodox converts who wished to make aliyah.
This policy was not only insulting and cruel. It also was anti-halakha. According to halakha (Jewish religious law), all Orthodox converts are 100% Jewish—in the eyes of halakha, and in the eyes of God. And yet, the Rabbinate declared that it would not accept these people as Jews, and that the State of Israel could not accept them as Jews. Religion had clearly slipped into power politics.
What motivated the Rabbinate to take such an unprecedented and unwarranted stance against Orthodox rabbis (primarily the non-Haredi Orthodox rabbis, it should be noted) in the Diaspora? While various elements were no doubt involved, here are a few suggestions: Increased pressure to conform to the most extreme Haredi views on conversion (and halakha in general); increased desire for control over Orthodox rabbis worldwide; increased desire to raise the Rabbinate's own authority in the State of Israel.
When religion slips into power politics, it is religion itself that becomes sullied. It is not surprising that a high percentage of the Israeli population has little respect for the Rabbinate. It is not surprising that a very high percentage of Jews in the Diaspora view the Rabbinate negatively. As symbols of religion, the Rabbinate and its allies have been remarkable failures. Instead of inspiring respect and admiration for Judaism and halakha, the religious establishment has generated disdain for—even hatred of—Judaism and halakha. The further it slips away from the spiritual and compassionate ideals of religion, the further it removes itself from the goodwill of the Jewish world.
In point of fact, the halakhic Jewishness of an Orthodox convert is not decided by the Rabbinate—but by God. The Rabbinate has no right whatever to question or deny the validity of halakhic conversions. The Talmud teaches that one who oppresses a convert thereby transgresses 36 commandments—some say 46 commandments; one dreads to think how many commandments have been broken by the Rabbinate and its allies in their gratuitous and abundant oppression of thousands of converts and potential converts, and the families of converts.
The Rabbinate had reluctantly agreed, through the efforts of Rabbi Shaul Farber and his Itim organization, to allow Israel's Interior Ministry to refer Orthodox converts to the Jewish Agency. The logic is that the Jewish Agency has contact with the Orthodox rabbis of the Diaspora and is in a better position than the Rabbinate to determine if the conversions were performed by bona fide Orthodox rabbis. Although the Rabbinate agreed to this system, it now seems to be reneging. Once again, Orthodox converts who wish to make aliyah are being oppressed by the Rabbinate.
Will a new set of Chief Rabbis improve the situation? This is possible, and certainly to be desired. But the real answer, I believe, is in taking the Rabbinate out of the process altogether.
As long as the Rabbinate demands and receives authority to accept or reject Orthodox conversions, there will be inevitable abuses and needless suffering. Religion will lose. Halakha will lose. The State of Israel will lose.
Converts to Judaism deserve better. The State of Israel deserves better. Judaism and halakha deserve better.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel is Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals www.jewishideas.org and Rabbi Emeritus of the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City, founded in 1654. Author and editor of 31 books, he is Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), and a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an association of modern Orthodox rabbis.