Reform Rabbi: Israel's Pluralism Threatened by New Conversion Law

World Reform Movement is busy opposing Yisrael Beiteinu's controversial conversion bill, currently frozen by the PM after being approved by the Knesset.

Reform Rabbi Galia Sadan plays several roles in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism: She is rabbi of the Beit Daniel synagogue in Tel Aviv, coordinator of the Council of Progressive Rabbis and director of a conversion school at the Beit Daniel Center. The school, she says, converts about 200 people annually. Sadan, like many Reform and Conservative rabbis, is a native Israeli, despite both denominations' image as comprised primarily of immigrants from the United States and Europe.

Rabbi Galia Sadan
Moti Milrod

On July 17, the World Reform Movement will commemorate the establishment of the first Reform temple 200 years ago, in Germany. But closer to home, it is busy opposing Yisrael Beiteinu's controversial conversion bill, which was frozen by the prime minister immediately its approval by the Knesset Constitution Committee yesterday.

So what happened 200 years ago?

"On July 17 two hundred years ago, the first temple was dedicated in the city of Seesen. The person behind it was Rabbi Israel Jacobson, who was very active, first in Seesen and then in Berlin. In addition to the changes he introduced in the religious ritual, such as giving sermons in German and using an organ and choir in the services, this was the first attempt to establish interfaith relations. Christians were present at the dedication, as a group ... In his opening speech, [Jacobson] spoke of both Jews and Christians. There was no attempt to violate tradition, but rather to make cosmetic changes to bring Jews closer to the world of tradition."

What did prayer in this synagogue look like?

"At first, the service preserved all the traditional elements, such as the Shema, the Amida and the Torah reading. It wasn't yet a feminist service, and men and women were separated. Rabbi Jacobson decided the service had to be more aesthetic, so he brought in an organ and choir and delivered the sermon in German, so people would understand. The people prayed from a prayer book with a German translation and read from Mendelssohn's translation of the Bible. The prayer emphasized universal issues, and they removed particularist elements such as the dream of rebuilding the Temple in the Land of Israel.

"Reform prayer has undergone many upheavals in the past 200 years. There was a time when people did not come to synagogue with skullcaps and prayer shawls, and today people want that. On the other hand, the service has become 100 percent egalitarian, the movement recognizes the rights of gays and lesbians and it is willing to marry a cohen and a convert, which is forbidden according to halakha [religious law]. We don't consider ourselves bound by halakha; we let everyone choose for himself what to take from Judaism's large basket.

"Another thing [Jacobson] instituted, and which the Reform Movement practiced until the Holocaust, was having the Jews pledge allegiance to their homeland. Reform at its inception considered itself loyal to the homeland and said it's impossible to ask for equal rights in Germany, for example, while saying that our hearts are in the Holy Land, because if we continue that way, the Jews' loyalty will always be suspect. They wanted to strengthen the universal aspects of Judaism. The Reform Movement stuck to not dreaming of Zion until the 1930s, when it became a fully Zionist movement. The movement understood that the desire to be integrated had become a house of cards that collapsed, and Reform Judaism made a 180-degree turn after the Holocaust. Today, the Reform and Conservative movements comprise 70 percent of the world's Jews and are Israel's greatest supporters."

So the idea of becoming integrated, and in Germany of all places, turned the temple's establishment into a horrific irony.

"Absolutely. The Reform Movement recognized this irony and publicly declared: We were mistaken ... We believed they would accept us there, and the bitter truth slapped us in the face."

Let's talk about the present: What disturbs you about Yisrael Beiteinu's conversion bill?

"What has disturbed the Reform Movement from its inception is the question of the Jewish people's spiritual survival - how this people can continue to exist despite the dizzying changes of the modern world. That's the question that disturbs today as well: Are we bringing people closer to us, whether as spouses or on their own, in a pleasant, accepting process that understands the tension between a person's desire to adopt Jewish tradition and his desire to maintain a modern lifestyle, or are we interested in a humiliating process that causes people to fail? ... Orthodox conversion is very difficult to complete. It's an educational process that expects people to become religiously observant, and what can you do if not everyone wants to become religiously observant? People pretend so they'll get the seal of approval.

"Our country was revealed in all its glory in 2002 when it declared that it is pluralistic, and that a person can be recognized as a convert in any denomination he chooses. The High Court of Justice ruled that the government must recognize all conversions for all intents and purposes ... And now this bill comes and takes us backward. We're giving up pluralism, recognizing only the rabbinate and ruling that only conversions done through the rabbinate will be recognized. That's the situation that exists with regard to marriage. Since 1964, the rabbinate has been the only institution that can approve marriage between Jews in Israel. And today we're eating the rotten fruits of that law. People don't want to marry through the rabbinate."

But in practice, what will change? After all, you can continue to perform conversions that will be recognized by the state. The bill says the rabbinate will have authority, but not exclusive authority. Aren't you terrorizing the public when you threaten a rift between U.S. Jewry and Israel?

"Giving authority to the Chief Rabbinate means that if you don't observe the Sabbath, they won't convert you. If you seek to convert because you want to live according to Jewish tradition but don't want to observe Shabbat - to live a Jewish but not an Orthodox life - you won't be able to convert through them. We are all eating the rotten fruits of the marriage law that gave the rabbinate a monopoly. This is an undemocratic country where there are people who can't get married. Do we want to behave the same way on conversion? If it says the rabbinate has "authority," then the ultra-Orthodox will interpret that as exclusive authority, and we will have to run to the courts. The practical significance is that we will have to fight about the status quo again. Why should the State of Israel go backward? The existing situation is that there is no law determining who is allowed or is not allowed to perform conversions, and only thanks to that is the State of Israel preserving its pluralistic and liberal character and enabling everyone to choose the lifestyle he wants. The moment there is a conversion law that gives the rabbinate the authority, the State of Israel will lose this pluralistic character."

Tell us a bit about the conversion process in your rabbinical courts.

"We have about 200 converts a year. Incidentally, all the Orthodox institutions together, which receive huge government budgets, convert 2,000 people a year. We, without any government funding, convert 200. The High Court ruled that the state has to fund our conversion courses, so what? Does that mean we received money? No. We have a conversion court of rabbis from the movement. It's a democratic body that convenes about 14 times a year to conduct conversions. We have been operating since 2002, thanks to the High Court decision that recognized conversions by any denomination, and every year the number of those who convert with us increases.

"Refugees from Orthodox conversion have come to us after being rejected because the woman was caught walking in the street wearing pants. I could tell you horror stories about the conversion system, but the main thing is that more and more people understand that Reform Judaism is an option. The congregations are totally Israeli. There's an ingathering of exiles from all over the world, as well as representation of every ethnic group. The Reform Movement is not Ashkenazi; it includes an amazing human variety of people who come and say: I want to choose my own components from the basket of Judaism."