Religious Freedom Now

At last the problems of conversion in Israel have begun to receive the attention and press coverage they deserve. Not since the Hanaton conversions in 1995, when our Masorti (Conservative) rabbinical court converted adopted children that the Rabbinate had refused to convert because their adoptive parents were not Orthodox, has so much publicity and public discussion been focused on the way in which Israel's official rabbinical establishment treats potential and actual converts. That earlier crisis led to the formation of the Neeman Commission, which ended its work without even issuing a report - because of the opposition of the Chief Rabbinate to any cooperation with other groups. But it also resulted in a 2002 Supreme Court decision requiring the state to register Masorti converts in Israel as Jews. That was a step forward, but no more than that. It took the high beit din's disgraceful treatment of Rabbi Chaim Druckman earlier this spring, and the retroactive voiding of thousands of his conversions, regardless of the consequences for the converts, their partners and their children, to once again arouse public concern about a problem that has been with us for years.

I am hardly the first to respond to the decision of the Rabbinate's highest court not to recognize conversions carried out by the state-appointed conversion administration headed by Druckman, and with the exception of the occasional ultra-Orthodox writer, all have been critical of the Rabbinate's actions. Depending on each individual writer's religious orientation, there have been calls for the replacement of the court's current judges, all of whom are Haredim, by more moderate religious-Zionist rabbis; for the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn the decisions of the rabbinical court; for the state to fully recognize conversions performed by Masorti and Reform rabbis in Israel; and for the creation of secular conversion, so that non-Jews can join the Jewish people without undergoing any religious process whatsoever.

Many of these suggestions are valuable. It would certainly be a step forward if Haredi rabbis of the Rabbinate and its high court were replaced by Zionist ones. This is, after all, a Zionist state, even though, looking at the official rabbinate today, one would not know it. The Rabbinate's current attitude toward conversions constitutes a complete reversal of the halakhic decisions of such eminent chief rabbis of the past as Abraham Isaac Kook, Ben-Zion Uziel and Shlomo Goren, all of whom had a much more realistic and positive attitude toward conversion. Certainly, the time has come for the government of Israel, which continues to fight tooth and nail in the courts with no justification to avoid full recognition of the actions of Masorti and Reform rabbinical courts here, to relinquish its foolish, futile and anti-democratic stance.

Yet none of this goes far enough. None of these suggestions are really sufficient to solve the problems of conversion, in particular, and of religious life in Israel, in general. As long as an official rabbinate continues to function as part of the political structure of the government of Israel, with monopolistic powers in so many realms, including marriage and divorce, these problems will continue to plague us. Those who really care about the future of Judaism in the Jewish state - and this should certainly include the religious- Zionists - should be at the forefront of a battle to separate these religious powers from the state and to privatize the rabbinate, permitting Jews to freely chose their own rabbinical authorities or none. Regarding marriage, for example, the state should set up a system of civil partnerships entered into legally by those it considers eligible, with ensuing rights, even as the religious ceremony remains within the realm of an individual couple, depending on their religious affiliation.

We do not need a total separation of religion and state - this being a Jewish state, that would be all but impossible. What I am proposing is a system by which the state gives help and support to religious institutions but does not dictate their policies, nor does it grant monopolistic rights to any one clerical group. The state is a secular institution and should step back from dictating religious affairs. This is a development that has occurred in every modern Western country, and it is long overdue in Israel, which remains the only country in the free world in which Jews are not free to make their own choices concerning their religious affairs, and in which a rabbinate is empowered to make such decisions against the free will of the inhabitants.

There are three principal serious problems with which the government-sponsored Haredi rabbinate has failed to deal properly: the case of agunot (women who cannot obtain a divorce), shmita (the rabbinate refused to implement Rabbi Kook's method that made it possible to continue using the produce of the Land of Israel in the current agricultural sabbatical year), and now giyur (conversion). All of these have halakhic solutions that the current rabbinate refuses to adopt. This in itself should be sufficient to make us realize that the existence of a state-sponsored Chief Rabbinate is an anachronism Israel can no longer afford.

We need freedom of religion here so that individual rights will no longer be trampled and, most of all, so that religion can flourish in Israel.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Movement and a former president of the movement's International Rabbinical Assembly.