Conversion and Support of Israel

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I’m incensed over the Rotem bill currently on the floor of the Knesset. I fully endorse the statement of the United Jewish Federations that this bill, which would give full control over conversions in Israel to the rabbinate, could drive a deep wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jews. What right do the Orthodox rabbis have to control such a global and sensitive issue in a country that belongs to all streams of Judaism?


Dear Victor,

I am deeply disappointed at the wording of the Federation’s statement as well as the mass mailing they are promoting, clearly issuing a warning of this “deep wedge” to Prime Minister Netanyahu if this bill passes. The Jewish community has only recently conveyed their shock to the present administration in Washington which seemed to make their support of Israel contingent on “settlements” in Jerusalem, emphasizing that Israel is a democracy, has the right to make internal, democratic decisions, and American support of its sole ally in the Mideast needs to be unconditional.  How can the same Diaspora Jews then turn around and threaten that their support of Israel is conditional?! It’s one thing to express an opinion, even to quite powerfully articulate the feelings of many Diaspora Jews. Threats, however, are a different story.  How could Jews who live in the comfort of America, who don’t live with the daily dangers with which Israeli Jews live, utter threats of “deep wedges” between us and our homeland?! Don’t pass this bill, or else…?! The Jewish establishment needs to be teaching a lesson of unequivocal, unconditional love to our brethren and homeland, not one of control.

As to the issue at hand: Firstly, as a point of clarification, this bill is not introducing anything new to Israeli society. It is a continuation of what has been the de facto practice in Israel since its founding as a state; the determination of Jewishness has always been in the hands of the Israeli Rabbinate. The question at hand is to either sign into law, or uproot, the status quo. 

As to the matter of a pluralistic outlook to conversions in Israel, I would like to mention a timeless teaching of our earlier sages. The Talmud relates that there were a number of disagreements between the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai regarding marriage laws. If the House of Shamai would have carried out their teachings they would have created many marriages considered by Hillel to be unlawful and thereby producing illegitimate children. These would be children whom the House of Hillel could not have allowed to marry their own children. Based on a verse which says, “truth and peace they loved”, Shamai’s students did not actualize their own teachings in order not to create a situation where parts of the Jewish people could not marry each other. They felt that creating an unsurpassable gap in the Jewish people is unconscionable.

This, sadly, is the situation in America today. Many thousands converted by reform rabbis are not accepted by their conservative colleagues and those becoming Jewish by conservative standards are not accepted by the orthodox. Gaping, insurmountable walls have been erected within the Jewish people, one Jew not being able to marry another. This is a situation which has arisen not by those upholding the thousands-years-old status quo where conversion had one, golden standard. It has arisen by those whom have adapted new standards and made good on their teachings, unlike the lesson of Beis Shamai. This is a circumstance worth mourning over. 

To export this lamentable situation to Israel would be a tragedy indeed. As was well expressed by Chief Rabbi Amar, to not pass this bill, “The result would be that one part of the nation would not marry the second part. This is not a game…this is not a social crisis. This is tearing apart of the nation into two…” 

Let us rejoice in having an Israel with one gold standard upheld by all. Let us ensure that a small country already divided by so many political parties and opinions not be further divided in an insurmountable way.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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