Over the next few days, you may be reading a great deal about a new Israeli conversion bill that is currently before the Knesset. The new law proposes to greatly increase the power of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in matters of conversions.
According to Jerry Silverman, president of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the new bill contains a number of clauses that are even more problematic than versions we had recently seen. Specifically, the new bill would limit the authority to carry out all conversions in Israel to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and even stipulates that conversions can only be recognized if the person “accepts the yolk of mitzvot according to halachah” (as defined by the Chief Rabbinate).
All of this is deeply divisive during a time when it is so critical for all Jews to work together to support Israel. This bill endangers Jews of the Diaspora by accepting—and politicizing—a very narrow definition of Jewish identity.
Jerry Silverman of JFNA and Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, are leading the effort to stop this divisive and destructive law. Jerry is acting as a representative for all our American Federations. This link to the JFNA website provides the latest updates, background information, and simple actions you can take.
It is important for the decision-makers to understand how their support of this bill could potentially undermine something we all value–the relationship between Israel and American Jews. Please click here to send an email to the Prime Minister recording your objections.
Like many other Orthodox Jews, I am deeply offended by this bill. The inherent problem goes far beyond this particular bill, and strikes at the heart of Israel’s civil society. No one comes to respect religion or love God through coercion. Jonathan Sacks, the Orthodox chief rabbi of England, puts it best:
If religion enters politics, it becomes a divisive, not a uniting, force. It if seeks power, it will forfeit influence. If it is priestly, it will fail to be prophetic. If it fails to speak on behalf of the nation as a whole, it will fracture into a hundred sects instead of being the animating spirit of the nation. Judaism must be depoliticized and put back where it belongs, in civil society, far removed from all structures of power.
That is the challenge of Judaism in the state of Israel in our time. Its place is not in party politics, not as an arm of the state, not as a set of segregated enclaves, not as an ‘adversary culture’, and not as a territorial ideology. Its role is to create, shape, drive and motivate civil society. If religion is not seen by Israelis as a unifying force in society, if religious Jews are not admired for their work with the poor, the lonely and the vulnerable, if Judaism is not the voice of justice and compassion, then something is wrong in the soul of Israel. To be sure, some of this work happens already; there are admirable examples. But there is much more to be done. Judaism in Israel today has lost the prophetic instinct when it needs it most.
Together, we will defeat this bill and work to strengthen Israel against external threats, while building ever deeper relationships between Jewish communities throughout the world.
P.S. For more information on this topic read “Conversions Bill Sets Netanyahu on Collision Course with US Jews”.