Preaching to the converted

One of my favorite “light bulb jokes” asks: “How many Orthodox rabbis does it take to change a light bulb?” To which the answer is: “Change??!”

The Orthodox Jewish establishment is famously (or infamously) conservative (with a tiny “c.”) So it was no surprise that within a week of the March 31 High Court of Justice ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions begun in Israel and completed abroad four former Israeli chief rabbis and the two current incumbents of the Chief Rabbinate declared that non-Orthodox conversions are completely worthless.

Rabbis Ovadia Yosef Avraham Shapira Mordechai Eliahu Eliahu Bakshi-Doron and current chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar all signed a document stating that any “Reform Conservative” or other type of “conversion” not adhering to Orthodox demands has no meaning in Jewish law (Halacha). (The only other Israeli former chief rabbi alive Yisrael Meir Lau was abroad.)

The chief rabbis say non-Orthodox conversions should not be conducted lest they confuse prospective converts and mistakenly lead them to believe that these unauthorized conversions are somehow recognized by Orthodox Judaism.

Amidst talk of confusion however it should be remembered that the decision to recognize what has been nicknamed “overnight conversions” (giur b’kfitza or conversions on the hop in Hebrew) will probably have very little impact in the Holy Land.

The ruling applies to people living in Israel legally but without citizenship who want to convert to Judaism in a non-Orthodox procedure. And while the decision made the Orthodox rabbis hopping mad objectively it concerns very few people except perhaps for some foreign workers.

Perhaps the most unusual among the petitioners seeking recognition as a Jew and Israeli citizen under the Law of Return is Gaza-born Zakariya Abu Zayid. Abu Zayid was born Muslim but says he ran away from Gaza when he was six years old was eventually adopted by a Jewish couple and grew up in Tel Aviv. He had no official status in Israel but was given approved status by the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) and lived in Israel unhindered.

In the 1990s Abu Zayid began to take an interest in Judaism and started attending services at Beit Daniel the main Reform center in Tel Aviv. Two years later after he had proven himself serious about his religious interest he was accepted into the conversion program at Beit Daniel and converted in London in 1996.

Now in his 40s Abu Zayid who has a son by his Israeli wife from whom he is separated lives in Tel Aviv.

His is obviously not the typical story. The main impact of the ruling should be to help non-Jews living abroad who have converted to Judaism and want to immigrate immediately to Israel. In the context of the state’s policy until now such converts had to live for a year in the community in which they converted before they could come here and obtain citizenship under the Law of Return. An estimate by the Reform movement is that this affects some 50 people each year.

So this particular changed bulb sheds light on a more significant issue: the almost 20-year-long struggle of Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel to obtain equal status with their Orthodox counterparts and break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion.

Following the latest ruling there is only one step left for the local Reform and Conservative movements: to have the court instruct the state to recognize conversions conducted by their rabbis in Israel.

In effect conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel are already recognized by the state – not for the purposes of the Law of Return but for changing the classification of converts from non-Jewish to Jewish in the Population Registry. The court made this ruling three years ago.

But the Reform and Conservative movements agree that the ultimate question is whether their conversions will be recognized when their converts request citizenship under the Law of Return. And if they achieve it they will then begin a campaign to force the state to recognize marriages conducted by their rabbis.

According to Jewish custom one should not remind a convert of his past. In Israel converts might not want to be reminded not because of any embarrassment but because they’d rather forget the bureaucracy involved.

At the heart of the “Who is a Jew?” issue as the Orthodox note is the question of survival of the Jewish people and the fear that Israel will end up in a situation in which different bodies will have different lists of who can marry whom as Jews.

But in a country where there’s no church to separate from the state politics and religion go so closely hand- in-hand that you could almost talk about the dynamics of religitics.

Undoubtedly the non-Orthodox will continue to fight for change and the Orthodox will battle against reform (with either a big or little “r”) and you can bet the politicians will also step into the limelight now and again.

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak has made clear that when it comes to giving Reform and Conservative rabbis the keys to the state by authorizing their conversions for the purposes of Israeli citizenship the court will have to be very careful.

And as if to emphasize that the courts are remaining neutral despite the claims of their critics only a few days after the conversion ruling the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by a furniture store chain and 18 of its employees asking it to declare the law prohibiting Jews to work on Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath) unconstitutional because it allegedly violates the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation.

“We accept that the Hours of Work and Rest Law as it relates to weekly rest hours causes injury to the freedom of occupation of employers and employees wrote Supreme Court President Barak. However this injury does not render the law unconstitutional because… it is in keeping with the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It was legislated for a worthy reason that is for achieving social welfare goals that are realized simultaneously with fulfilling national-religious considerations. Furthermore the harm to freedom of occupation caused by the law is not excessive.”

In light of this ruling the question is not who will be recognized as a Jew in Israel but who and what determines the Jewish nature of the state.

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