Summer 2000

MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Summer 2000

News From Israel: The Fight Over Conversion Continues

In April, Israel's Supreme Court, sitting in an unprecedented panel of 11 justices, heard the government's arguments on the issue of the registration of non-Orthodox conversions. The issue arises out of the State's refusal to recognize the Conservative or Reform conversions of more than 52 individuals who were either converted in Israel or who studied in Israel and then traveled abroad for the actual conversion ceremony.

These cases have been pending before the Court for many years and include that of one of the dozen foreign born adopted children who were converted under the auspices of the Masorti Movement at Kibbutz Hannaton in February 1995.

Government representatives acknowledged the existing double standard which grants civil recognition to all Jewish conversions performed in the diaspora but which denies the same recognition to non-Orthodox conversions either performed in Israel or undergone by Israeli residents abroad. They defended the current regulations by referring to the terminology in the British Mandate law which defined the Jewish citizens of pre-state Israel as a "Jewish denomination". Since entry into the "Jewish denomination" by virtue of conversion needed the approval of the Chief Rabbinate before 1948, so too, the Interior Ministry representatives argued, should conversion procedures continue today.

After questioning the logic for using legal procedures from the Mandatory period, when Jews were a minority community, to apply to the situation today, when Jews are the majority population of the State of Israel, the Court adjourned. A July date has been set to continue the hearings.

Masorti Movement's Proposal

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the Masorti Movement's representative on the failed Neeman Commission, described the proceedings as indicating the Court's fundamental rejection of the Government's case. He noted "[that] by postponing, the Court is again giving the Government and the Knesset a chance to come up with an acceptable plan. Such plans exist, but the opposition of one religious party or another seems to make their acceptance unlikely."

As Rabbi Hammer stated, "the official position of the Conservative-Masorti Movement supports the following proposals:

1. The Joint Institute for Jewish Study [with the participation of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox instructors] shall constitute the Israeli Government's effort at education leading to possible conversion of the masses of non-Jewish new immigrants. All streams should encourage the olim to study there and urge those who wish to, to then apply for conversion [to the regular conversion courts under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate]. However, those individuals graduating from the Joint Institutes who, for ideological reasons, prefer to appear before any other Bet Din may do so.

2. There shall be no differentiation between conversions carried out in Israel and elsewhere. Thus a convert of the Conservative (Masorti) Rabbinate, no matter where converted, would be recognized by the State of Israel for all civil purposes when certified by a Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly.

3. Although we prefer to have all converts registered as Jews and identified as such in their Identity Cards, we do not oppose the proposal to eliminate the nationality clause in the Identity Card. What is important to us is that every convert who wishes to live in Israel be entitled to all the rights guaranteed Jews by Israeli law."

Ad Campaign For Non-Orthodox Weddings

At the same time, a new firestorm broke out in Israel over the issue of non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies. Responding to an advertising campaign sponsored by the Conservative and Reform Movements, the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman wrote, "In Eretz Yisroel [sic], Lag B'omer is the start of the wedding season . . . . But this year, couples are being asked to choose between a kosher l'mehadrin wedding through the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, or a kosher-style [Editor's emphasis] ceremony offered by the Conservative Movement."

According to the ultra-Orthodox publication, "The ad campaign is directed at couples who would like to have a traditional Jewish ceremony but [with] Ôinnovations', already common in American non-Orthodox circles: special readings spoken by the chasan [sic] and kallah, rings for both, a kesubah written in Hebrew instead of Aramaic, and yes, women 'rabbis' may officiate . . . . The big question now is how long it will take our [Orthodox] community to wake up and douse the flames before it is too late."

As Rabbi Michael Graetz, the Masorti rabbi in Omer, wrote: "It is clear from this that the main point of Zionism is lost on the Chief Rabbis, even on the ones who claim they are ÔZionists'. That is, the main point of Zionism is that the Jewish nation will stop being merely a Ôdenomination' and can once again fulfill its historic destiny as a nation. That will mean, perforce, that there will be different and pluralistic approaches to religion within the nation."

"Israeli society should be the finest expression of Jewish values. But, in order to achieve that strong spiritual voice, it is necessary to encourage a spectrum of approaches that lead to religious life, for only a pluralistic acceptance of a rainbow of spiritual paths can serve the needs of human society in its inherent diversity."


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