Just when efforts by the Reform and Conservative movements to end the Israeli government’s exclusive recognition of halachic standards as controlling conversions (geirus) and prayer at the Kotel seemed at the boiling point last week, a six-month cooling off period has kicked in.
With respect to conversions, under pressure from the haredi parties in his governing coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the introduction of legislation to counter lawsuits commenced by non-Orthodox interests to invalidate exclusive Orthodox control over conversions.
In effect, the current conflict is basically a replay of the long-running “Who is a Jew” controversy, with such key issues in play as the necessity for commitment to mitzvah observance and patrilineal versus matrilineal descent.
Mr. Netanyahu announced he will appoint a committee to seek a compromise between the opposing demands of the competing sides, essentially the haredi parties in Israel and the non-Orthodox U.S. Jewish leadership. Accordingly, legislation strengthening Orthodox control will be shelved for six months and the non-Orthodox will ask the courts to delay the legal proceedings while the committee tries its hand at working out a compromise.
With respect to the Kotel, there was an uproar when the Netanyahu government announced the suspension of the implementation of a plan to set up a special area at the southern section of the Kotel away from its central Plaza, where men and women can pray together and non-Orthodox rituals can be practiced. While no formal hiatus in that dispute has been arrived at, it is expected that inasmuch as the protagonists in both the geirus and Kotel disputes are largely the same, a hiatus will obtain here too.
In any event, we seem to be at an ominous point in the controversy over what role the non-Orthodox can play in Israel. Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs told the Times of Israel that the conversion bill “in many ways was existential” and raised “raw questions of who is a Jew, and also who is a rabbi.” Regarding the Kotel issue he said, “We don’t want to pray at a second class Kotel…[or] hide in a second-rate site.”
And he went on to say “It’s a moment to be smart and strategic about all the money we give to Israel, and to contribute to things that align with our values [and] encourage the seeds of pluralism.”
So we seem to be in for some contentious times, and yet we cannot conceive of any agreement that formally and materially recognizes an official role in Israeli Jewish religious life for non-Orthodox practices. Who is to be deemed a Jew is a religious question and therefore not one that lends itself to political compromise. Conversions resulting from procedures at variance with Torah-mandated standards can never be legitimized as an alternative to Orthodox practice.
Here, some of Rabbi Jacobs’s other remarks are instructive. Why should centuries of practice be compromised? “This ultra-Orthodox coalescing of religious authority is destructive to all streams of Judaism and would lead to a rift that could not easily be repaired…. [There is] no justification for moving full authority for conversion to the ultra-Orthodox…. Jewish unity is not Jewish unanimity…. We’re not all the same, but we’re all created in the image of God and we’re all part of the Jewish people.”
Thus, for Rabbi Jacobs, he and his movement must be recognized as a legitimate player in religious debates simply because they are here. The fact that they have largely abandoned the Judaism of the ages is of no moment since there is no valid distinction to be drawn between traditionalists and revisionists.
Think about it. Rabbi Jacobs rails against “rifts” and a lack of “unity” caused by the insistence of the Orthodox on adherence to age-old rules. However, by what logic can those who want to preserve the order of things they believe to be Divine imperatives be considered a force for disunity – while the proponents of change are not? Put another way, how can the former be faulted for failing to go along with compromising that which they believe cannot be compromised?
There is another dimension to this that seems to have escaped the attention of Rabbi Jacobs and others. Not a day goes by without some Palestinian or UN effort to question the religious ties we Jews have to the land of Israel or to the religious significance to us of the Har Habayis and the Kotel. How helpful, then, is any attempt from our side to suggest that our fundamental religious teachings are really not all that transcendent?
Perhaps the non-Orthodox should give some consideration to the fact that its complying with Orthodox standards as to conversions and prayer at the Kotel in no way involves a violation of any religious rules. But the reverse certainly would.