Rabbis v. Jewish Tradition: More on the Conversion Crisis

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest piece on the conversion crisis is on-line, a bit late, at the Hadassah Magazine site. Crisis is too nice a word. What’s really happening is that part of the Israeli state rabbinate has adopted a radical ultra-Orthodox innovation: regarding conversion to Judaism as something that can be annulled.

Yes, folks, I said, radical ultra-Orthodox innovation. That’s not a contradiction in terms; it may be a redundancy. Like other contemporary religious communities that claim to represent old-time religion – salafist Muslims, fundamentalist Christians – ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a creation of modernity. The ultra-Orthodox assault on conversion is just the latest bit of evidence.

So here’s the article:

Nearly two years ago, a Danish-born Israeli woman named Yael and her husband appeared before the rabbinical court in Ashdod to end their marriage. Since the couple had agreed on an amicable divorce, they anticipated a pro forma procedure.

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Does Israeli Equal Jew? On a Shared Israeli Identity

Gershom Gorenberg

A few days ago, Haim, you responded to a challenge I raised in a post on the conversion battles. Your answer made me realize that I hadn’t phrased the question sharply enough.

I wrote: “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” You wrote that I was right, but that it was sad that I was. And then you said:

The secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish—and therefore who belongs to the state’s majority culture and ethnic group—is a religious definition.

It seems to me that by beginning the discussion there, you are mixing two separate questions. One is: Can someone belong to the majority culture and society in Israel without being a member of the Jewish faith? The other is: Can Israel develop a civic identity that is shared by Jews and non-Jews, including Palestinians who are citizens of the state?

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Conversion: The American Machers Protest!

Gershom Gorenberg

If there’s one subject that forces U.S. Jewish leaders to express their views on Israeli politics, it’s “Who’s a Jew.” In previous years, the crises began when it looked like the Knesset would change the Law of Return so that non-Orthodox converts would not qualify to immigrate as Jews. That threatened the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism. The Israeli government couldn’t ask for U.S. Jewish support based on eternal family ties while telling part of the family that, oops, we don’t recognize you as family.

Those were the good old days. Now the rabbinic courts have shown themselves willing to disqualify most Orthodox conversions, performed in Israel or abroad. Conversions performed by the head of the government’s own Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, have been annulled ex post facto, and Druckman has been told to go home. (Read the background in my article in Moment magazine.) Now the leaders of the organized Jewish community are demanding the Prime Minister Olmert fix the broken Orthodox conversion system. But I don’t think they’ve yet recognized the depth of the crisis.

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Ultra-Orthodoxy Cancels Conversion, Sends Modern Orthodox for Reeducation

Gershom Gorenberg

The divide between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews over who is Jewish continues to widen. In the latest developments, ultra-Orthodox rabbis in both Israel and the U.S. have asserted that conversion is reversible — that a convert can cease to be Jewish if she or he does not live according to halakhah, Jewish law, as most strictly and constrictingly interpreted. The immense irony is that regarding conversion as conditional is itself a radical break from halakhic tradition.

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‘How to Prove You’re a Jew’ – Afterthoughts, aftershocks

Obama Converts to Judaism” says a headline on Huffington Post, which I found via the eternally alert Laura Rozen at War and Piece.

Buffeted by criticism of his controversial Christian pastor while continuing to quell rumors that he is a Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) took a bold step today to settle questions about his religious faith once and for all.

“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters…

I know this is meant humorously, because it ends with:

…the move raised the ire of one of his harshest critics, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “Barack Murray Obama wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t Jewish,” said Ms. Ferraro…

but I still wanted to zap a message to Obama warning him: For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. It’s enough he has to prove he’s pro-Israel. Must he add the problem of convincing the Israeli rabbinate that he is a Jew? Believe me, it won’t be easy.

When I wrote “How to Prove You’re a Jew” for the New York Times Magazine, I guessed it would stir interest. I didn’t imagine how much. One friend told me it had been emailed to her 20 times. She also told me she’d had a terribly difficult time proving she was a Jew when she got married here in Israel a couple of years ago, despite

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