Who Wanna Be a Jew ?
The mess around Israel's conversion system continues unabated with Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the head of Israel's Joint Institute for Conversion, calling for establishment of an independent rabbinic court system for conversions. The current system created after the start of the last Russian immigration features Israel's Joint Institute for Conversion, headed by Ish-Shalom and created under the auspices of the Prime Minister's office, and the state rabbinic courts run by Orthodox rabbis where aspiring Jews are expected to be confirmed as certified ones at the end of the process.
Yet Ish-Shalom is now totally dissatisfied with the current system and wants to replace the state run courts with an independent courts system.
As Ish-Shalom told the Post last week, the courts are effectively obstructing the willing conversions of tens of thousands of non-Jewish olim, mostly from the former Soviet Union, thereby forcing intermarriage upon hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews. There are an estimated 300,000 non-Jewish olim, about half of which are believed to be willing to convert if the procedures for doing so were relaxed.
As a heavily assimilated community, Russian Jews often took a very liberal approach to the issue of who consider to be Jewish, that's closer to the conservative and reformist Judaisms rather than to the orthodox one. Having one of the parents Jewish and the personal decision to be one, was more than enough for many Russian Jews. This situation was partly created by the fact that the Russian authorities did write the nationality in ID cards, but they defined it by the father. Such people, having been often exposed to the most vicious forms of anti semitism, were unpleasantly surprised to discover on their arrival in Israel that being persecuted as a Jew is not enough for being certified as one. Some of these people took a personal offense with the whole system and would refuse to be any part of it now.
Another thing is that the vast majority of the Russian Olim, Jewish or not, are secular to the bone and consider the whole issue of conversions as a matter of convenience only, if at all, certainly not worth time and effort in its present orthodox configuration. True, the vast majority of Russian Olim are long past the stage of the first years of Russian immigration when the rudeness and bluntness of Israelis have sent many Olim climbing up the walls and officially declaring themselves anti semites. But this does not mean that they moved now any closer to the classical concept of being Jewish. To the contrary, since then non Kosher shops sprang up all around and most Russian Olim settled contentedly for the standard Russian Israeli mix of hardcore Israeli nationalism and Arabs hating in terms of ideology and non Kosher food/pork plus vodka in terms of nutrition.
Also a significant portion of conversions are done at the insistence of the parents and as the generation of these ghetto mastodonts is gradually moving on, one by one, to meet Kadosh Barukh Hu in the world that's all good, the rabbis are running out of time to affect the necessary changes in the system. As to the young generation of Israelis in general and Russian Israelis in particular, the number of those, who don't mind whether their partner is a certified Jew, a not certified one or no Jew at all, is steadily increasing.
The way Ish-Shalom defines his dispute with the conversion courts means that any sane Olim will keep the distance of at least a few miles from these courts.
The core of the debate concerns halachic strictures that many dayanim place on potential converts, such as demands that the convert dress in attire deemed modest by Jewish law, or demanding that the convert's partner, often merely a boyfriend or girlfriend, become more observant for the conversion to be ratified. The converts risk forfeiting their conversion retroactively if they renege on these demands.
According to Ish-Shalom, the demands of the dayanim are not only irrelevant to - and not required by - Halacha itself, but important poskim [rulers in halachic issues] have ruled that it is inappropriate to make demands such as these of aspiring converts. While he lists names of modern rabbis, he takes particular care to note that this view is shared by the authoritative halachic codex Shulchan Aruch and the influential 12th century philosopher and halachic codifier Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who famously ruled that once an aspiring convert has been taught Jewish thought and practice and has agreed to bind their fate with that of the Jewish people, "we do not examine them or check after them" regarding their observance.
Yet, while replacing orthodox rabbis in state courts and elsewhere can placate some people, many won't be satisfied with anything short of getting this religion in whatever form off their backs. If anything it should be something mellow like conservative or reformist Judaism heavily watered down with meditations and Tai Chi sessions, but certainly not religious-Zionists whom many secular Israelis associate with the settlers and all the shit it involves. After all, the majority of Israelis identify themselves as secular or traditional Jews. The traditionalists include many shades of grey with some practicing such diluted versions of Judaism that they should be better considered new age cults.
Among the secular fans of the old styled Jewish romanticism, the issue is complicated by the ambivalent attitudes many of them have towards the religion of their fathers. To say that the monotheistic religions are not very popular in such bastions of the Israeli secular culture as Tel Aviv, is a wild understatement and while loads of people in Tel Aviv frequent Yoga schools where they vigorously engage in moving energies from chakra to chakra, this is not to say that they are putting Tefillin or praying in synagogues with a similar enthusiasm. In fact many secular Israelis have now reached the stage when even a short visit to one of Jerusalem's orthodox ghettos can traumatize them to the point of starting having second thoughts about who was the real victim in the history of the Jewish/Christian mess in the medieval Europe. This means that even when secular or mildly traditional parents demand from their child that his partner convert, their credentials (Shit. Damn You, Al-Ghaliboon) are severely undermined by their actual way of life and their attitudes towards that very orthodox Judaism whose rabbis have the ultimate say in the conversion process.
While the rabbis are busy plucking holes, shit keeps coming from all directions. It looks increasingly likely that the young generation of Israelis in Tel Aviv and elsewhere may at some point massively sabotage the Rabbanut by opting for civil marriages to save themselves the headache of dealing with rabbinic courts. In fact similar determination is often expressed by people who are in their thirties which means that, as the popularity of civil marriages keeps growing, the whole building may soon suffer a massive blow at its very foundations.
There should be no doubt that as this nation keeps existing (a big achievement in its own right) the Israeli identity will ultimately either substitute the Jewish one or force itself on the latter in such a way that the traditional concept of who is eligible to be considered Jewish will be expanded to include all those non Jewish Olim and children of foreign gastarbeiters who enthusiastically or not joined that part of the Jewish nation that lives in Israel. This does not mean that the Israelis will lose any idea who is Israeli and who is Arab. It means normalization of the Jewish identity and making it more like a regular national identity, instead of the bizarre religious concept for unknown reasons often practiced by absolutely secular people. If the rabbis mismanage the process (and they probably will) by failing to adapt the religion to the changing environment, then there is the real risk of this nation splitting in two. The rabbis scored a few good points recently when their people set fire to the Neturei Karta synagogue in New York and physically attacked Neturei Karta rabbis. Still, in our fast evolving world this may no longer be enough.
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