Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Religion or Nation

The Jews are so old as a group, they may be the only ones left still embodying the ancient combination of religious group and nation. Spending centuries dispersed among other nations played up the religious aspect. The ability to live on equal terms (well, sort of) as members of European host nations (though never in the Muslim world) encouraged some Jews to reaffirm their nationhood, and create the political movement of Zionism. Having a national state adds further complexity to the story.

The non-Jewish Israelis, be they Russian speakers who arrived as descendants of Jews, or African, Asian or South-American laborers who came to replace Palestinians too busy with intifadas to be reliable workers, there's a largish number of young people who have grown up in Israel, speak Hebrew as their natural language, and regard themselves as Israelis. Unlike the fanatics at either end of the political spectrum, they join the large majority of their peers as proud Zionists, eager to serve in the military and then live their lives here.

It's my opinion - not shared by all - that people such as they, obviously members of the Jewish nation, should be accepted fully, and we'll have to find a reasonable solution to the entry on the religious track.


Bryan said...

I agree, Yaacov. Every effort should be made to make sure that patriotic non-Jewish Israelis feel integrated into the Jewish state. There is no reason to alienate citizens who want to be included.

Since there aren't huge numbers of them, it's likely that many of them will marry Jewish Israelis. Because the marriage situation in Israel is strange as it is, I think that a reform of marriage laws could include some minor benefits for couples for whom one partner converts to Judaism in order to marry. (But perhaps as a non-Orthodox ger, I have an especial interest in Israel reforming her marriage laws which allow the Chief Rabbinate to label me a goy if they so choose and forbid me to marry a Jew in the Jewish state.)

NormanF said...

If the female spouse is Jewish, the identity of the father is irrelevant. If the father is Jewish and the wife is not, the offspring can be converted or they can be raised as Ger Toshavs. Obviously civil marriage is forbidden in Israel - so the Chief Rabbinate would have to come up with a solution for the latter case aimed as assimilating such persons into the Jewish nation.

AKUS said...

I agree. Moreover, it seems to me that if someone says "I want to be a Jew", that should be enough to have them accepted as Jewish. Its tough enough being Jewish that if someone makes that choice, we should accept it. That solves the religious part of the equation.

Unfortunately, of course, we are also dealing with a religious bureaucracy (organized religion), for lack of a better word, which wants to protect its own special rights, privileges and powers, so in reality it will never be that simple.

joseph said...

I don't think we should start bribing people to become Jewish. Iran does that to convert people to Islam. It is wrong and it diminishes Judaism.


Avigdor said...

Whoah! If the goal is to get these people to convert (which I'm not even sure should be the goal), then a reform of marriage laws is precisely what you DON'T want to be doing. Right now the marriage laws stand as an incentive to conversion. You want to marry a Jew in Israel? Then you have to be a Jew, and if you're not, you have to complete a halachik conversion. Playing around with this will only encourage tomfoolery, especially from crafty Russians that were adept enough to manipulate immigration laws to get to Israel in the first place.

Anonymous said...


"Right now the marriage laws stand as an incentive to conversion."

Whoa! In what universe? I have to strongly disagree; it is a disincentive. Why willingly enter into an agreement that can leave you trapped to an abusive spouse? I am born Jewish, raised Modern Orthodox, and observant my whole life, and I can say that if I had to convert today, according to the standards in Israel, I wouldn't do it! The way the Orthodox rabbinate handles marriage, divorce and conversion is a scandal and a great embarrassment to the Jewish people. That pluralistic Judaism has no official place in Israel is, in my view, a great tragedy that will ultimately alienate the majority of the Diaspora Jewish community from the state. Not only that, I believe the absence of alternative Jewish denominations does more to alienate secular Israeli Jews from Judaism than any other influence. The mantra is "Israel must be Jewish and a Democracy." So how about freedom of religious expression within the Jewish people as a first step? I could go on and on, but do not have the time. But this is a subject that really gets my ire up.


Gavin said...

Sounds good to me Yaacov, it's what a nation does. That reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask. Does Israel have any special relationship with the gypsies? I'm just curious, they were pariahs in Europe as well & I was wondering if there was any sense of kinship in light of your shared (recent) history.

Regards, Gavin

Avigdor said...

Gavin, I grew up next to gypsies in Moldova. There's no hostility between us, but no affinity either. Where I lived, probably we both accepted the stereotypes of the dominant Russian/Slavic culture about the other.

So, I don't know what the gypsies thought of us Jews, but I was specifically warned many times not to ride my bicycle through their neighborhood. I assume there was some reason reason for this, some experience, but I can't be sure.

I think, in general, their forced domestication by the Russians was not a pleasant experience, with implications for cultural decay, poverty, crime, etc. It reminds me a bit of Bedouins in Israel.

Anyway, people didn't concern themselves with the affairs of other ethnic communities where I grew up. Only if something bad happened would we hear about it.

Bryan said...

Victor, my conversion will be entirely halakhic, but it will supervised by a Conservative (Masorti) rabbi, not an Orthodox. To my understanding of Israeli marriage laws, the Chief Rabbinate could say that my conversion was invalid because it was presided over by a non-Orthodox rabbi, and I would have to be converted *again*. It is a humiliating idea that after the Jewish state has allowed me to immigrate on the basis of the Law of Return, the Chief Rabbinate could order me to convert again because I'm not Jewish enough to get married.

I'm not saying we have to scrap the entire marriage system and start from square one, but I think it's a Kafkaesque absurdity that Jews who were told they could immigrate to the Jewish state because they were Jews could then be told they can't get married by that same state.

Avigdor said...

Bryan, half my Jewish friends are converts, and all of them had issues, whether with the local Rabbinical council or the Israeli Rabbinate. I honestly have never seen an efficient, pleasant conversion process, and am constantly surprised by the persistence people show in getting through it.

It's important that you're going through a halachik conversion. As you probably know, there are conversions being performed around the world, and not all the Rabbis supervising them are so concerned with doing things the right way. It's a major problem.

I'm not qualified to go to war with the Israeli Rabbinate on their obstinacy, and not just on conversion. I know that there are people working on this though. It has to be handled in the right way. These guys just lock down in response to Haaretz hit pieces or Reform pressure on the Knesset. To them, it's like inviting car mechanics to participate in brain surgery.

Bryan said...

I just don't think it would be difficult to identify to the Chief Rabbinate a list of people who immigrated to Israel on the basis of their own Jewishness (and differentiate them from people who immigrated on the basis of relation to a Jew) and allow those people to marry as Jews. It's absurd that an entirely halakhic conversion performed by a halakhically Jewish rabbi and beit din could be considered moot just because it was done by non-Orthodox Jews. Do they think that Conservative rabbis don't know halakha or that they simply aren't qualified to convert?

A lot of born-Jews take their Jewishness for granted. I have to fight and claw and persevere to become Jewish, and then the Chief Rabbinate comes along and tells me I'm not Jewish? I'm sorry, but that's not what Israel is about. If Israel is about the acceptance of all Jews, how can they tell me I'm not the right kind of Jewish to be married as a Jew?

Anonymous said...

Bryan -

I am with you 100%. It is not just non-orthodox rabbis who are having their conversions rejected, but orthodox ones as well.


Avigdor said...

I just don't think it would be difficult to identify to the Chief Rabbinate a list of people who immigrated to Israel on the basis of their own Jewishness (and differentiate them from people who immigrated on the basis of relation to a Jew) and allow those people to marry as Jews.

Easy? Bryan, I can tell you as someone born to two Jewish parents, that if I came before the Israeli Rabbinate and was asked to prove my Jewishness, it wouldn't be easy.

Let's say I make aliyah and get married to an Israeli (here's hoping for a brown eyed Yemeni girl ;). It doesn't even have to be in Israel. If I get married to a hassidic girl from Brooklyn, I'll be asked for proof of Jewish identity. This is just how it's done. In hassidic/orthodox communities it's just easier, because people know each other and can vouch for you on the spot, but the principle is the same. I couldn't just walk off the street, tell them I'm Jewish and do it.

In the wider world, however, proving one's Jewish identity is a serious issue. People are asked to go photograph the graves of their great grandparents in Poland. Soviet Jews actually have an advantage, because the Russians, in their hatred for us, stamped "JEW" in our internal passports.

American "cultural" Jews with little understanding of the process would be stunned at the hoops they will be forced through to prove their Jewish identity. In a Reform synogogue, maybe no one cares, but in observant communities in America people do the same as in Israel, it's just easier and way faster because people already know you.

The Israeli Rabbinate doesn't know you, and they don't know me. Why should they take our word for it, or the word of some Rabbi from Queens? Who ordained this Rabbi? What makes him qualified to perform a conversion? They're the keepers of the gates and it is their duty to take their job seriously.

Do they think that Conservative rabbis don't know halakha or that they simply aren't qualified to convert?

Yes, both. I'm sure you have an excellent, observant Rabbi. You have to remember, there are cases where some Rabbis are not as careful. How do you deal with that? Judaism is not centralized. Authority rests in respect, trust and scholarship. If a certain Rabbi doesn't keep Shabbos or put on tefillin, it's like a dentist with crooked teeth. He may be an in inspirational community leader, but he's lost authority to rule on halachik issues or to perform conversions. I mean, he can keep doing whatever he wants, but people like me, who respect halacha, won't accept his authority, his decisions and his conversions. Actually, since I'm a nobody, I trust others to make that determination for me.

The problem is not that the Israeli Rabbinate has strict halachik standards, but that the system is hyper-politicized. The Israeli Rabbinate had a problem with a conversion from Milwaukee that was performed by a beis din of one orthodox litvisher and two hassidic movements, which took three years, and during which the ger was fully immersed in the community. At that point, it's not a matter of halacha, but a systemic, political problem.

Avigdor said...

A lot of born-Jews take their Jewishness for granted.

How many times have I heard that?! Like I said, several of my friends are converts, and I was with them through it. Yes, you're right. I empathize, believe me. What's your solution? To force other Jews to keep Shabbos or to pretend that because they don't want to do it you don't have to do it?

I have to fight and claw and persevere to become Jewish...

And the Chief Rabbinate will respond, if you don't want to jump through our hoops then go home. The only way to do this in Israel is to accept their authority, or to have a respected Rabbi (I mean like a posuk) who can vouch for you can call them up and wring them out, and sometimes even that is not enough. Remember, they have different values; the Israeli Rabbinate is not interested in who the best fundraising Rabbi is, or who has the biggest congregation or who was invited to speak on CNN. Judaism accords respect in a different way from secular society.

If Israel is about the acceptance of all Jews, how can they tell me I'm not the right kind of Jewish to be married as a Jew?

I think you may be romanticizing Israel a bit, or Jews. Yes, we love one another unconditionally, especially the Jews we want to kick in the balls on sight, but don't think you won't have to fight tooth and nail to get your way, especially in Israeli society.

Think about what you're saying. We can't have people making their own rules about who is Jewish and who isn't. If someone "feels" Jewish, does that make them Jewish? If someone goes through a ten minute conversion, which happens, for enough money, are they a Jew now?

There are problems in the conversion system, and not just in Israel, but they need to be handled in the right way. Do the best you can. Bitch and moan and pound on the doors, call them at home late a night, ambush them in dark parking lots (no, please don't!), do what you need to do. Ultimately, this is not about them, it's about you.

Bryan said...

I'm a little offended at the patronizing tone of your comments. You're undoubtedly intelligent, Victor, but I think that you're misunderstanding what I said. I did not suggest that the halakha regarding conversion be changed, nor that the Jewish community accept anyone to be Jewish based on feeling alone, but that the disconnect between the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Chief Rabbinate needs to be sorted out, in one way or another. You have to prove your Jewishness (or your relation to a proven Jew) to make aliyah, so either the Chief Rabbinate should accept that proof as enough for marriage, or the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption should match their standards with that of the Chief Rabbinate.

I'm a little confused about your statement that this is all about me, and not about the Chief Rabbinate. Could you explain what you mean by that, because the meaning I'm getting is that you're suggesting that I'm not actually going to be a Jew without an Orthodox conversion, and I'm sure that's not what you meant.

Avigdor said...

I'm sorry, Brian, I did not intend to be patronizing. I did misunderstand you, earlier. I agree that the secular leadership (I think the Knesset is in charge of the Law of Return) and the Rabbinate need to agree on one formula, although I'm not sure that is likely - at least not until religious parties increase their representation.

The current disorder seems like a working compromise - the law allows almost anyone with a Jewish connection to make aliyah, but the Rabbinate retains guardianship of the institution of marriage.

What is more likely is for someone like Lieberman to pry civil marriage out of the Rabbinate's hands. That doesn't really solve the problem; it just pushes it into the private and communal domain, where individuals and movements will make choices for themselves, with implications for what a "Jewish State" really means.

As for your final comments, you misunderstood. I meant that the conversion process is about you, not the Rabbinate - your determination and drive to see it through. That's what I was referring to, having observed several conversions in my time, including heads beating against the Israeli Rabbinate wall.

As to your specific conversion process, not only do I not know the details, but it's inappropriate and outside my competence to discuss them. G-d willing, things should work out for you in a timely, good and pleasant way.