UAHC The Union of American Hebrew Congregations The Synagogue Arm of the Reform Movement
I have just returned from a visit to Israel, where I represented the Reform Movement at meetings of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. During my visit, I met with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and with Knesset members and government officials, and I want to share with you my thoughts on the status of the conversion issue.
I. As you know, our Movement in Israel has renewed its legal appeals to win recognition by the Israeli government of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. On February 24, Rabbi Uri Regev appeared in Jerusalem District Court to argue for government recognition of more than twenty non-Orthodox conversions.
In the coming weeks, Rabbi Regev and the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center plan to institute legal action on a range of issues, including the right of Reform Jews to sit on religious councils and to pray at the Western Wall.
Our decision to go back to court after a moratorium of seven months followed the collapse of the Ne'eman Commission, which had been established by the Government of Israel to find a solution to the conversion crisis. Its recommendation - that a joint conversion process modeled on the Denver Plan be established in Israel - was angrily rejected by Israel's Orthodox Chief Rabbis in early February. The Chief Rabbis' statement prohibited any cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews, who were characterized as trying to "destroy the foundations of the Jewish religion."
Political leaders on both the right and the left were highly critical of the Chief Rabbis' statement. On February 23, the Knesset passed a resolution endorsing the Ne'eman Commission's recommendations. Following the vote, Reform and Conservative leaders welcomed the good intentions of those backing the Knesset resolution, while noting that the resolution was largely symbolic; since, in the absence of involvement by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, there was no possibility that the compromise could be implemented.
II. What happens now? The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel will vigorously press ahead with their legal and political campaign to guarantee religious freedom for all Jews in Israel. If we succeed in winning a victory in court calling for the registration of non-Orthodox conversions, the Orthodox parties may attempt to reintroduce the Conversion Bill. At this moment, however, there is virtually no chance that it would pass. Some analysts feel that if the latter were to occur, the Orthodox parties might leave the coalition, resulting in the fall of the government.
Fear of such a development may account for the claim being made by Israeli government officials, and especially Mr. Ne'eman, that his Commission's recommendations can be implemented without the Chief Rabbinate's approval. According to Ne'eman, the scenario will be as follows: Individual Orthodox rabbis will defy the Chief Rabbinate and will agree to work with Reform and Conservative rabbis in a Jewish studies institute; graduates of this institute will then be referred to newly created special Rabbinical Conversion Courts, to which the Chief Rabbis will appoint moderate judges; these Conversion Courts will then agree to convert most graduates of the Jewish studies institute, with the Chief Rabbis' implicit approval. The problem with this scenario is that it does not confer upon us the formal recognition provided by the original proposals of the Commission; at best, it gives us a very minor, totally unofficial role in the conversion process that would hardly justify the far-reaching concessions we have made. The heart of the Ne'eman recommendations was the willingness of the Chief Rabbinate to work with the Reform and Conservative movements in a joint studies institute leading to conversion, and this is precisely what is now omitted. Thus, what we gain from this proposal is nothing. Furthermore, even on this basis it is unlikely to occur because it ignores the fact that the Chief Rabbis have continued their nonstop attacks on the recommendations and on Reform and Conservative Judaism. To assume that they will now cooperate covertly in implementing these proposals, even in this form, is simply absurd.
Reform and Conservative leaders have said that they have no objection to joining with Orthodox leaders in a joint studies institute; and they welcome the opportunity to teach Judaism together with their Orthodox colleagues. But they have made it clear that without the participation of the Chief Rabbinate, such an institute offers no solution to the problems that exist regarding conversion in Israel.
Why then does Mr. Ne'eman actively continue to lobby American Jews, urging their support for a "process" that no longer exists? First, the existence of such a "process" can be used as the basis for a request that Israel's courts delay any decision on the issue of conversion; indeed, in the court case argued on February 24, that is precisely the argument that the government put forward. Furthermore, as noted above, Mr. Ne'eman is undoubtedly attempting to avoid any court action by the non-Orthodox movements that might threaten the government coalition. By claiming that the "process" is continuing, he clearly hopes that he will be able to generate public support for halting Reform and Conservative legal appeals on conversion and other matters.
But this strategy is doomed to failure. Reform leaders have emphasized that under no circumstances will their legal appeals be frozen again.
III. The events of the past seven months should be seen as a significant victory for non-Orthodox Jewry of North America and Israel.
The Conversion Bill, which last March seemed certain of being adopted, now appears to be dead.
The Ne'eman Commission represents the first instance of Reform and Conservative Judaism's receiving official recognition from an Israeli government.
As a result of the intense publicity surrounding the work of the Commission, the Israeli public is much more aware of non-Orthodox Judaism than it was a year ago and much more critical of the extremism of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
Israeli Knesset members are far more sensitive than they were last year to the intensity of feeling that exists in the Diaspora regarding issues of religious freedom. This is a direct result of the efforts of Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregational leaders, as well as Federation leaders throughout the continent.
As Israel approaches its 50th anniversary, these achievements can appropriately be viewed by us as a turning point - the beginning of a new relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Just as we need Israel, Israel needs us - as well as all segments of the Jewish people.
It needs our energy and our experience with pluralism, with bridge building, with confronting change, with teaching respect, with applying humane values to society, and with sustaining religious freedom for all.
As we move into Israel's second half-century, we are delighted with the successes of the past year and with our new relationship. We celebrate both Israel's independence and our interdependence - the creative partnership between Israel and the Diaspora.
But we know that there is a great deal left to do. The work of bringing to an end those political arrangements that grant Orthodoxy privileged status and exclusive recognition in the Jewish State is just getting underway.