The Rabbinical Council of America, the main association of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, today issued a statement calling on American Jews to respect the outcome of the democratic process in the State of Israel regarding laws governing conversion to Judaism. Sponsored by the Yisrael Beitenu party, the new conversion law is intended to ease conversion for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify as Jews and Israelis but are not Jewish according to Halakha, or Jewish religious law.
Conversion to Judaism is unlike conversion to any other religion, for the premise of Judaism is God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendents. From the time of King David’s great-grandmother Ruth, Jews have accepted wholehearted converts. For Orthodox rabbis, conversion is a solemn matter, for it involves conferring God’s promise to the family of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to an individual born outside it. It is not simply a matter of doctrinal assent but an adoption into the family of Abraham.
Michael Wyschogrod, the Orthodox theologian two of whose essays have appeared in First Things this year, argues that when a Gentile converts to Judaism, a miracle occurs: the convert becomes a descendent of Abraham and Sarah. Miracles, he adds, should not be an everyday ocurrence. Wyschogrod’s view is not universally accepted, but the Orthodox community is unanimous in its caution and seriousness regarding conversion.
The Reform and Conservative currents of American Judaism employ looser standards, especially in the case of a Gentile who wishes to marry a Jew in a Jewish service. Because the new Israeli legislation places responsibility for conversion with Israel’s chief rabbinate, which is Orthodox, Reform and Conservative organizations as well as mainstream Jewish organizations have opposed the Israeli Conversion Law, sometimes with bitter and inflammatory statements.
America’s Modern Orthodox rabbis, though, call on American Jews to respect Israel’s democratic process:
RCA Statement Regarding The Rotem Knesset Legislation Pertaining to Conversions
The Rabbinical Council of America is fully aware of the current significant and broad-ranging communal debate regarding the so-called Rotem legislation in the Israel Knesset, dealing with the charged matter of conversion to Judaism, and Jewish identity in the Jewish State.
There can be no doubt that the State of Israel is the center of Jewish life in our time. Decisions made in the Knesset relating to Jewish status in the State impact on the entire Jewish world. This includes the status of those who have emigrated with family members from other countries, as well as those who may have converted elsewhere prior to emigration.
For this reason the RCA has expended major efforts in recent years to work with Israeli authorities to facilitate acceptance of RCA conversions in Israel. This effort has borne fruit with a significantly expanded number of conversion courts and judges whose converts are fully recognized in the State of Israel. For indeed every rabbinate around the world bears the responsibility to certify or recognize those who come under its jurisdiction, according to its own processes and principles.
And what is true of the rabbinate, is true of the sovereign and democratic State of Israel. North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.
This is especially true when, as happens from time to time, there is no consensus - either among Diaspora Jews, or within the governing political and religious leaderships of Israel. While we have noted certain statements by a number of American Jewish religious and umbrella organizations, as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation. It should be noted that the more traditionalist segments of North American Jewry, always in the forefront of support and advocacy for Israel and aliyah, have to our knowledge not been consulted by the North American Jewish Federation leadership.
While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it. It is important to note that it was proposed and is championed by a secular political party whose constituents are the ones most directly affected by its outcome, and also has wide support among many in the Religious-Zionist camp. Crucially, for the future of the Jewish state, it addresses the existential challenge posed by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who are members of Jewish families. It does so by significantly expanding the number of local rabbinical courts for conversion, so as to facilitate conversion in accordance with the relevant requirements of Jewish law and ethical sensitivity. It also prevents retroactive revocation of conversions by third parties. And not least, it has the support of Israel’s official rabbinate.
The legislation is designed to change nothing regarding North American Jewish issues, a matter which in any event is far less significant to the State of Israel and its citizens than the undoubted benefits that the bill promises. Modifications in the language of the legislation may further alleviate the concerns of the non-traditionalists, but that should be for Israel’s religious and political leadership to decide, without outside pressures or interference. As a Diaspora community we ought all to respect the internal political process that impact first and foremost on those who live within the boundaries of Israel, and only in a derivative fashion on us who have chosen to live in the Diaspora. It ill behooves us to intrude on Israel’s democratic processes, or to threaten, even indirectly or by implication, a lessening of our full and unequivocal support for the State of Israel, if our views do not prevail. It certainly is unacceptable to involve members of the United States Congress, acting in their official capacity as Members of Congress, in lobbying one way or another regarding internal Israeli legislative processes, as some have done.
We thus call on our fellow Jews to respect Israel’s internal political processes, so as to allow Israel and its citizens to make this decision in their own - albeit imperfect, but democratic - fashion, with our unqualified support, our heartfelt prayers, and - whatever the outcome - our undiluted blessing.