Israeli Chief Rabbinate is thwarting religious expression, democratic principles

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Rabbi Steven Wernick

We are saddened by the contempt that Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, expresses for Reform and Conservative Judaism at this High Holidays season.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are small but vibrant, and growing rapidly.

This growth comes despite longstanding Israeli government policy that funnels taxpayers’ money only to Orthodox institutions, forcing Conservative and Reform Jews to fend for themselves.

Government recognition and equitable funding of Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues would lead to even faster growth, and polls show that an overwhelming majority of Israelis favor such recognition.

Polls also demonstrate the massive unpopularity among Israelis of the Chief Rabbinate and its religious bureaucracy, which sanctions discrimination against the majority of world Jewry.

Coercive, punitive, inefficient and often corrupt, this bureaucracy has driven Jews from Judaism and brought Torah into disrepute. We find it troubling that Rabbi Amar prefers Israelis to be secular than to identify as passionate Jews through Reform and Conservative institutions.

The Conservative and Reform movements were backbones of the Soviet Jewry movement and have remained engaged in efforts to support Russian olim in Israel. We have always supported those elements of the conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem that would add flexibility to the current conversion system.

We doubt very much, however, that the Rotem bill would have helped Russian immigrants in a significant way. Because its demands are so stringent, it is likely that it would have helped only a few. And underlying the rhetoric about helping Russians convert halachically is a power play to grant the Chief Rabbinate far more authority over conversions than Israeli law now provides.

If the Chief Rabbinate were given total authority over conversions, we know what would happen: The Rabbinate would use this authority to change the definition of conversion under the Law of Return, overturning the status quo by rejecting Reform and Conservative conversions done in the Diaspora. Some Israeli rabbinical courts already have begun to do this. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in cases related to the rights of our converts also would be greatly limited.

Under current law, we have yet to lose such a conversion case before the Supreme Court. But with the law changed, the Chief Rabbinate would reverse the results of our important past victories.

This explains the alarm that swept North American Jewry, where 85 percent of Jews are non-Orthodox. Rabbi Amar is fooling himself and his followers if he thinks that our movements artificially generated this anger. It was the heartfelt response of Jews throughout North America who were outraged by proposals to reject the legitimacy of our rabbis and of the way we practice our Judaism.

When Rabbi Amar asks why members of the U.S. Congress should care about this bill, he should remember that the vast majority of the Jewish caucus in Congress consists of Reform and Conservative Jews. Indeed, there are 535 senators and representatives in Congress, and the great majority of the rabbis they know, the synagogues they visit and the Jews who vote for them are Reform and Conservative. They are gravely concerned when our rabbis and movements are delegitimized by the actions of the Knesset.

If Rabbi Amar and others are worried about the reactions of the American Congress, they should remember this: It is perilous to create schisms that will alienate our friends and split the Jewish people, and they should be prepared to take responsibility for their own actions.

We are stunned by the suggestion that Israel’s religious monopoly represents democratic principles. Such a system exists nowhere else in the democratic world. We appreciate Rabbi Amar’s commitment to his understanding of Jewish tradition, but we wonder why he lacks the confidence to give Israelis free choice in religious matters. The principle that should guide us is that the Jewish state should support all religious streams equally or none at all.

We have very different ideas on how to assure Jewish unity. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that Reform and Conservative conversions must be recognized for the purposes of obtaining Israeli citizenship. The decision noted that Israel was not founded “in order to drive a wedge into the people who dwell in Zion, and divide it into two peoples, Jews and Israelis.”

When the Jewish state takes an inclusive approach to the Jewish people, unity will become possible.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Steven Wernick is executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.