Sunday, July 18, 2010

Who is a Jew?

New York Times, July 15, 2010

The Diaspora Need Not Apply

WHO is a Jew? It's an age-old inquiry, one that has for decades (if
not centuries) provoked debate, discussion and too many punch lines to
count — all inspired by what many assumed was the question's essential
unanswerability. But if developments this week are any indication, the
Israeli parliament, the Knesset, might soon offer an official,
surprising answer: almost no one.

On Monday, a Knesset committee approved a bill sponsored by David
Rotem, a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, that would
give the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel. If
passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births,
marriages and deaths — and, through them, the fundamental questions of
Jewish identity — in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or
Haredi, rabbis.

The move has set in motion a sectarian battle that is not only
dividing Israeli society but threatening to sever the vital connection
between Israel and the American Jewish diaspora.

The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries,
who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably
corrupt. (To take the most salacious of a slew of examples, an
American Haredi rabbi who had become one of the most powerful
authorities on the question of conversion resigned from his
organization in December after accusations that he solicited phone sex
from a hopeful female convert.) Rather, it is that the beliefs of a
tiny minority of the world's Jews are on the verge of becoming the
Israeli government's definition of Judaism, for all Jews.

It is hard to exaggerate the possible ramifications, first and
foremost for Jewish Israelis. Rivkah Lubitch, an Orthodox woman who is
a lawyer in Israel's rabbinic court system, painted a harrowing
picture of the future in a recent column on the Israeli Web site Ynet.

"Even if you didn't go to register for marriage, and even if you
didn't go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn't
pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the
rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness
and revoke it," she wrote. "In effect, the entire nation of Israel is
presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise."

Why are the rabbis doing this? The process is not being driven, as
some say, by a suspicion of new converts — they're simply a wedge
issue. Nor is it, as others argue, a reaction to the influx of Russian
Jews, who when they seek permission to wed in Israel are often asked
for evidence that their families were registered as Jews in the old
Soviet Union.

No, what is driving this process is the desire of a small group of
rabbis to expand their authority from narrow questions of conversion
to larger questions of Jewish identity. Since what goes for conversion
also goes for all other clerical acts, only a few anointed rabbis will
be able to determine the authenticity of one's marriage, divorce,
birth, death — and every rite in between.

And lest one imagine that this is just another battle between the more
progressive Reform and Conservative denominations and the more
observant Orthodox, it must be noted that the criteria used by the
rabbinate are driven by internal Haredi politics, not observance.
According to the Jewish Week, at one point the number of American
rabbis who were officially authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to
perform conversions was down to a few dozen. Even if you are Orthodox
— and especially if you are Modern Orthodox — your rabbi probably
doesn't make the cut. (Don't believe it? Go ask him.)

Given that the conversion bill is the latest in a series of similarly
motivated efforts, it seems almost useless to note that the stringent
approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes bears
little connection to the historical experience and religious practice
of the majority of Jewish people over the past two millenniums. It
will do little good, too, to point out that it is well outside the
consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all
of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a
forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply
because he'd asked.

And it doesn't help to argue that giving the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate
total control over Jewish practice will destroy religious life in
Israel just as surely as clerical control hurt the Church of England
and the Catholic Church in Spain and France. Or that the Zionist
founders, from Herzl to Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion, all believed
passionately in the unity of the Jewish people and the need for a
secular state.

But perhaps a more practical rallying cry will work: If this bill
passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical
moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish
diaspora that their rabbis weren't rabbis and their religious
practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses
were invalid, their marriages weren't legal under Jewish law, and
their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

Why, they will wonder, as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe
the Jewish state off the map, did the custodians of the 2,000-year-old
national dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition
of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters
outside its own borders?

And, they will also wonder, what of the quiescence of diaspora Jewry?
Many American Jews understandably see Israel as under siege and have
not wanted to make things worse; they imagined that internal
politicking over conversions and marriages was ephemeral, and would
change. But the conversion bill is a sign that this silence was a
mistake, for it has been interpreted by Israeli politicians as a green
light to throw basic questions of Jewish identity into the pot of
coalition politics.

The redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has
rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong diaspora,
which have spoken to each other politically and culturally, and whose
successes have mutually reinforced the confidence and capacities of
the other. Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split
between the two communities — a dystopian possibility that, if this
bill passes, could materialize frightfully soon.

Alana Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, which covers
Jewish life and culture.