Michael Boyden

On Yom Kippur, Rabbinate must put its house in order

It is high time that the religious establishment made a confession: 'We have failed, we have transgressed'

The Mishna tells us that before the High Priest would appeal to God on Yom Kippur on behalf of the Jewish people, he would first of all make atonement for himself and for his household.

The order is significant on two counts. First, the spiritual leader of the day recognized that he, too, was guilty. Second, and no less significantly, he understood that he would not be fit to plead on behalf of his people until he had put his own house in order.

Were today’s rabbinical establishment to be self-critical – a characteristic that is, alas, sadly lacking – there would be much for which to atone. However, perhaps the greatest sin of all has been our failure to resolve the Jewish status of some 300,000 immigrants from the FSU.

The combination of the collapse of the walls of the Soviet empire after 70 years of communist rule, the reawakening of Jewish identity — particularly following the Six Day War — and the aliya of a million immigrants to Israel from the former USSR in the final decades of the twentieth century is perhaps the greatest miracle in Jewish history since the Exodus from Egypt.

Whereas the immigration of Soviet Jewry has largely been a success story in terms of its integration into Israeli society, there is one blatant area of failure, a blot on our character, for which the religious establishment is primarily responsible and which continues to accompany us to this day.

The Torah tells us that when the Children of Israel left Egypt, “a mixed multitude went up with them.” The medieval commentator Rashi tells us that this refers to “a mixture of other peoples.” Nowhere in the Torah do we read that they converted to Judaism, but somehow they became absorbed into the Jewish people.

In an age of computers and population registers, the tainted remain tainted. And so, over a quarter of a million of Israel’s citizens are today described as having “no religion.” Those so designated may have grown up in Israel and served in the IDF, but when they wish to marry they will be rejected and have no alternative but to travel overseas.

A panel of Orthodox rabbis perform a conversion at the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court (photo credit: Flash90)
A panel of Orthodox rabbis perform a conversion at the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court (photo credit: Flash90)

The pathetic efforts of the religious establishment to give these immigrants a religious home and identity, in spite of the well-meaning intentions of the Ne’eman Committee established by the government of the day to integrate them, is a testimony to the failure of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be sufficiently flexible to welcome in a “mixed multitude” of the children and grandchildren of Jews, who themselves had the misfortune of not having been born of Jewish mothers.

Not a day passes without my receiving a telephone call that goes something like this: “Hello. Are you a Reform rabbi? We want to get married.” The person on the other end of the line invariably has a Russian accent. It transpires upon further inquiry that one side is Jewish and the other side has a Jewish father or grandfather. Jewish law does not enable me to officiate at such a wedding without the non-Jewish partner first undergoing conversion.

Generally speaking, the partner with a Jewish father or grandfather is unwilling to convert. It is an affront to her/his identity. His/her family was considered Jewish when in the Soviet Union; they were registered as such in their internal passports and paid a high price for it. It was only when they came to Israel that their Jewish status was put into question. I have frequently heard the remark “In Russia I was called a Jew and in Israel they call me a Russian.”

It is high time that the religious establishment made a confession: “We have failed, we have transgressed. Rather than welcoming in this ‘mixed multitude’, we have set up barriers to impede their conversion and integration.”

Perhaps the time has come to change the rules of the game. Let the suffering of Soviet Jewry take the place of milah (circumcision) and let their aliya take the place of tevilah (ritual immersion). Surely they have said, in the words of Ruth, “your people will be my people and your God my God.” It is time we welcomed them into the Jewish fold. It is time that we put our own house in order.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.