The Wall, Conversion and Jewish Legitimacy

The latest crisis over the status of the Western Wall has raised the stakes in the relationship of non-Orthodox Judaism with the Jewish state.  After the government reneged on a carefully negotiated agreement on establishing a section of the Wall for non-Orthodox prayer, and on the same day gave a go-ahead for a strict conversion bill to deny any status to conversions organized by any other than Chief Rabbinate authorized rabbis, non-Orthodox Jewry was left scrambling to discover any remaining space for a relationship with the State.  The freeze the prime minister put on the conversion legislation did not prevent the Chief Rabbinate from publishing a list of hundreds of rabbis whose conversions would not be accepted.

The government’s decision to yield to the pressure of ultra-Orthodox interests can be understood pragmatically.  The majority of the Israeli population, while not Orthodox, does not care much one way or the other about religious disputes.  The average Israeli, while he or she might prefer a Western Wall experience under non-Orthodox auspices, does not care much because he or she will not visit the Wall more than a few times in a lifetime, and will vote for parties in the Knesset based on opinions on the economy or security, not religion.  The average American Jew will also not visit the Wall more than a few times, if that, in a lifetime either.  The average American Jew either supports Israel out of a sense of Zionist identity and will support the State no matter what, or will look for alternative ways to influence the government to take a principled stand on the territories or the peace process.  And so, neither group seems to get exercised enough to prevent the ultra-Orthodox minorities from pursuing their extremist agenda in the religious persecution of Judaism in the Jewish state.

We can understand how a parliamentary democracy works.  Different factions angle their influences to achieve their factionalist goals, and the prime minister needs to make enough deals to form a coalition where a majority of the people are at least somewhat represented in the government.  The parliamentary system is clumsy and fragile, but it is not necessarily inferior to our two-party system in the United States where everything is polarized and the issues themselves are too often lost behind the party line-ups.  We can also understand that the majority of Israelis, just like the majority of American Jews, are not going to put religious questions at the forefront of their politics.  Each Israeli government must decide how much insult it can afford to levy against world Judaism as the price of managing the ultra-Orthodox pressure on the governing coalition.  It is for these reasons that the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel have resorted to judicial avenues to address grievances with the government.  Certainly, the courts should uphold the right of religious freedom as a basic tenet of any modern democratic state.  Perhaps in the long run that will happen, but the wheels of justice move slowly.  And then there is the problem of agreeing to suspend court proceedings to allow for negotiation with the government, only for the government to renege on its own commitments.

But the biggest problem with this situation, and one that is perhaps the easiest to resolve, is the mindset of the majority of non-0rthodox Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora.  Perhaps they will not vote against the ultra-Orthodox, but they should at least not believe the ultra-Orthodox when they explain why they see the Western Wall agreement, and the status of conversions, as so essential to their concerns.  The ultra-Orthodox explain that they represent the one unchanging authentic Judaism.  They object to what they claim is the audacity of Reform and Conservative Judaism in seeking to change and challenge the authentic inheritance.  One ultra-Orthodox statement in late June conceded that Reform Judaism may be a respectable form of religion, and perhaps should be respected like Christianity or Islam, but that it is not Judaism.  Another ultra-0rthodox voice quoted in July in The Jewish Standard argued that Orthodoxy alone is the Judaism that goes back to Moses and Sinai, so it alone has claim to Jewish holy sites like the Wall and its rabbis alone can be afforded recognition for conversions in the eyes of the State.  These statements are utterly false.  But they are dangerous because too many non-Orthodox Jews believe them.

All forms of Judaism today are modern expressions that were forged through our common historical experience.  Ultra-Orthodoxy is no more or less a response to modern conditions than Reform or Conservative Judaism.  All derive from tradition, and all have a claim on coming from that tradition.  The ancient Israelites did not wear black hats and speak Yiddish any more than they wore t-shirts and spoke English.  They had neither rabbis nor synagogues.  And they certainly did not have yeshivot.  The summer fast of Tisha b’Av commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temple (where sacrifices were observed in strict compliance with the Hebrew Bible) should remind us of how much change the Jewish people have suffered and how much Judaism has adapted to adjust to that change.  The worldview of ultra-Orthodoxy, to close the gates between the Jewish and the outside worlds so as to resist the pull of modernity, is itself an extreme reaction to modernity.  Non-Orthodox Judaism seeks less of a rupture with the course of history.  The differences between Conservative and Reform Judaism are ultimately about how much change is necessary in order to maintain an authentic Judaism.  Just as a sailor must decide how much to fight against the current and how much to go with it, so does each denomination determine how best to ride the winds of time.

The attempt to delegitimize the overwhelming majority of conversions to Judaism and to restrict access at the Wall to only certain minority expressions of Judaism is ultimately a struggle over the legitimacy of differing forms of Judaism.  There have always been competing forms of Judaism.  Most have heard of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Today, the names have changed but the condition of plurality of ideas has not.  Legitimacy was always regulated within each group, but the groups together formed the Jewish people because each recognized the other’s claim to authenticity, even if each disagreed with the other’s path.  The people of Israel will ultimately need to decide if they want a state that guarantees freedom of religion and embraces all types of Jews, as the Zionist movement always did in the past, or if they want to champion only one form of Judaism to the exclusion of others.  But no one should ever feel that he or she has less of a claim on authentic Judaism because religious devotion takes up fewer hours of a person’s time, or because one lives a life more in accommodation with the modern world than at odds with it.  The ultra-Orthodox Jew has every right to believe that he or she alone is the truly authentic Jew.  But no one else should believe that.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.