I have to admit that I was annoyed at first. It was the second day of Pesach, and the organizers of the hotel Pesach program we were attending had scheduled two afternoon lectures back to back in the same room. The speaker at the first of those lectures, a prominent figure who among his many achievements had previously held high-level positions in the US government, had just finished a highly informative presentation about the Israeli rabbinate’s attitudes toward conversions, which he had entitled “The Rabbanut and Personal Status: The Issues and the Debate.” Not surprisingly, many of those in the audience – myself included — had questions that we wanted to ask him. But the overcrowded schedule resulted in the program organizers’ ending that lecture without allowing time for questions.
The unexpected curtailment of that lecture was unfortunate because conversions, and particularly the Israeli chief rabbinate’s handling of them, is a significant subject that seldom receives the attention it deserves in mainstream Orthodox settings. The chief rabbinate’s policies on conversion, given its monopoly on Jewish marriages in Israel, have long drawn criticism from the non-Orthodox movements, but until recently had largely been ignored within the Orthodox community. As the speaker at that first afternoon lecture had pointed out, however, the Israeli rabbinate’s increasing stringency, made worse in recent years by its willingness to invalidate conversions retroactively, has created tension even with significant parts of the Orthodox community in the United States. The rabbinate’s position threatens to create yet another unnecessary rift between Israel and American Jewry at a time that the world’s two largest Jewish communities already have more than enough to divide them.
The lecture that followed that one – the one that had unintentionally encroached on what would have been the previous lecture’s question period – was a far lighter and, it seemed to me initially, less consequential one. The speaker was a writer and producer of situation comedies for network television, including one show that had won an Emmy. She had titled her lecture “Unorthodox Journey: How a Nice Observant Girl Ended up in Hollywood – and Stayed a Nice Observant Girl.” I had not originally planned to attend that second lecture, but I was curious as to what she would say, particularly once I realized (as the program organizers had no doubt expected) that her lecture was drawing a significantly larger audience than the one that preceded it, so I decided to stay.
I’m glad I did. Not being a particular fan of current sit-coms, I had not heard of the speaker (though even I had heard of some of the shows on which she had worked). Her talk consisted partly of her personal story and partly of practical advice to others who might want to follow a similar path. As she noted, some of her advice was specific to the challenges of working in Hollywood settings, and some applied to working in any part of the secular world. The questions directed at her covered a wide range of related subjects, all of which she fielded easily, though when they veered into subjects beyond her personal knowledge, she did not hesitate to say so. A couple of the questions were of the invitation-to-name-drop variety, but most were serious inquiries related to some aspect of what everyone understood to be the real underlying issue: the challenges facing observant Jews seeking to earn a living in today’s secular world.
It struck me near the end of her talk that there was a significant (though presumably unintentional) connection between the subject matters of those two adjacent lectures. The first speaker had focused on the controversy caused by the Israeli chief rabbinate’s, mishandling of conversions, but the rabbinate’s extreme stringency in that process arises out of the confluence of two broader trends. One of those trends is the increasing chareidi dominance of the Israeli chief rabbinate, an institution that was once considered the domain of religious Zionism. The other is the chareidi world’s increasingly narrow view as to what kind of life an observant Jew is permitted to lead. – including, of course, (though by no means limited to) what professional paths are acceptable.
Indeed, in an interview published in the Jewish Week during Pesach, Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the president of Beit Morasha (which founded the Institute for Jewish Studies –The Joint Conversions Institutes) made it clear that professional choices sometimes play a role in the rabbinate’s rejection of converts: “[M]any of the rabbinical courts demand people leave their professional careers because they believe their because they believe their careers will not allow them to observe all the strictures of halacha. For example, converts who have career in sports, in the police, in medicine ….”
It’s not hard to figure out how the chareidi-dominated conversion courts would have reacted to the career choice made by the second speaker ‘whom Iheard on that Pesach afternoon. Her occupation, after all, is writing content for shows broadcast on television, a medium strongly disfavored by chareidi leaders, most of whom discourage their followers from even owning a television set. If that speaker were a candidate for conversion rather than a born Jew, would the Israeli chief rabbinate insist that she change careers as a prerequisite to conversion?
Actually, we do not have to speculate about the answer to that question. because the rabbinate’s actions have answered it for us. A few weeks before Pesach, a popular Israeli actress named Alin Levy, an immigrant from the Ukraine whose father was Jewish, was told by the chief rabbinate that she could not convert unless she gave up her acting career. Levy, who immigrated to Israel with her parents at the age of four, was reportedly told that “acting as a career does not go together with the spirit of religion.”
The speaker who gave the lecture on conversions focused on the effect of the rabbinate’s stringency on Israel’s relations with American Jewry. In fact, however, that strain in relations with American Jewry is only part of the problem. Even if Israel’s leaders were prepared to ignore the feelings of American Jews on this issue, Israel would have good reasons of its own for facilitating the conversion process. There are an estimated 300,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union who live the lives of secular Jewish Israelis (serving in the army, speaking Hebrew, etc.) but are not halakhically Jewish. It is self-evidently in Israel’s interest to reduce that number as far as possible.
One of the aspirational foundations of Zionism was the normalization of the Jewish people. Yes, I know, many secular Zionists have assumed that normalization would inevitably lead to the abandonment of halakhic Judaism, but so far at least Israel’s history has not vindicated that prediction. What normalization must include, however, is the development of authentic Jewish responses to the full range of challenges confronting a modern state. There is a substantial difference between making religious policy for an embattled minority sect and making religious policy for the citizens of a modern nation state.
It was once the genius of religious Zionism that it not only acknowledged but celebrated that difference. Religious Zionists understood that halakhic decision-making could not ignore the larger societal framework in which it was formulated.. They understood that a responsible posek could not simply ignore the demographic, political or economic concerns that underlay halakhic issues. Moreover, religious Zionists, like their secular counterparts, recognized that the scope of activities, professional and otherwise, in which the Jewish citizens of a modern state would engage would be all-encompassing. The notion that the range of occupations in which religious Jews could legitimately engage should be limited to those that met some abstract notion of compatibility with the “spirit of religion” is inconsistent with the Zionist ethos.
The chareidi world, by contrast, has often seemed to long for the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe – or, to be more precise, for an idealized recollection of what life in those shtetls and ghettos was really like. They would prefer to narrow their range of concerns rather than to confront the modern world in all its maddening complexity. They would prefer to live a sectarian existence rather than to wrestle with the challenges that cannot help but accompany the restoration of Jewish sovereignty.
This clash of worldviews exists here as well as in Israel, but there is a significant difference. I n Israel, that intra-Orthodox struggle for dominance tends to play out politically, while in the States, for the most part, it tends to play out culturally. The political dimension of that struggle in the long run will have to be settled by the Israelis. Like it or not, the ability of Diaspora Jews to affect that outcome is limited.
But while we cannot directly affect the actions of Israeli batei din, that doesn’t mean that we are entirely without influence. Indeed, the American Jewish experience in the last few decades has shown that, even here, in a Gentile-dominated society, observant Jews can rise to the top of almost any profession without compromising their halakhic principles. Eventually that message may get through even to those who work hard to keep it out. The more examples of “nice observant girls” – and boys – who can succeed in their chosen fields while remaining observant, the harder it will be for the narrow-minded to assert the impossibility of such an outcome.
In a sense, then, the second of the two lectures I attended that afternoon may be the most constructive response to the challenge presented by the first. I doubt that the program organizers scheduled the two lectures that way intentionally – but sometimes God does indeed work in mysterious ways.