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Israel Cannot be Arbiter of Conversions to Judaism

The firing of Rabbi Druckman is a wakeup call to all Jews, religious and non-religious alike, to recognize the Jewishness of Israel and its policies are in serious danger because of ultra-Orthodox arrogance and political power
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein
The firing of the director of the conversion department in the Prime Minister’s Office might seem to be a minor issue in the midst of Israel’s foreign policy and corruption crises. But the decision to fire Rabbi Chaim Druckman at the urging of ultra-Orthodox leaders should be a dramatic awakening to all Zionists in Israel – religious, traditional, and secular alike – that requires us to rethink our responsibility to the future Jewishness of the State, and the role of religion in Israel.
Rabbi Druckman had adopted an activist outreach policy that some mistakenly called lenient toward conversions within the State of Israel. His belief was that the 350,000 non-Jewish Russians living in the country, serving in the army and participating fully in the Jewish community are our brothers and sisters, and everything must be done to bring them under the wings of God. In doing so Rabbi Druckman was following the age-old policy of Hillel the Elder as outlined in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 31a).
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in need of strengthening his coalition, succumbed to the dictates of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv – elder statesman and posek of the ultra-Orthodox community – and fired Rabbi Druckman. The goal of the ultra-Orthodox extends beyond influencing the conversion process. Ultra-Orthodoxy believes the survival of the Jewish people will depend on a pure, pious remnant. Not only do they have almost no outreach, but their ideology perceives any watering down of standards as the great danger, for the future is not dependent on quantity, but quality.
Commitment to Jewish people
This policy is antithetical to the Zionist endeavor, which is to build a nation-state comprising the Jewish people and to define Jewishness in political communal terms, and not simply within the categories of observance. Zionism is a commitment to the Jewish people qua people. At its core lies the Law of Return, which in essence determines that the State of Israel belongs to all Jews, and that the mission of the State of Israel is to insure it will be the home of all Jews.
All Israelis must recognize once and for all that the State of Israel cannot serve as the arbiter as to what constitutes an authentic conversion. At issue is not the legitimacy of Rabbi Elyashiv’s conversion policies versus that of Rabbi Druckman’s. The question is whether the State of Israel should arbitrate this question and whether the State requires a uniform conversion process in the first place.
Jews throughout the world have been living for more than 200 years without an agreed-upon conversion process, and yet Jews are still marrying Jews and functioning as a community. In an ideal world we could reach a consensus on how one enters into the Jewish community. For the last 200 years, however, such a consensus has been impossible and unreachable, and to think otherwise is to engage in Pollyanaish, messianic fantasies. Ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and secular Jews have different notions of what constitutes Jewish life, and have diverse policies as to how one becomes a Jew.
Whose policy is more authentic to the Jewish tradition and will be more constructive for the future of Jewish life is the subject of debate among the different denominations. While it is not certain which approach is most effective or constructive, it is certain it is not for the State of Israel to determine this question.
This is what the framers of the State understood when they determined the Law of Return on the basis of the Nazis’ Nuremburg laws . The framers understood that the Jewish people could not reach an agreement, and they decided that anyone who would be killed by Hitler as a Jew would have an automatic right to be an Israeli citizen.
What sense does it make to grant automatic citizenship under the framework of the Law of Return, yet limit Jewishness within the country after one makes aliyah? By that I mean leaving issues of divorce, marriage, and burial to one official rabbinate that adopts only one position. The State of Israel needs multiple rabbinates that reflect the diversity of ideology permeating Israeli religious life. As the home of all Jews, the State of Israel does not have the right to determine authentic Judaism, but must reflect the diverse Jewishness of that population.
People state, “If we have multiple conversions, how will people marry each other. Don’t we need uniform conversion to ensure the unity of the Jewish people?” This is a complex and significant argument. But this is a question posed by Orthodoxy in order to compel all non-Orthodox Jews to be marriageable to Orthodox Jews. If one wants to assure that all Jews can marry Jews, it is incumbent on Orthodoxy to engage in a serious and open-minded discussion with other ideologies in order to achieve this end. To claim the mantle of concern for the Jewish people and require all to follow your conversion process is duplicitous at best.
Certain issues create serious hardships and barriers making it difficult for Jews to marry Jews, such as divorce and mamzerut . Conversion is not such an issue, because conversion can be redone and corrected. If Israel allows multiple types of conversions, every individual will take into account the Jewishness or lack thereof in choosing a spouse. If Jewishness is found to be lacking and both are in agreement, a new conversion can always be done in a simple and expedient manner.
The firing of Rabbi Druckman is a wakeup call, not simply to the arrogance of the ultra-Orthodox, who deem to determine the Jewish policies for a country they do not value in a Jewish way, and in which they are only marginally invested. It is a wakeup call to all Jews, religious and non-religious alike, to recognize that the Jewishness of this country and its policies are in serious danger. We need Jewish policies that reflect and are grounded in the Zionist ethos, which recognize that Israel is the home of all Jews, a country grounded on the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. We require policies that respect this and which see it as the foundation for the direction they must take.
In addition: Religious Zionism’s absence felt in this matter
The decision by the prime minister also symbolizes a trend, grown stronger recently, to turn over the official religious functions of the State to non-Zionist hands. This policy has been growing stronger over the last two decades.
The primary cause is the abandonment by the National Religious Party of its involvement and leadership in issues relating to the State’s religious identity. The NRP has replaced issues of identity with issues of geography; its sole concern is with the land of Israel and not with its soul.
The NRP must recognize the dire consequences that have resulted from its becoming a party grounded solely on foreign policy issues, and that has miniaturized Judaism into a religion dealing exclusively with issues of holiness of land. The voice of the NRP, a party deeply committed to Zionism and the people of Israel as a whole, is seriously missing at this moment.
This change of focus will not only require new political priorities from the NRP, but a cultivation of leaders capable of speaking to the Jewish people at large, and capable of recognizing that Judaism is not the inheritance of the religious alone, but of all Jews, and who see it as their responsibility to serve as communicators of this tradition.
It will be of no service to the country if the NRP sees the issue of Rabbi Druckman only as a political affront to its constituency and not as an affront to the Jewish people and the State of Israel as a whole. The issue of conversion can serve to restructure, reframe and re-idealize the NRP and its constituency and place it back at the center of the religious discourse in this country, from which it has been absent.

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