The dramatic changes in the character of Jewish existence in the modern era have reshaped the spheres of Jewish identity and have made it necessary to create conversion mechanisms that are appropriate to the new possibilities. While the Reform movement has successfully designed such a mechanism, the Zionist movement has not managed to. Rather, the State of Israel has allocated the authority to perform conversions to representatives of Orthodox Judaism, who view the religious element of Jewish existence as its centerpiece. Jewish-Israeli society must again take responsibility for shaping its identity and must create a conversion mechanism that reflects the diversity of that identity.
Articles on conversion in Israel appear frequently in the media. In general, these involve negative and disturbing descriptions of the inflexibility of the conversion courts, the cancellation of conversions, the refusal of local rabbis to marry converts, etc. The debate over the issue of conversion is grounded in deep-seated disagreements, which have implications for Jewish existence in the modern era.
What is conversion? It is a process that we find within Jewish tradition from the time of the Sages and onward, in which a non-Jewish individual – a man or a woman – becomes a Jew. However, in order to establish the conditions for conversion and what it means, there is a need to define what it means to “be Jewish.” Indeed, conversion is derived from the definition of Jewish identity.
The Jewish People has for many generations been characterized as both a people – an ethos, national, tribal, and family unit – and as a religion. The elements of being a nation and a religion overlap to a great extent and therefore it was clear to someone converting that he is joining the Jewish People and taking upon himself the Jewish religion. Until the modern era, it was clear that being a normative Jew meant taking part in the life of the Jewish community, maintaining solidarity with other Jews and being faithful to Jewish tradition. In all periods, there were Jews who did not meet these requirements and they were thought of as sinners and criminals in the eyes of the community and their behavior was sanctioned.
In some cases, whole groups were removed from the Jewish community, such as the Christians, the Karaites and the Sabbateans. In the modern era, the Jewish People has undergone many changes. Apart from the new religious possibilities, such as those offered by the Reform movement, there now exists the possibility of being a secular Jew, which places the Jewish nation and its culture at the center rather than the Jewish religion. Zionism is one of the most important expressions of this trend and the creation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is the fulfillment of the dream of Jews who viewed modern Jewish nationalism as the relevant expression of Jewish existence in the modern era. Zionist thinkers and leaders of the Zionist movement sought to build a sovereign framework based on both Jewish and modern Western values. As a result, the state that was created out of this vision was defined as one that “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture” (from the Declaration of Independence).
The dramatic changes in the character of Jewish existence in the modern era, which were the result of the development of the Reform movement, the Zionist movement and other modernist ideologies, created staunch opposition among Jewish Orthodox groups who did not agree with modern values and did not wish to integrate these values within Jewish existence. As a result of the debate, Orthodoxy came to emphasize the religious element of Jewish identity and existence. Conversion, according to this approach, is primarily a process of adopting the Jewish religion, keeping the commandments and conforming to halakha according to its Orthodox interpretation.
While the Reform movement created for itself a conversion mechanism that was consistent with its outlook on Jewish existence in the modern era, Zionism – which also had a vision of modern national Jewish existence – did not create such a mechanism for itself. Furthermore, the State of Israel – which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream – decided to transfer the responsibility for laws relating to personal status, i.e. marriage, divorce and conversion, as well as the corresponding judicial authority, to representatives of Orthodox Judaism: the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the rabbinic courts. There are a variety of reasons that this was done, including the desire to maintain national unity, political interests, etc. Whatever the case, the result is that some of the most significant aspects of an individual’s life and even of the State’s character were made the responsibility of one group in Israeli society – the Orthodox rabbinate.
Jewish-Israeli society needs to again take responsibility for its Jewish identity and for the issue of conversion, which is an expression of that identity. Conversion should reflect the common denominator of Jewish-Israeli existence. Jewish society in Israel is for the most part a traditional society that respects the values of the Jewish heritage – its texts, its festivals, its language, and its culture. But it is also a society that believes in the free choice of the individual and his personal responsibility for his way of life. Conversion needs to include – apart from circumcision and immersion in the mikva – an in-depth familiarity with Jewish tradition, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish-Israeli culture. This familiarity should be based on both studying and experiencing the various forms of Jewish existence in our day.
Thus, for example, converts – both men and women – should get to know the synagogue prayer service, as well as Bialik and Agnon and Yad Vashem and Remembrance Day for the IDF fallen, and the talit and tefillin and the Institute of Jewish Festivals at Kibbutz Beit Hashita. The responsibility for one’s personal lifestyle and that of his family should be left in the hands of the convert, in the hope that he will find his place in the diversity of Jewish-Israeli existence. The responsibility for conversion of this type should be in the hands of a Beit Din that will represent Jewish-Israeli society. Its role will primarily be educational and it will have the responsibility of guiding the convert and assisting him in his absorption into Israeli society.
Israeli Judaism is the new Jewish identity, which is built on foundations that are connected to Jewish identity as it is also experienced in other parts of the world. However, it also has within it components that are connected to the Israeli identity, which also includes non-Jewish aspects. The recognition of Jewish-Israeli identity and the creation of a conversion mechanism that will express this identity represent some of the most significant challenges facing Jewish-Israeli society. This is a difficult and complex challenge; however, dealing with it can prevent alienation, and even produce closeness, between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. And no less important – it can strengthen the elements of identity that are common to the various communities within Israeli society – both Jewish and non-Jewish. Recognizing this identity and dealing with the challenges it involves will help in achieving real equality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel without compromising the uniqueness of the various identities of Israel’s citizens.