Published in The Jerusalem Post on January 25, 1998
An pithy graffiti-artist has been busy this week making a ‘correction’ to the “One Nation; One Conversion” billboards that seem to be on every street corner. Instead of ‘giyur’, conversion in Hebrew, the guy with the spray-paint has been changing it to ‘giyus’ – conscription. Army service for all. Mobilize the ultra-Orthodox too.
Well, I doubt that will ever happen, but it is Time to mobilize the forces of moderation in this country and abroad — Orthodox, secular, Reform and all other shades of Jews — behind the plan concluded Friday by the Neeman Commission on conversion. Because it’s a good deal for the Jewish people. And because the agreement is rickety.
Essentially, the committee dealt with two problems, and found that their solution is coincident: the Reform/Conservative demand for a role in Israeli Jewish life, and the Jewish identity of 200,000 Russian * goyim * now in this country.
The proposal squares the circles by creating a pluralistic conversion study process, while upholding authentic halachic standards, under Chief Rabbinate supervision, for the actual conversions. Orthodox members on the Neeman committee believe that five to ten thousand Russian youth a year could be converted through an entire network of new conversion * batei din *. The discussions have sensitized the * dayanim * to the necessity of making this feasible. Bottom line: * that’s * Neeman’s real achievement.
But narrow organizational considerations have complicated the committee’s work all along, and the fragile consensus reached at the last minute could yet come unraveled. The deal needs to be defended.
Reform leaders feel the Neeman package is an inferior bargain from their perspective, and they wouldn’t be too sorry to see it dissolve – as long as the Orthodox get the blame. After all, the proposal strengthens the Chief Rabbinate and sets halacha as The Standard. Moreover, the provision granting Reform and Conservative rabbis the opportunity to preside over weddings — has been put off for now.
Neeman’s package * infers * a Reform role in Jewish life here through the joint conversion college, which is one heck of an Orthodox concession, but doesn’t shout it from the rooftops. There’s no flashy American Jewish victory over the hated Israeli Orthodox religious establishment. And for the Reform that’s simply inadequate – not after getting everybody on the other side of the Atlantic so extraordinarily riled up for the battle of the century against the ‘fundamentalists’.
Some Reform leaders can’t wait to whip out the * bagatzim * (appeals to High Court of Justice) directed at dismantling Rabbinate hegemony, or to once again rev-up the Federation system to fight the pluralism wars.
This explains the last minute Reform haggling over their right to conduct un-halachic, unofficial conversions on the side, despite the deal, and their insistence on a photo-op with the Chief Rabbis. These were scuttle tactics.
The ‘International Committee in Support of the Neeman Commission’, which I hereby declare established, should make perfectly clear to the Reform that this is the very best deal they can hope to achieve. Neeman has fashioned an inclusive model for intra-denominational Jewish coexistence and problem-solving. It’s historic. Stick with it.
IT’S ALSO TIME FOR THE Chief Rabbis to bite the bullet. Until now, they’ve followed things from the sidelines, acquiescing in the inclusiveness of the commission, tolerating the Orthodox-Reform dialogue without endorsing it, nor committing to any conversion arrangements.
I see little reason for the Rabbinate not to give the Neeman package a try. Halacha becomes formally accepted by Klal Yisrael – by Eric Yoffie, Dedi Zucker and the Council of Jewish Federations — as the yardstick for civic and religious membership in the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. No more accusations of coercion in this regard.
The accord positions the Rabbinate back at the center of consensus at a time when the clamor for civil naturalization and alternative marriage procedures has threatened their legitimacy in the eyes of many. At the very least, the pact should buy a couple years of calm, free of constant legislative and judicial attempts to wear-away the Rabbinate’s areas of authority. It buys a modicum of Jewish unity, here within Israel, and in Israel-Diaspora relations — without really recognizing any alternative religious stream as much more than brothers.
A mild statement welcoming the Neeman effort, and expressing an openness to give the new system a fair trial should suffice. Rabbis Lau and Bakshi-Doron – the nation awaits your word! Don’t let hard-liners dissuade you from backing the historic deal.
The woeful alternative is ‘sifrei yochsin’ – privately-run hareidi genealogy registries for ‘strictly kosher’ Jews, run out of Bnei Brak, and the total fragmentation of world Jewry. This means that twenty years hence, with the breakdown of standards for “Jewishness”, my daughter will have to wary of the guy she meets in the university cafeteria. He may look and talk Jewish and be Jewishly committed, but not be a bona fide member of the tribe, marriageable by my halachic standards.
Such a situation would amount to the melt-down of Jewish peoplehood, and mark the marginalization of Orthodoxy into virtual ghettos of splendid isolation. It also would augur the eventual evaporation of Reform Jewry into a haze of assimilated, amorphous non-identity.
That’s why Neeman’s deal is so needed. Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders abroad, and Orthodox, Zionist Rabbis and leaders in Israel who recognize the merit of the Neeman accord need to be heard. Moderates the Jewish world over, speak up and be counted!