Court Accepts Liberal Conversions in Israel; Orthodox Vow to Fight On


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JERUSALEM, Feb. 20 (JTA) – Non-Orthodox Jews both inside and outside Israel are celebrating a historic court ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions as valid and binding upon the Jewish state.

Given the complexity of Israeli society, however, Wednesday´s ruling by Israel´s High Court of Justice is not binding on the Israeli rabbinate.

The result is that the Interior Ministry must now register Israelis who had Reform or Conservative conversions as Jews on their national identification cards–but the rabbinate will not consider them Jews for “personal status” issues such as marriage or burial.

Orthodox leaders have condemned the ruling, and it is not clear if the Interior Ministry, which is run by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, will abide by it.

In addition, efforts are already under way in the Knesset to undermine the ruling through legislation.

Still, leaders of the non-Orthodox streams rejoiced after Wednesday´s ruling, which decided some 50 cases that had wended their way through the court system for years.

“The ruling has historical consequence because it strengthens Jewish pluralism in Israel,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the umbrella agency for Reform and other liberal organizations in 40 countries.

“It effectively repels the Orthodox establishment that holds that Reform and Conservative converts aren´t worthy of being recognized because of the liberal identities of the rabbis that convert them,” he said.

The conversion issue has sparked vicious fights over the question of “Who is a Jew” and strained relations between Israel–where the Orthodox largely control religious life–and the Diaspora, where the liberal streams are stronger.

It has also threatened the stability of previous Israeli governments, when Orthodox parties vowed to leave the governing coalition if changes to the so-called religious status quo were enacted.

At one point, Israel´s non-Orthodox groups had agreed to freeze the court cases while compromise solutions were sought, but ultimately renewed the cases when the standoff continued.

Outlining the court´s reasoning in its 9-2 decision, Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote: “Israel is not a state of a Jewish community, Israel is the state of the Jewish people.”

The ruling also said, “Our basic concepts grant each individual the liberty to decide his or her affiliation to one stream or another.”

“It´s obviously a complete and total victory,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, executive head of Israel´s Masorti Movement, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel.

The court´s language emphasizes the importance of not enshrining one stream of Judaism above others, Sacks said.

“All those people who converted with us and are listed as Ukranian or Peruvian or whatever, now they can have Jewish listed on their identity cards.”

The ruling pertains to conversions performed in Israel; those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel already are being registered as Jews.

The laminated, light green ID cards, carried in blue plastic billfolds, are a staple in every Israeli´s wallet. An Israeli ID number is used for paying bills, receiving insurance benefits, even buying a cellular phone.

Nevertheless, the decision carries no weight with Israel´s powerful Orthodox establishment.

The court´s decision recognizes the concept of religious pluralism in Israel, but Reform and Conservative conversions still are not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, which maintains its monopoly on issues such as marriage.

“So what if they have an identity card that says they’re Jewish,” said Avraham Ravitz, leader of the fervently religious United Torah Judaism bloc.

“It doesn´t mean they´re recognized by Jewish law as being Jewish. It´s just bureaucratic.”

That raised the prospect of Israelis receiving some of the privileges of being Jewish in the Jewish state, but not others.

“The decision will very much confuse these ‘converts´ whose conversions, in my view, do not hold,” Israel´s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, told Army Radio.

“Their identity cards will be worthless. Tomorrow if they want to register to get married, the day after if they go to the Immigration Ministry to ask for their basket of benefits or citizenship, they´ll be told, ‘No, you´re only thought of as a Jew on the population rolls, while as far as everything else goes, you remain in your goyishness.´ “

Indeed, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, said that he could not bring himself “to register a non-Jew as a Jew.”

One solution, he said, was to note on the converts´ ID cards that they are Reform Jews or Conservative Jews.

Already on Wednesday, Shas´ Knesset faction presented a legislative proposal to bypass the court decision. Under the bill, conversions would not be finalized until they received the Chief Rabbinate´s approval–even if they were performed overseas.

That seemed to indicate the issue is not yet closed.

Still, for Gary Teasdale, a Conservative convert living in Jerusalem, the ruling is a “real neat thing to have happen.”

“This ruling doesn´t affect my day-to-day life,” Teasdale said. “But I felt like I was on the outside looking in. Now I feel like I´m on the inside.”

Teasdale first thought about converting to Judaism when he and his wife moved to Israel a few years ago. Even though he was Christian, he received Israeli citizenship because his wife is Jewish.

After an unpleasant experience with an Orthodox conversion class, Teasdale turned to the Conservative movement and studied for a year with a local rabbi.

He was converted by the Conservative rabbinical court in September and officially became Jewish, but not according to the state–or the rabbinate.

Teasdale didn´t care much about the Orthodox rabbinate´s approval; he just wanted to be listed as Jewish on his I.D. card.

“I feel vindicated or compensated for what I went through,” he said after the ruling. “I have never understood why anyone who has the guts to come to Israel and live here and claim they are Jewish wouldn´t be welcomed with open arms.

“Why is there such a division between Orthodox and Conservative? You know they´re Jews.”

For the Orthodox establishment, however, it isn´t so simple.

The decision is “a blow,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media organization based in Jerusalem.

“The Supreme Court determined that the word ‘Jew´ has no meaning whatsoever, there are no standards to govern use of that word. Now anyone who has a printing press can call themselves a Jewish group and start dispensing Jewish certificates.”

The fervently Orthodox community views the decision as a critical change that effectively ends the dream of Jewish identity as a glue binding together the Jews in Israel, he said.

That kind of reaction gives pause to those in the Reform and Conservative movements

There could be complications following the ruling, said Nicole Maor, the attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center, the activist arm of the Reform movement here.

“It´s historic in that the court has ordered the Interior Ministry to register conversions in Israel,” added Maor. “Even though it´s symbolic, most government bodies don´t look any further than ID cards.”

Still she expects the Interior Ministry to try to avoid fulfilling the judgment.

Moreover, the issue of marriage remains unresolved.

Until they are recognized as Jews by the rabbinate, Reform and Conservative converts can´t be married by an Orthodox rabbi–the only Jewish marriages legally recognized by the state.

“It´s going to change sometime soon, because this is probably the only democratic country in the world where a significant part of its citizenry can´t marry,” said Sacks, referring to the large number of Russian immigrants whom the rabbinate doesn´t recognize as Jews.

“Over the next couple of years, the Knesset is going to have to find a way to marry” people “outside the rabbinate.”