In my final weeks on staff at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, I find myself embroiled in a community controversy—the effort to pass a law in Israel relating to conversion.
Conversion is an issue that lies on the fault line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and, as a member of the Orthodox community who works in the broader Jewish community, I seem to live on that same perilous line.
The proposed legislation gives the Chief Rabbinate of Israel—which is Orthodox—formal legal authority in the realm of conversions. Our federation is actively seeking to block the legislation, which might be applauded in non-Orthodox circles, but has led to discomfort some of my Orthodox friends.
Isn’t the federation aligning itself with non-Orthodox interests in opposition to the Orthodox community?
And what of me; have I “sold out” my Orthodox convictions for the sake of my job?
Yet, in truth, there is no single “Orthodox position” on this conversion bill. Some supporters of the legislation articulate the importance of defending specific requirements of halachah (Jewish law) pertaining to conversion; others see the bill as a way to ensure a unified Jewish people by advancing a single standard by which we define a Jew. Some see it as intrinsic to a Religious Zionist vision in which the State of Israel can only fulfill its redemptive promise if it conducts itself in accordance with halachah.
Yet there are Orthodox rabbis and lay people —like me—who believe this legislation is harmful. Even though we believe Jews are commanded to observe halachah, we also believe we were created with free choice—bechirah chofshit—which enables us to reject the laws of Torah. Those who reject Jewish law or interpret it differently remain Jewish; we cannot write them out of our People. As the second paragraph of the Shema reminds us daily, our destiny is at one with theirs.
When we accept that the Jewish People are, despite our differences, one people, we must find a way to live with each other. Israel was conceived as a Jewish State, yes, but not as a halachic state. It was, rather, established as a Western democracy because, from its inception, all Jews who shared the Zionist dream—regardless of their religious perspectives—recognized that the new nation could be built only through the shared endeavor of us all. The proposed legislation compromises this Zionist vision by codifying in civil law that the Chief Rabbinate, with its particular perspective, is singularly empowered to define the standards of conversion in Israel.
Since the famous argument as to whether to include a reference to God in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (which yielded the ambiguous compromise, “Rock of Israel,” Tzur Yisrael), the relationship of the State to the Faith of Israel has been messy. Maybe I believe that we would be served by a single and clear conversion standard (and maybe I don’t). It does not matter. If the Government of Israel tries to define with too great clarity issues of this kind, it will tear the Jewish People asunder and destroy the State.
This week, I find myself straddling the fault line between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. And so, when I work on behalf of United Jewish Communities to block passage of the conversion bill, I do so with conviction that this is what will permit me, as an Orthodox Jew, to continue to live in a world blessed by Medinat Yisrael, reishit tzmichat ge’ulatenu, the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.