The Israeli government’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill on Sunday, which would protect all people who have converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and the conversion course which it sponsors. Why this bill should even be necessary and who sponsored it are two of the almost tragic ironies of religious life in the modern Jewish State and the ways in which Diaspora Jews relate to it.

For starters, the bill, which seeks to protect converts from being retroactively drummed out of the Jewish people by either the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, or any other rabbinic bodies, was sponsored by David Rotem. Yes, the same David Rotem who sponsored an earlier bill on conversion in general and under who’s authority they could be performed – a bill which also put into question the authenticity of any Jew living in Israel who converted with anyone other than a relatively short list of Orthodox rabbis.
That bill, created a dust up among Jews around the world not seen in almost twenty years. And ironically, I suspect that many of the same people who stormed the barricades of Jewish life in anger over Rotem’s earlier proposal are the same people who will welcome his latest. Why? Because almost none of the conversation about conversion in Israel is about anything more than people wanting to secure their place in a largely bankrupt system.
Instead of addressing the bigger challenges of state-sponsored religion, most Jews simply want to make sure that their kind of Judaism is protected under a system which entangles synagogue and state in ways to which they would object, were it happening anywhere other than in Israel. Watching the seemingly endless cycle of “who is a Jew” debates is like watching people fight to receive a portion of food which will only make them sick when they eat it. Very sad.
And as for Mr. Rotem, one might reasonably ask, how is it that the same person sponsors two bills, one of which appears to fight for inclusiveness and the other which seems to support the exclusive right of only some rabbis to oversee legally recognized conversions? Part of the answer lies in the fact that in each case, Rotem was trying to protect the Jewishness of the Russian-Israelis who are the backbone of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the split he proposed works for most of those people about whom Rotem is most concerned.
The larger answer however, the one which most people would like to avoid, is that even for most of the secular Russian-Israelis who choose to convert, the conversion they want is Orthodox. In fact, most Israelis still prefer to live with a measure of Orthodox domination because even if they experience is as stupid, and often tyrannical, Judaism, they see it as authentic Judaism. Also very sad.
Possible solutions to this situation will be addressed in a subsequent posting. For now, I would simply suggest that nobody is well served when they support a system as long as it protects their own spiritual authenticity but fails to protect that of others, or when people empower others to control their own identities out of a weird combination of nostalgia and lack of self-confidence in their own religious integrity.
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