Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two Jews Three Opinions One Theocracy

The theocratic madness that is Israeli domestic politics has once again pitted the Jewish Taliban against the rest of us over the issue of who is a Jew. In an effort to break the logjam of conversions to Judaism in Israel (primarily caused by Russian immigrants who cannot prove their Jewish status), the Israeli government is seeking to both broaden the number of rabbis empowered to perform conversions and to place the whole matter of conversion (and thus who is a Jew) under the control of the Chief Rabbinate.

The fact that largely liberal nonOrthodox Diaspora Jewry is upset over this should come as no surprise. The government is siding with the Orthodox and legalizing the disenfranchisement of nonOrthodox rabbis and religious institutions. This isn’t new. The Israeli government doesn’t fund nonOrthodox Judaisms even as it does fund Orthodox Judaism (and other religions). The difference is that this pending legislation makes law out of what is at the moment mere custom. If the law passes, nonOrthodox rabbis have no hope of getting their converts recognized as Jews.

Why does this matter? Because being able to convert a person to Judaism legitimizes one’s status as an authentic rabbinic authority. Reform and Conservative rabbis want the same status as their Orthodox counterparts. Why don’t they have it? Because Israel’s parliamentary system is so broken that it requires huge coalitions in order to govern, and hence tiny parties can hold the nation hostage. This is something the smaller rightest religious parties are very good at doing.

Solutions? Here’s one: Israel could try becoming a secular democracy and follow the American ideal (albeit forever threatened by the Christian Taliban) of separating church and state. It is not for the Israeli government to determine who is a Jew, only who is an Israeli, and these are not the same thing at all.

In the US Orthodox rabbis do not recognize as Jews, those Jews converted to Judaism by nonOrthodox rabbis. So what? People who convert to Reform Judaism have no desire to be part of an Orthodox community. And, if at some point in the future they do so desire, they can convert to Orthodoxy. What is the big deal? Let the same thing happen in Israel.

Of course since 90% of Jewish Israelis are nonOrthodox, opening up the Jewish marketplace would be bad for the Orthodox monopoly, and they would fight any such change. But that is life in a true democratic secular state.

The real threat is that the more theocratic Israel becomes, the less Jews around the world will identify with her. Do I really want to support a state that has bus lines that force women to sit in the back of the bus? Do I really want to support a state that lets theocratic bullies determine who can marry whom and how? The more “Jewish” Israel becomes, the less compelling the idea of a Jewish state becomes. This is not a problem that will go away soon.


andrea perez said...

And that is precisely the reason I am not going to Israel. It's difficult defending Israel when they are acting the same way many of the "Arab" states act.Who's pointing fingers here? Besides, what happened to all that stuff about Orthodox not being Zionists and not recognizing the state of Israel because the Messiah hasn't come yet? Theocracies in this day and age seem so yuck! What next, are they going to start beating people in the street for not following the rules? Oh, they already do that. And how is that so different from stoning someone because they committed adultary after their spouse is dead? It's just plan embarrassing to be a Zionist in this day and age.

Unknown said...

Doesn't it seem interesting that this same type of religious zealot taking over government seems to be happening in so many places on earth at the same time (including here in the US to some extent). I had no idea this was true of Israel. CNN doesn't seem to cover that one, wonder why?

Old Lady said...

I had no idea!

Claire said...

So, Rabbi - in your opinion, who do you think is a Jew?

Rabbi Rami said...

Just a couple of comments: First, only the most extreme Orthodox Judaisms (like the Satmar sect) reject Zionism.

As for my definition of who is a Jew, I offer this: A Jew is anyone who claims to be a Jew, who imbues her/his life with the principles of Judaism (Ethical Monotheism broadly defined), who seeks to live those principles through the traditions of Jewish civilization (kosher, Shabbat, tzedakah, etc) adopted and or adapted, and who makes as part of her/his story the stories of the Jewish people.

Claire said...

I like your definition, but I am curious - you separated criteria with mostly with commas. I'm assuming your criteria are all with "and"s and not "or"s.

A couple more questions:

Do you think a Jew has to believe in God? Or is the criterion, one God or fewer? Another way to state it: can one be an atheist or agnostic and still be Jewish, or at least a "good Jew"?

Does blood play any role in this?


Rabbi Rami said...

Hi Claire,

Yes, "ands" were inferred, though I am not so interested in defining who's in and who's out. As for a belief in God, you'll notice I didn't mention God though I did mention Ethical Monotheism. I am a panentheist, I use the word God to refer to Reality and do not believe in a self-conscious creator who judges the world and determines our fate here and here-after. I would focus more on cultural links than theological convictions when deciding who is a Jew. As for blood, I wouldn't deny the Jewish status of a person who claims it through blood, but blood alone is a bit weak. If your parents are Jewish but you have nothing to do with Judaism other than that, the fact that you are technically Jewish really doesn't say much.

Claire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claire said...

By "believing in God", I didn't mean limited to any particular notion of God. Rather, I was wondering if you were including the proud tradition of Jewish Atheism (or at least, Jewish Humanism), that wraps Jewish identity around working for social justice, rather than religious ritual or belief. It sounds like you probably are.

Jews spend a lot of emotional energy deciding who doesn't get to belong to the tribe. I think Judaism is pretty cool, and has more possibility than many might think. Why not let more folks in who might also think it's cool? I just don't get it.