Halacha as Business-My Take on the Rotem Bill-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

The recent (now tabled)  bill submitted to the Kenesset by MK Rotem expands the range of whom under law in Israel has the authority to perform conversions, and in addition severely limits anyone’s ability to retroactively undo a conversion performed in Israel.

The bill was formulated by Israel Baytenu, a non-religious party, to facilitate the conversions of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who are Jewish enough to make Aliyah, (they are defined as a Jew according to the Nuremberg laws) yet are not halachically Jewish, such as someone with a paternal grandfather or father who is Jewish.   That the handful of more liberal rabbis of cities who are part of the Rabbanut (but who until this point were either unable to do conversions or the conversions they did do were undone by their more religiously rightwing counterparts) can help to solve the gargantuan dilemma of so many Jewish people who can not under law marry in their own country, is wonderful.

What did this secular party have to offer the other side, the Charedi Rabbanut, in exchange for the possibility of Russian Jews who are not fully observant converting without having their conversions subsequently undone?   The answer of course, as with all things political, is power.  In exchange, the Rabbanut will be the arbiter of all questions of Jewish status.   This possibility has caused the Reform and Conservative movements to become up in arms, at the future possibility that their conversions will no longer be accepted under law for purposes of Aliyah as they are now.   Weather this new bill will effect the ability of someone born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to make Aliyah (that is who is a Jew based on whom Hitler would have killed) is not clear to me.  I have heard different answers to the question.

Maybe I am naïve but what bothers me most about the bill is the reduction of Halachic concerns to the level of a business dealings.   Give us the Russians and in exchange you can have the Conservative and Reform….etc.   If Charedi Rabbis really believe that the conversion of the Russians is outside the bounds of halacha, why are they willing to go along with the bill in exchange for more exclusive power over the definition of who is a Jew?   Practice is then not based on one’s intellectual assessment of halacha but on a political negotiation, which gives something, in this case more jurisdiction, in exchange for halachic compromise.

The beauty of a Jewish country should be that Jewish attitudes and halchic concerns inform all the workings of the state, from the lofty to the mundane.  But this should not work the other way around.  Though Judaism should, I believe, influence politics in Israel, when the opposite is true and politics influences Judaism and Halacha we are going down an appalling path.   Instead of Torah sanctifying the mundane it quickly becomes, in the words of our rabbis, deker lachkor bah, a shovel to dig with.   The mundane sullying Torah.   May the holiness of torah and its ethical and religious teachings color all aspects of life in the holy land and not itself become low, speedily in our days.

7 Responses to Halacha as Business-My Take on the Rotem Bill-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    In 1983, the Reform Judaism movement officially decided that people born to Gentile mothers and Jewish fathers should be recognized as Jews, thereby rejecting 33 centuries of universally accepted Jewish Law and tradition.

    They understood clearly that their decision would *** NEVER *** be accepted by Orthodox Jews, but that did not stop them, or even slow them down.

    Now they complain that Orthodox Jews do not accept them as Jews; but nobody forced the Reform Jews in 1983, so they have nobody to blame but themselves.

  2. Joel Katz says:

    Thank you Rabbi for your insightful post.

    re: “The bill was formulated by Israel Baytenu, a non-religious party, to facilitate the conversions of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who are Jewish enough to make Aliyah, (they are defined as a Jew according to the Nuremberg laws) yet are not halachically Jewish, such as someone with a paternal grandfather or father who is Jewish.”

    The
    Law of Return 5710-1950 and Law of Return (Amendment No. 2) 5730-1970
    does not refer directly to the Nuremberg Laws and in fact, the definition of “Jew” for purposes of the Law of Return was not mentioned until the 1970 Amendment.

    The expression “Jewish enough” does not reflect the actual language of the Law of Return.

    The Law refers to a “child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew”. This defines the “rights of a Jew” and the “rights of an oleh”; it does not define who is a Jew.

    Re: “Whether this new bill will effect the ability of someone born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to make Aliyah (that is who is a Jew based on whom Hitler would have killed) is not clear to me.”

    Once again, the reference to Nazi Germany appears to be out of place in this context.

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel
    @religion_state

  3. David S says:

    You make a very valid point. This is the reason why religious parties do not work. But it is not so much about power as it is about money. Without the monopoly of money that the state provides, many yeshivot would have to close and many “scholars” would have to get a job. That is what the fight is about.

  4. Mikhail P says:

    R. Hyim-
    the biggest sham about all of this is that while IN THEORY it would make it easier for Russians in Israel to convert, even by liberal Halachic standards it would not ease the process for too many people. That’s because not so many Russians are seriously seeking a real halachic conversion even without haredi stringencies.Nor should they. They should have ability to marry civilly. What is really needed is the bill that prohibits the reversal of halachic conversions and making procedures for ascertaining Jewishness more transparent. In addition, we need to stop haredi religious coersion. Sometimes, I think that I, while Orthodox, would not enjoy Israeli religious atmosphere because of its coersive and oppressive tendencies. I suspect pretty soon most American Jews (even frum ones) will have really hard time proving they are Jewish to rabbanut (unless maybe they are from Borough Park).

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    According to the laws of Judaism [Halachah] it is FORBIDDEN to settle people who are NOT Jewish in the Land of Israel. In other words, bringing large numbers of non-Jewish Russians to Israel as permanent residents was a massive violation of Jewish religious law. I would like to see this problem resolved, not by converting Gentile Russians to Judaism, but by sending them back to Russia (or any place outside Israel).

  6. Mikhail says:

    Israel is a democratic country (thank G-d) and sending back people who legally entered Israel is against the law and decency, unless they entered Israel illegally (e.g. on forged documents).
    the truth is that many non-Jewish Russians in Israel are members of Jewish families (e.g. are married to Jews). In addition, many have Jewish fathers, serve in IDF and die defending Israel. Incidentally, the latter ones, while sacrificing their lives protecting Jews, cannot even be buried at a Jewish cemetery. So Rotem’s law is primarily for them. BTW, Mr. Cohen, in your desire to send them all back, you’d have to send back their Jewish spouses, or parents.

    Bottom line: among non-Jewish russians in Israel, many (probably the majority) are not interested in conversion. However, many are, and sincerely so. What is lacking is the compassionate rabbinate and open and tolerant halachic community who would make those who sincerely want to convert welcome. BTW, my sense is that even for those of us with completely kosher pedigree (e.g. for me with all the right papers), Israeli orthodoxy would not feel so warm and fuzzy. The main reason is that because I am russian-speaking (and soon it will be the same for Americans as well), I am automatically suspect. This is not true only in Israel, but also is true in Borough Park. This is not a kind of atmosphere that makes religious participation culturally attractive. Because of sense of arrogance and religious coersion, all we have today in Israel is religious antagonism permeating at all levels of behavior. Just think–my wife and I once stopped at a clothing store at Ben Yehuda mall, and the cashier told us that they ON PURPOSE do not sell more modest clothing because in Jerusalem secular population feels harassed. So time has come for a more welcoming and tolerant conversion law. and time has come for tolerant and accepting Orthodoxy who does not hate goyim.

  7. Mikhail says:

    highly recommended read on the topic:
    http://www.forward.com/articles/129942/
    (bottom line: most Russians in Israel do not seek conversion).

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