Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Rotem Bill

Living in Israel, I find the entire Rotem bill episode troubling to say the least. Not every Religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox (I really don't know what I am anymore) rabbi is in favor of the loosening of restrictions on Giyyur. What is the point of giyyur if we don't require shmirat hamitzvot? People complain about the rabbinate, and I'm sure that there are problems that could be improved, but in reality, the process is difficult and demanding. Do we not sometimes shoot the messenger? More than once I took the"blame" for a conversion that did not proceed with my blessing for the very simple reason that the convert wasn't serious enough in my view.
So, ironically, the liberal streams of American Jewry are doing exactly what the rabbinate hoped - killing a bill that they really, really didn't like over a small technicality. I personally am not in
favor of having a situation of איש הישר בעניו יעשה regarding giyyur. The RCA released a very long, drawn-out statement that basically said, "We should butt out." While I don't disagree with the RCA's hands-off statement, we could very easily have agreed that the bill should be killed - for precisely the opposite reason.
Moreover, I don't see the bill solving any problems. Does anyone really think that the hundreds of thousands of Russians living in Israel really want to convert? They're not interested in religion.
They just want to be full citizens in Israel. (much like many secular Israelis). Let's say that this bill passes. Does anyone think that suddenly all 300,000 Russians will line up to convert? Of course they won't. Let's imagine that the numbers increase tenfold - a staggering increase. What will you do with the other 260,000 Russians totally uninterested in Judaism?
Moreover, let's say that the bill passes, and that different courts start doing more lenient giyyur. To my mind, this will cause an even greater crisis than before, as religious Jews will distrust all
giyyur, and question every ger who wants to marry into the community.
There's a really fascinating Mishnah at the end of Eduyot (8:3) that speaks strongly to this issue. 
העיד רבי יהושוע ורבי יהושוע בן בתירה על אלמנת עיסה, שהיא כשרה לכהונה; ...אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, קיבלנו את עדותכם; אבל מה נעשה וגזר רבן יוחנן בן זכאי, שלא להושיב בית דין על כך, והכוהנים שומעין לכם לרחק, אבל לא לקרב.
Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Beteira testified about an almanat issah, that she is kosher to marry into priestly families...Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, we accept your testimony. But what can we do, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai decreed that we cannot establish courts for these matters, and the priests listen to you to distance, but not to bring close.

Skipping the nitty gritty details, there was a type of woman called an almanat issah, the widow of a man who had a minute chance of being forbidden to enter into priestly families. The letter of the law decided that this type of woman could marry into the families of the Kohanim. But the end of the Mishnah is very, very telling. No one cared about the letter of the law. The Kohanim were very happy to listen to the rabbis' chumrot, (stringencies), but when they issued lenient opinions, the kohanim weren't interested.

It's amazing how little things have changed. Let us not doubt for a moment that if and when the "establishment" cheapens the value of conversion, many Jews will do one of two things: they will not accept any converts into their communities, or they'll establish their own courts to conduct "proper" conversions.
 We might not like it, but that's the way it will be. If someone is a Russian ger, people will want to know who did the giyyur, was the person religious afterward, etc. Cheapening giyyur might make admission to secular Israeli life easier, but not acceptance - not just on the part of the rabbinate, but on the part of the public.
The only solution I can see is creating a secular structure to allow non-Jewish Israelis to marry, live their lives, etc. That's long overdue, and to my mind will create less of an intermarriage issue
than the giyyur "solution" ever could.
The bill has now been "tabled" and I'm not sorry about it. But I think that's a mistake. I don't want it tabled. I want the bill to suffer a quick demise for an entirely different reason: What will the liberal community speak about during the upcoming High Holidays?
We're living in a critical time for Israel's security. We really really need broad-based American support for sanctions against Iran, if only to strengthen American resolve for the what-next if and when the sanctions don't work. Most rabbis give probably one solid Israel speech out of the four major speeches during the chagim. What will their speeches be about? The way the bill is today, are the rabbis going to talk about Israel's critical need for support from American Jews?
Doesn't seem likely.