Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel’s two Chief Rabbis, has found a way to reach Jews who otherwise would not hear his sermons: through the pages of The New York Times.
Attempting to reach the hearts of Reform and Conservative Jews, Rabbi Amar seeks to have them understand – in a letter to the editor, published this past Friday – that their efforts against the current conversion law are “causing great damage” to Jewry. In addition, he writes, their attempts to affect Israeli legislation, even at the expense of involving United States legislators, flies in the face of democratic principles.
At issue is a long-awaited legislative proposal that would regulate the increasingly wide-open field of conversion to Judaism in Israel. The proposal, strongly backed by the Israel Our Home immigrants party as well as the religious parties, has been put on hold by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, after he saw the strong campaign of opposition waged by the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States.
The proposed legislation says nothing about conversions to Judaism in the United States, but rather stipulates that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is the only body authorized to deal with conversions in Israel. It also states that a conversion cannot be retroactively nullified, except by the rabbi or court that performed it.
The letter to The New York Times by Rabbi Amar reads as follows:
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, conversions to Judaism have been governed by the Chief Rabbinate. As [the Times] noted in [the] article, this status quo has been challenged by a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, backed by members of the Reform and Conservative movements. Yet fewer than 1% of the Jews living in Israel are members of these movements.
The [legislative proposal] seeks no changes; it seeks only to retain the situation as it has existed for 62 years. If these non-Israeli movements believe in democratic principles, why have they intervened in a matter that affects only Israelis and does not affect American Jews at all? Even more puzzling, how do they justify asking 12 American senators to pressure the Israeli government on this internal matter?
Israeli laws should be determined by residents of Israel who defend its security and bear its burdens. If our Jewish brethren immigrate to Israel, we will welcome them with great joy, and then they would be entitled, as citizens, to struggle for the adoption of their perspective.
Diaspora Jews who are coercing the Israeli government to drop the proposed legislation are causing great damage. The bill, within the framework of Jewish law, would expand the ambit of conversion, prevent the application of unjustified stringencies, and provide more leniency and flexibility in administration. Many Russian Israelis would benefit substantially. In fact, this legislation was proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu — a secular party — representing more than a million Russian Israelis.
May this unnecessary divisiveness end speedily.
Shlomo Moshe Amar
Chief Rabbi of Israel
Jerusalem, Aug. 3, 2010