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Holier Than Thou

Leaders of Israeli society are always welcome visitors on these shores. As representatives of the Jewish state, they speak for an elemental, transformative reality in the emotional and spiritual life of modern Jewry. That said, last week’s visit by the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, must be seen as the latest and arguably most heavy-handed in a long series of Israeli attempts to impose Israeli norms and values on the very different culture of American Jews.

Amar’s goal in his visit was to impose a new, stricter set of standards for conversion to Judaism onto the largest and traditionally the most moderate of American Orthodox rabbinical unions, the Rabbinical Council of America. Under pressure from the broad mainstream of American Jewry to ease Israel’s increasingly arduous rules for conversion, Amar decided to take the ball to the other court and try to tighten the rules in America.

Both American and Israeli Jews are struggling with questions of how to demarcate the boundaries of Jewish life, but their questions are not the same. For American Jews, the urgent question is whether and how to integrate the growing population of interfaith families into the community and encourage them to raise their children as Jews. The answer fast gaining acceptance is to create a more welcoming, tolerant community. Orthodox Jews, a small and well-integrated minority within the community, are part of the continuing dialogue, influencing other Jews, and often finding themselves inluenced in return.

Israelis, in contrast, are struggling with the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of part-Jewish Russian immigrants into the warp and weft of the Jewish state. Given the nature of Jewish statehood, the logical answer is to help those people become Jewish. The greatest obstacle is the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate, which is legally empowered to dictate conversion rules, and to ease the standards of admission. Instead the rabbinate has moved in recent years to raise the bar ever higher. Now the chief rabbi is seeking to export his hard-line policies to America.

His intrusion comes at a sensitive moment for American Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy, influenced by its Israeli counterpart, religious Zionism, defines Israel as part of the process of messianic redemption. Accordingly, the state and its institutions are seen as sacred vessels, part of God’s plan. For the past decade, Modern Orthodox Jews here and in Israel have had to address the theological paradox of a sacred state seeking to surrender sacred land. The result is widespread spiritual crisis. Just this month, the Orthodox Union, the congregational arm of Modern Orthodoxy, sent an unprecedented letter to Israel’s prime minister, warning him not to consider concessions in Jerusalem. The new assertiveness toward the sacred vessel reflects both anger and insecurity.

Now comes the chief rabbi, who is closer to the non-Zionist worldview of the ultra-Orthodox than to religious Zionism, and he exploits the spiritual crisis of American Orthodoxy to advance his own agenda. It’s a clever move, but unscrupulous. The Rabbinical Council of America should be very careful before adopting Amar’s rules. And Amar should stay in Jerusalem.


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