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Conversion Kabuki

The latest round of shuttle diplomacy on the vexing issue of conversion to Judaism in Israel has left us wondering whether there can ever be a compromise on an issue this fundamental and, therefore, this divisive.

There certainly has been welcome movement. When Knesset member David Rotem made the rounds of meetings with American Jewish religious leaders recently, his message was meant to be inclusive. Rotem is the member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party who ignited a firestorm a few months ago, when he introduced legislation to liberalize the process of conversion for the 350,000 or so Jews from the former Soviet Union who are living, working and sometimes fighting for Israel without officially being considered Jewish under the state’s highly restrictive and idiosyncratic system.

The initial bill generated such passionate pushback from Diaspora leaders, as well as from Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky, that Rotem was persuaded to do a listening tour in America. “I don’t want to be responsible for making a fight between the State of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora,” he told the Forward during one of his stops.

Not surprisingly, the charm offensive went only so far. While grateful for the conversation, non-Orthodox religious leaders reiterated their opposition to the legislation, which they believe “would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people,” according to a joint statement issued afterward. Their understandable fear is that the measure would legislate the role and status of the Chief Rabbinate “in a way not previously written into law,” and therefore would make it even more difficult for non-Orthodox streams to become accepted.

We’re seeing the Kabuki dance of Jewish religious politics played out here, as the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is unwilling to relinquish an ounce of power, while the more liberal denominations — who, let’s remember, represent the vast majority of religiously affiliated American Jews — insist on legitimization. And in the middle, trying to broker a deal (or, at least, appearing to do so), is a nationalist party with major backing from Jews of Russian ancestry and with a serious image problem at home and abroad.

That’s the skeptical interpretation, anyhow. But even a more generous one still leaves us wondering how common ground can be reached within an Israeli political system that grants outsized power to the Haredi parties that represent the least welcoming, most restrictive form of Judaism.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent Modern Orthodox thinker, proposed an interesting compromise in an essay published a few months ago, in which he suggested synthesizing traditional requirements of the law with a principled openness to converts who will not become fully Orthodox. “If we were to adopt this approach, I am convinced we would in fact end up with many more fully observant converts than we have now, not to speak of the tens of thousands who, even though less than fully observant, would be fully serious Jews,” he wrote, persuasively.

Others have argued that Israeli policies will change only when Israelis themselves change — and become more supportive of the fledgling Reform and Conservative (Masorti) streams of Judaism slowly taking root there. But that requires a different sort of openness, by a government willing to allow these movements to grow, and not to suppress their activities as we’ve seen occur in incidents at the Western Wall in recent months.

Ultimately, with conversion bound up with government policies, this is both a religious and a political issue. While respecting the motivations of those who wish to ensure a certain purity of the tribe, Israel and all its people the world over will be harmed if we do not find a better way to welcome those who wish to join us.

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