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Conversion Crisis or Marriage Problem? — An Exchange

This summer, Israel-Diaspora relations were roiled by a fierce debate over the Rotem bill. The bill’s stated aim was to ease the path to conversion for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish under Halacha and, as a result, cannot legally marry in Israel, where religious authorities have a monopoly on marriage. Many Diaspora leaders, however, feared that the bill would undermine the status of non-Orthodox Jewish movements — and their converts — because it explicitly granted control over conversion to Israel’s state rabbinate.

In a July 30 opinion article for the Forward, “How To Fix a Broken System,” Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, wrote that the Rotem bill’s reforms were not “worth alienating Diaspora Jews.” But Farber, whose organization helps prospective converts navigate Israel’s rabbinic courts and conversion bureaucracy, also insisted that “Israel’s conversion process is badly in need of reform.”

In an August 6 Forward opinion article, “Israel’s Marital Woes,” Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, also criticized the Rotem bill. But he went further. “Israel’s major problem isn’t conversion — it’s marriage,” Regev wrote. He argued that it was “incredibly naïve” to believe that the various Jewish religious streams could reach a consensus on conversion. Instead, Regev called for ending the Orthodox monopoly on marriage: “Israel needs to recognize the right of all of its citizens to marry, whether the ceremony is religious or civil. This is not just a matter of religious pluralism — it is an issue of basic civil rights.”

We invited Farber and Regev to participate in an exchange of views on conversion and marriage in Israel.

Dear Uri,

Your analysis of the situation in Israel regarding marriage and civil rights is a reasonable one — if one sees individual freedom as the ultimate value in a democratic state. But Israel is more than just another democracy; it is also the embodiment of the national aspirations of the Jewish people. Therefore, we need to balance our commitment to individual freedom with a long-term vision that nurtures the shared nucleus around which Jewish identity is built.

Your proposal to institute civil marriage involves pluses and minuses. On the one hand, I think that everyone should have a right to marry. On the other hand, I’m troubled by the notion that the Jewish state would endorse intermarriage. But however one feels about civil marriage, our shared responsibility challenges us to repair our broken conversion system.

Conversion is one of the great tools that the Jewish tradition has bestowed upon us in our efforts to fight assimilation and intermarriage. Though you call the notion that we can forge a consensus on conversion among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews “incredibly naïve,” I think the alternative is incredibly destructive.

I certainly agree with you that individuals who seek conversion in Israel shouldn’t have to placate the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. But they should have to meet an acknowledged set of standards for joining the Jewish people. A conversion policy based on consensus would unite, rather than further divide, us.

In the past, there has been progress toward reaching such a consensus. In the 1960s, there were serious, though ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative beit din for personal-status issues in America. In the late 1990s, the Conservative and Reform movements joined with mainstream Orthodox rabbis to support the creation of a joint Jewish studies institute in Israel for preparing potential converts. Bridging the divide is possible.

Uri, I know that religion in Israel has been hijacked by the fundamentalists. But let us not lose sight of a crucial goal: You are Reform and I am Orthodox, but I want our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to continue to share a common identity as Jews, to be able to pray together and, yes, to be able to marry each other. If we adopt your proposal to simply institute civil marriage while agreeing to disagree on conversion, I’m afraid that this will not be our future.

The issue at hand is not only about civil rights — it is also a matter of Jewish responsibility.


Dear Seth,

I am pleased that you feel “everyone should have a right to marry,” and I agree with you that “religion in Israel has been hijacked by the fundamentalists.” The necessary response is not further legal acrobatics, but rather fulfilling the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for “freedom of religion [and] conscience.” It would make Israel both more democratic and more Jewish.

Many Israelis are turned away from Judaism by religious coercion and abuse. Religious freedom is not only popular in America; the overwhelming majority of Israelis support it, as all public opinion surveys have demonstrated. If that coercion were removed, new springs of Jewish creativity and growth would bloom.

I applaud your desire to ensure that our grandchildren be able to marry each other. But that does not justify denying the right to marry to all non-Orthodox Jews-by-choice, to the estimated 350,000 olim from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish as well as to many others. If we were to follow such logic, civil marriage and equality of Reform and Conservative Judaism should be eliminated in America as well, in order to have an “acknowledged set of standards” and “share a common identity.”

Moreover, many of Israel’s rabbinic courts and municipal rabbis do not share your standards. They deny the Jewish status of converts whom you recognize. Opposition within the Orthodox world aborted the praiseworthy effort to create a joint conversion framework in the 1980s.

Similarly, the Ne’eman Commission of the 1990s ultimately failed because of the assault by the chief rabbinate on the non-Orthodox movements, refusing any cooperation with them. The Rotem bill will not fix the problem by tiptoeing around it.

I applaud all attempts to continue dialogue, but it’s time to recognize that the Israeli government should not enforce one religious authority over others. In the absence of consensus, true unity will be found only by respecting our differences rather than by state-enforced uniformity.

Legalizing civil marriage would heed the public will and bring Israel in line with all Western democracies. Israel would no longer compel many of its citizens to get married in foreign countries, often at great expense.

Jewish responsibility today requires that we breathe life into the promise of religious freedom. Nothing short of that will suffice.


Dear Uri,

We agree that religion in Israel is being hijacked by the fundamentalists. But it is not only the ultra-Orthodox who are choosing ideology over Jewish unity. Too many liberals have also blinded themselves to the needs of the hour. It is simplistic and wrong to insist that religious freedom will solve our complex problems.

We need to confront the “Who is a Jew” question and come up with a policy that will preserve our identity and forge our future together. Conversion is now the threshold issue. If we resolve it, a legal solution regarding civil marriage can be found. If we don’t resolve it, then there is no chance for unity.

I recognize that my insistence on putting Jewish unity first is not the only viewpoint within the Orthodox community. I was one of the few Orthodox rabbis to speak out against the Rotem bill, which I opposed because I felt that whatever its putative benefits, they were not worth alienating Reform and Conservative Jews. I am also currently suing Israel’s chief rabbis before the Israeli Supreme Court for their refusal to stand up against the retroactive annulments of conversions.

I am fighting for conversion policies that are both halachic and pragmatic. I want to make sure that hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union can become full members of Jewish society and be acknowledged as such by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews — Modern Orthodox, religiously liberal, traditional and secular.

We need a new dialogue that seeks consensus on conversion, even if it means excluding those who are unwilling to come to the table — for the time being.

Uri, Israel is the greatest Jewish experiment in 2,000 years. Are you willing to sacrifice Jewish peoplehood just so Israel can be like “every other Western democracy”?


Dear Seth,

You clearly mean well, but we seem to have a communication barrier. I state that religious freedom and equality will strengthen Israel’s Jewish as well as its democratic character, and you keep insisting that I want to “sacrifice Jewish peoplehood just so Israel can be like every other Western democracy.” Nothing of the sort!

Where we differ is that I believe freedom and equality will breathe new life into Judaism in Israel, just as freedom of religion has contributed to America’s rich religious life.

If voluntary consensus on conversion can be reached, I would applaud it. But if it cannot be reached, let’s make sure that government stays out of religious choices, and that they be left to the individual, creating a rich and beautiful spiritual rainbow. Judaism in Israel would be stronger if religious coercion were eliminated.

Israel will be considered home by world Jewry only if it lives up to its promise of freedom of religion and conscience. The state must grant full recognition as Jews to all Conservative and Reform converts, whether converted in Israel, the United States or elsewhere — even if you are not willing to acknowledge them as Jews.

You are entitled to your religious views, just as the Haredi rabbis who refuse to accept Modern Orthodox conversions should be able to freely exercise their beliefs. The solution is not to seek civil court intervention, forcing Haredi rabbis to act against their conscience, but rather to remove monopolistic authority from all rabbis, whatever their religious leanings. Rabbis should apply their authority only over those who voluntarily accept it.

We do indeed need a new dialogue, but true dialogue can blossom only when the participants enjoy equal protection and recognition of their religious choices. This has been the American experience, and it is urgently needed in Israel today.


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