In Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” it is written: “Love work, hate holding power, and do not seek to become intimate with the authorities” (Pirke Avot 1:10). Now, let’s imagine that all the fervently Orthodox rabbis in Israel were men of unassailable virtue, wise like Solomon, gracious as Avraham, learned as Maimonides, humble as Moses, selfless as Mother Teresa. Surely they would eschew office, derive their power from their incorruptibility. Surely it would never occur to them to traverse the conventional corridors of power, to walk in political paths rather than the ways of pleasantness and paths of peace that characterize the Torah. Surely they would then be honored throughout the land, seen by all as embodiments of the Torah values they study and teach.
The controversial conversion bill now before Israel’s Knesset set out to make conversion easier for those who sought it. But instead of advancing this important objective, the legislation spurred a crisis in the sensitive relationship between North American Jewry and Israel.
In recent days an intense but familiar battle has challenged the Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora. It’s not about the threat of a nuclear Iran, tensions in U.S.-Israel relations or the plight of Gilad Shalit. This time the conflict lies within — timely given the period of Tisha B’Av and our focus on how infighting has threatened the Jewish community through the ages.
Given the hysteria and defiance that characterized much of the American Jewish response to the provocative “conversion bill” now stalled somewhere in the Knesset, what we’re about to say may sound counter-intuitive. But bear with us. For it is possible that the high stakes drama caused by an Israeli lawmaker’s ham-handed attempt to liberalize the conversion process could bring about just the sort of powerful shock to the system that relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry desperately need.