The conversion debacle: good or bad for Judaism?

by Maskil on May 29, 2008

Have the latest efforts to bar the gates of Judaism to all comers by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Religious-Bureaucratic Complex in Israel turned out to be a good thing or a bad thing for Judaism (and for Israeli society)? Looking at some of the likely or possible outcomes, the answer might be – surprisingly –a good thing, at least in the long run. Let’s look at some of the perceptions and trends emerging from the crisis:

  • The sight of several competing bodies of august Torah sages (yes, I’m being ironic) overturning one another’s actions and decisions and laying into one another’s motives and reputations brings all of Judaism into disrepute. Bad Thing.
  • With the realization that things cannot continue as they are, the conversion crisis may become a driver for meaningful change in the relationship between religion and state in Israel, that affects society and individuals in so many ways. Good Thing.
  • There is now a widespread realization that an Orthodox conversion is not the safe option it was once considered to be, as within Orthodoxy itself some conversions are now “less Halachic” than others. An Orthodox Jewish conversion looks to be as open to annulment as a celebrity Catholic wedding! Good Thing (at least for the liberal streams of Judaism).
  • The fiasco does immense harm to the peace of mind and well-being (in all senses) of those who have converted, are in the process of doing so, or were preparing to begin the journey. Bad, very bad thing.
  • The controversy may serve to discourage many from even attempting conversion, through any of the streams of Judaism, including Orthodoxy. Perhaps this was partly the intention? Bad Thing.
  • These events must by now have convinced the modern and religious-national trends within Orthodoxy that they need to distance themselves in some way from the Haredim, or risk being devoured by them. That the only way they can accommodate the ultra-Orthodox is by ceasing to exist as a separate philosophy. Good Thing.
  • The ultra-orthodox have been given enough of the proverbial rope to hang themselves, and have proceeded to do just that. Their unfitness to be the official guardians of Judaism in Israel must now be obvious to all. Good Thing.
  • At the risk of becoming repetitious, those who have up until now refused to see that the Haredim have no standing in the eyes of anyone outside their own narrow communities must surely do so now. Good Thing.
  • Perhaps in time all streams within Judaism will come to the realization that their view of Judaism must fall on one side or the other of the great divide – forward or backward looking. There are no other choices. Good Thing, at least potentially.

On balance, more good than bad may still emerge from this situation. The transformation will not happen by itself, however. We each need to do whatever we can to help disengage Israeli society from the Haredi–dominated Religious-Bureaucratic Complex, and demand of all our public figures that they do the same.

For the background to the conversion crisis, the best place to begin is the Religion and State in Israel blog. The weekly postings from 5 through 26 May 2008 link back to the original articles dealing with the crisis in all the major Israeli and other publications.

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