Sunday, December 05, 2010

Conversion, Mamzerut, and the Relationship between Religion and State

Last week, as part of our monthly Jewish-Zionist training component, the analysts at Reut left the confines of our ‘tank’ and travelled to Jerusalem to learn more about the issue of conversion in this wonderful country.

While these training days are generally refreshing, we returned physically and emotionally exhausted. The gap between being legally Jewish under the law of return (one Jewish grandparent) and halachically Jewish under the Rabbinate (Jewish mother) has led to a situation in which over 300,000 Israelis approaching marriageable age are unable to marry in their own country.

While this existential time bomb continues to tick meanwhile, the official Rabbinate focuses on narrow readings of law rather than the unity of the Jewish people, the national religious community is too meek to step up to the plate, and the secular majority has failed to design a relevant, convincing alternative definition of what it means to become Jewish in the 21st Century.

The week before our trip, the Jerusalem Post ran an article about a couple whose child is considered a Mamzer (offspring of an adulterous relationship) due to her being born within 300 days of the mother's divorce from her previous husband. Despite the fact the mother separated from her husband ten months before conceiving with her new partner, an archaic Israeli law from 1965 (the Bastard Clause) means this child is blacklisted and will have serious problems marrying when she grows up.

The official state position on both these issues is particularly upsetting as several Halachic ways to resolve the problems exist. The Rabbis of old actively neutralized the problem of Mamzerut, sometimes even ruling that pregnancy can last twelve months rather than nine (a legal fiction that made the newborn the first husband’s child and thus ‘kosher’). Similarly, there are several Halachic ways to resolve (or at least alleviate) the issue of conversion, if only there was the political and Rabbinic will.

The problems of the current implementation of Halacha reminded me of two articles written by Yeshayahu Leibowitz a few years after the State's establishment.

Better known for his fiery 'right wing' comments about worshipping God or his 'left wing' statements on the IDF and the future of the territories, Leibowitz's position regarding Halacha in a sovereign state is essential reading.

In the first, written in 1952, he argues that the Torah needs to be extracted from the artificial exilic greenhouse environment in which it was cultivated for hundreds of years in order to become capable of being lived by the total community of a modern state.

In his second, written seven years later, Leibowitz argues that ‘releasing religion from its integration in the political-secular system is the most effective way to strengthen religious consciousness and its influence on the public.’

And as our trip wore on, and we continued to argue over how the State - our state - could desert hundreds of thousands of its own citizens (who it decided to bring here in the first place), I began to imagine the journey Leibowitz may have undergone – from an initial belief in Halacha’s potential for relevancy in a new sovereign reality, to ensuing disappointment and call for its complete separation from state institutions.

And it made me feel that Leibowitz’s positions are the only choices remaining for us today.

Halacha can either renew itself by digging deep within its core values and becoming relevant and compassionate for a time and place in which Jews have full responsibility for all aspects of society. (Leibowitz 1952).

Alternatively, if Halacha (or those who deign to speak in its name) proves incapable of this, if the state’s official religious leaders continue to insist on interpreting the myriad of Jewish sources in the strictest, narrowest possible way, if they continue to insist on making things harder rather than easier, it will lead to the ultimate separation between religion and state (Leibowitz 1959)

It’s one or the other, relevance or disappearance. And if those preferring the former don’t raise their voices soon, we will ultimately have to settle for the latter.


Religion and State in Israel said...

Thanks Calev for an interesting post.

You state that "The gap between being legally Jewish under the law of return (one Jewish grandparent) and halachically Jewish under the Rabbinate (Jewish mother)..."

One small note: The section of the Law of Return relating to one Jewish grandparent falls under "Rights of members of family" and not the "Definition" of a Jew.

"The rights of a Jew under this Law...are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion."

Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel

Anonymous said...

Thanks Calev.
Wonderful as always.

Ibrahimblogs said...

I have read both the articles you have mentioned. That made this post even more interesting for me!!!

Keep your posts coming!

This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News