|David Ben Gurion declaring Israel’s independence (Wikipedia)|
As an Orthodox Jew, I completely agree with this statement. Jewish law – also known as Halacha - is the foundation of Judaism. It is therefore only Halacha that can determine who is and isn’t a Jew.
The problem is that there are other denominations that do not use Halacha to define Judaism. Namely the Reform Movement. And although the Conservative movement also claims to use Halacha to define of Judaism, it has long been observed in the breach by the vast majority of its members.Including in some cases even their more progressive rabbis. So for me, any conversion performed by either Reform or Conservative Judaism has absolutely no validity.
The only conversions that have any chance at validity are those performed by an Orthodox Beis Din. And even there, in some cases even ‘Orthodox Batei Din’ cannot be trusted.
This is an issue that has for decades been at the core of one of the biggest controversies in Israel. The question of who is a Jew has never been formally adjudicated in the K’nesset. Reform and Conservative rabbis have increasingly been clamoring for recognition of their conversions. Having done so for decades.
But to the chagrin of heterodoxy, Orthodox leaders have fought vigorously to deny them that recognition. And until recently were successful at keeping all conversions solely in the hands of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – which is Orthodox. Although there is controversy about whether conversions should be allowed by Orthodox courts outside of the Rabbinate’s jurisdiction, I doubt that there is a single Orthodox rabbi in the world that would extend that privilege to Reform and Conservative conversion courts.
But as reported Israel HaYom, there were some changes made to that law. Which generated a promise by right wing MK Ben-Gvir to re-commit the state to recognizing only Orthodox convsersions:
In March of 2021: the High Court of Justice ruled that whoever underwent a conversion in the Reform or Conservative communities would be recognized as a Jew for the Law of Return...
(Efforts have been) undertaken by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben-Gvir's to roll back the status of Reform conversions and specifically undo the High Court of Justice's decision from 2021 that recognizes non-Orthodox conversions for the purposes of aliyah under the Law of return…
Ben-Gvir made an announcement that he would promote the inclusion of the term "Giyur by Halacha" in the State Gazette, to prevent recognition of Reform conversions as part of the aliyah process. This, it seems, is the start of another difficult battle in the conversion saga that has been going on for many decades.
To reiterate what I have said many times: I am not a fan of Ben Gvir, to say the least. I consider him a danger to people of Israel whose potential presence in any kind of powerful cabinet position in the new government could endanger the nation. Jewish blood has been spilled for a lot less that what he proposes to do if given the chance. Palestinians terrorists will be more enraged and more energized than ever to kill Jews. So I am quite unhappy that he will have any power at all in the new governing coalition. Which unfortunately seems all but assured at this point.
Be that as it may, I nevertheless agree with him about the conversion issue. If Israel is going to be a Jewish country, it is imperative to know exactly who is Jewish and who isn’t. Unless one is born a Jew, living like one in any sense without an Orthodox conversion does not make them anymore Jewish than the pope.
Obviously Reform and Conservative leaders are quite upset about this possible outcome. Since 90% of all American Jews are not Orthodox, this development could be very damaging in terms of the massive financial support Israel gets from US Jewry. The following is the reaction by Andrew Rehfeld, who is president of the flagship institution of Reform Judaism - the International Hebrew Union College:
"When we talk about supporting Israel, we are talking about three basic values – the safety, the pluralistic prosperity, and the sovereignty of the Jewish people, which puts democratic law and justice as a priority..."
...I believe that this is a threat to the Jewish state. Whoever delegitimizes the actions of thousands of Reform communities in Israel and around the world, threatens our safety and harms the Jewish People. They are taking an anti-Zionist position. This is not the Zionism that I know. If they promote these moves, they will tear Israel from the Diaspora.
The idea of Israel could lose massive support by way of enacting a law that would recognize only ‘Giur K’Halacha’ - is very concerning to say the least. But that doesn’t mean we should give up one of our foundational principles. That would be even more damaging.
I have no solution that could satisfy both Halacha and heterodox leadership in the Diaspora. But it might be useful to take note of the views on this issue by Israel’s most famous founding father, David Ben-Gurion. He seems to side with the Orthodoxy. If - as HUC head Andrew Rehfeld said - he misses the Zionism he knew back then he should have nothing to complain about. Because the definition of who is a Jew I mentioned at the beginning of this post …was uttered by none other than Ben Gurion himself at the founding of the state. To repeat::
‘Whoever was born to a Jewish mother and is not of another religion, or whoever converted according to Jewish Law," will be considered a Jew.’
He was right.