Separating synagogue and state

The politically fragile truce over conversions in Israel finally cracked this week. And what happens next will inevitably be messy.

For months, Reform and Conservative rabbis waited patiently as a government committee worked toward a response to the demand that their conversions be recognized officially.

Surprisingly, the committee came up with a compromise last month. The plan would allow non-Orthodox rabbis to participate in an institute for potential converts, while the final power remained in the hands of the Orthodox.

This week, Israel's Chief Rabbinate Council scuttled the plan by failing to endorse it. In many ways, the Orthodox council's decision shouldn't come as a surprise.

It may be hard for Reform and Conservative Jews to accept, but many Orthodox rabbis in Israel simply consider the non-Orthodox movements illegitimate. Those rabbis shudder at American Jewry's assimilation, intermarriage and lack of ritual observance.

Many Orthodox Jews in America likely feel the same way.

But the difference between Israel and America is that the latter has a constitution guaranteeing separation of church and state.

Thus, no religious group or movement, including Orthodox Jews, officially has power over the U.S. government or its citizens.

Israel's current controversy brings to the fore problems arising when a country combines church and state — or in this case, synagogue and state.

The Israeli government officially backs not only a religion but a particular form of one.

Israel has so-called basic laws but after 50 years still has no final constitution. And thus the country has no absolute guarantee of religious rights for non-Orthodox Jews.

In the end, it's up to the Israeli people to decide whether to separate synagogue and state. Unless Israelis choose something besides the current scenario, however, a thousand committees can meet while the basic dilemma remains unresolved.