An archaic stranglehold on Jewish life

The “Who is a Jew?” debate rages on in Israel, though defenders of the status quo, which denies legitimacy to all streams of Judaism other than Orthodoxy, should take note: The arc of Jewish history bends toward pluralism.

Last week, in a sign of positive change, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate announced it would once again accept Rabbi Avi Weiss’ word as to an individual’s Jewish status.

A week earlier the rabbinate had declared Weiss, a prominent liberal Orthodox rabbi in New York, insufficiently kosher. Founding an “Open Orthodox” rabbinical school wasn’t his only offense — he also established a seminary for women and even ordained one as a “rabba.”

Thankfully, Israel’s rabbinic authorities yielded after an outcry from across the Jewish world.

Now, as Conservative Rabbi Julie Schonfeld proposes in her op-ed this week, the Jewish world must exert similar pressure on the Chief Rabbinate to accept the legitimacy of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism.

Baby steps have been taken — on Jan. 1, monies were transferred to pay state salaries to four Reform rabbis in Israel, the first time that has occurred — but it will be an uphill battle to full equality.

Although the rabbinate does not control immigration to Israel, the same Orthodox-centric attitudes prevail in the agencies that do. This was the reality faced by Bill Strubbe, whose op-ed on the facing page traces his story from Catholic upbringing in Palo Alto to utter devotion to Judaism and Israel as an adult.

Two years ago, Strubbe made the decision to convert and make aliyah. He believed the Jewish Agency signed off on his Renewal conversion. But two months before he was to move to Israel, his conversion was rejected for purposes of aliyah.

Fortunately, he had the fortitude to undergo a second conversion, one officiated by rabbis acceptable to Israeli authorities, and his aliyah is back on track.

Not every convert would demonstrate Strubbe’s persistence. Some might give up in the face of an unyielding system.

We do not minimize the solemnity of conversion. It is a sacred undertaking, one that requires meaningful standards.

But either Jewish peoplehood means something, or it does not. It is wrong for any one corner of the Jewish world to arrogate control over the religious life of every other corner. For that to persist in the Jewish state is unconscionable.

The time is overdue for Israel to embrace the legitimacy of every stream of Judaism, and to alter its rules accordingly. Israel will benefit incalculably when the full breadth of Jewish expression is permitted to flower within its borders.