February 28, 2002
The Israeli Supreme Court’s Conscience
The ruling embodies the moral and legal tradition of Judaism.
The conscience of the Jewish state has spoken through the recent landmark ruling of Israel's Supreme Court. It has taken an important step toward removing the pariah stigma from tens of thousands of Jews who converted to Judaism by the rabbinic authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, but ignored by the Jewish state.
With this new ruling, Israel's Interior Ministry is to register Israelis converted under Reform or Conservative auspices as Jews. That earned identification, previously denied them, will henceforth be inscribed on their national identification card. Jews in limbo have returned to their chosen home.
Imagine the joy of Russian Jews who made aliyah, fought in the wars to defend the State of Israel -- some of whom were slain in battle and refused burial in Jewish cemeteries because they were not regarded as Jews -- and who now will no longer suffer from such humiliating disenfranchisement.
What fulfillment of dreams does this ruling promise for themselves and their children? The ruling, of course, is a first step. Regrettably, these converts can be married only by Orthodox rabbis who alone are authorized to perform marriages legally recognized by the state and who alone have in their power the decision as to who is a Jew. The evolution of a democratic, pluralistic Jewish state requires time, vigilance, courage and unflagging effort.
The decision of Israel's High Court of Justice has regrettably met with predictable partisan denominational responses. Orthodox leaders regard the Supreme Court decision as a secular transgression of Orthodox halachic jurisdiction; non-Orthodox leaders understand the ruling as strengthening religious pluralism and as an act of Jewish unification.
In my view, the ruling embodies the moral and legal tradition of Judaism that -- no less than 36 times throughout the Torah -- mandates us to love the stranger, to know the heart of the stranger and, following many ethical imperatives, reminds us that we too were strangers.
Moreover, the rabbis of the tradition induced in the thrice daily "Amidah," the 13th petition of which appeals to God to let His tender mercies be stirred for the gairei ha-tzedek (faithful proselyte). The Supreme Court's ruling expresses a transdenominational judgment that offers a healing balm to the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian denominational politics.
In these parlous times, when the enemies from without seek to tear us apart, this momentous ruling points the way to peace from within. When the rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) speculated as to the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the second Temple, they did not point to the external factors of the superior military might of the Romans. Nor did they point to the lack of the study of Torah and ritual practices by Jews. The second Temple fell, they maintained, because of groundless hatred; because of internal factionalism that stemmed from disrespect for the judgments and perspectives of others. How then does one rectify the sins of groundless hatred which is still within us? Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, answered, "The sin of groundless hatred can be overcome only with the mitzvah of causeless love."
The Supreme Court's ruling should be greeted by all segments of world Jewry -- secular and religious, left and right -- as a therapeutic gesture toward the healing of our divided people. Through embracing the stranger in our midst, we may overcome the estrangement between us.
The Supreme Court ruling has deep traditional roots. Obadiah the proselyte once asked Talmudist and philosopher Moses Maimonides whether he could halachically pray, "Our God and God of our fathers." Since Obadiah was a Jew-by-choice, he was informed by other rabbinic authorities that he was prohibited from reciting such a prayer. Maimonides ruled as follows: "By all means you are to pray 'Our God and God of our fathers.' If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your ancestry is from Him by whose word the world was created."
The Supreme Court decision continues the spiritual and halachic tradition of Jewish moral sensibility. The Supreme Court's decision augurs the dawn of a harmonious state.