Shavuot, celebrated June 12-13, is the “Rosh Hashanah of conversion.” On this holiday, we read the story of Ruth the Moabitess, the first and most famous Jewish convert. As such, in Israel, in the days leading up to the holiday, there is a proliferation of events, conferences and public debates on conversion and Jewish identity.
Unfortunately, while all of these events dealing with conversions and questions of Jewish identity are taking place in Israel, there is little if any collaboration with those having similar discussions in the Jewish Diaspora, especially in the United States. It is as if we are not talking about the same religious community, the same Judaism, but rather two separate nations.
The Jewish people have been debating questions of Jewish identity and the definition of “who is a Jew” for thousands of years. While this debate has worn different faces and taken on different shapes at different times, it is a debate that has weighed on all sects and sectors of Jewish society. However, with the formation of the State of Israel, and especially over recent years, there is a palpable feeling that there are two nations caring out separate and different discussions. One lives and operates out of Israel; the other is overseas.
In Israel, this debate is carried out almost entirely within strict political and legal frameworks, focusing on issues connected to the formal conversion process, which is run by the state. Those involved in the Israeli discourse are largely unaware of the similar discussion taking place overseas. And since the opinions being expressed overseas aren’t listened to, it’s no surprise that they aren’t taken into account in Israel. As a result, not enough weight is given to the impact of the decisions being made in Israel on Jewish communities overseas.
For instance, this past week, there was a full-day Knesset debate about conversion. A number of Knesset committees dealt with different aspects of conversion. It is worth noting that none of the deliberations dealt with the question of who is a Jew about which Diaspora Jews care so deeply.
Setting boundaries on the definition of who is a Jew, and the legitimacy of different forms of conversion, are perhaps some of the most important existential questions troubling Diaspora Jews, specifically those in the United States. These are much more profound than mere political questions because the ramifications of the debate have created a gap between the different Jewish denominations. In addition, the who is a Jew question has affected non-Orthodox Jews’ efforts to achieve legitimacy in Israel. Who is a Jew is, at its core, an existential discourse because the answer to this question in one way or another can dramatically impact the character of the Jewish people today and into the future.
Among those who live outside of Israel, such strict and limiting definitions could bring about a dramatic diminution in the percentage of Jewish people and cause many others who would otherwise be strictly defined as Jews to disconnect.
Overly broad definitions will harm the uniqueness of the Jewish people as well as empty Judaism and “being Jewish” of its content. However, the pluralistic Jewish community in the U.S. is currently making decisions without any real attempt to understand the impact these decisions could have on Jews in the State of Israel, the public debate on the same subject that is raging in the Holy Land and the considerations of those in Israel who are most affected by this ongoing discussion.
Indeed, there are nuances to these issues as they have been debated in Israel and abroad. However, there are more commonalities than differences. There are similar fundamental questions: What is a legitimate conversion? Who is authorized to carry it out? Who is a Jew? What is the significance of a Jewish identity that is disconnected from formal Jewish practice? What are the limits of Jewish identity? How does one maintain a unique Jewish identity in a modern world that works to erode all ethnic cultural differences?
We are one Jewish people. We deal with the same fundamental questions of national/Jewish/religious identity and the decisions we make on each side of the ocean impact the other. Therefore, there is an obligation for all those dealing with the matter, and all those to who the nation is dear, to find ways to conduct this important discourse as one nation.
Dr. Shuki Friedman heads the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Jewish Week.