What the Haredi World Thinks of Fellow Jews

Most Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews are not Zionists. The majority however accepts the Jewish state but wants it to become a Haredi theocracy. A minority are religious Anti-Zionists who reject theocracy before the coming of the Mashiach (messiah). However, the Haredi Anti-Zionists do not vote in Israeli elections and therefore do not have any influence over Israeli politics. Nevertheless, Haredim are united in their rejection of non-Haredi conversions to Judaism. The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel has granted itself a monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel and is now dominated by Haredi rabbis who in most cases do not even recognize the conversions performed by their own employer. While once upon a time all Orthodox conversions were universally recognized, nowadays Haredi rabbis do not recognize the conversions of the Chief Rabbinate as valid.

In the Diaspora, Orthodox rabbis generally (including Modern Orthodox rabbis) are stringent in their attitudes towards converts and demand that all prospective converts become practitioners of Orthodox Judaism or else they should not be allowed to convert. Conversions by non-Orthodox streams of Rabbinic Judaism are generally not recognized as valid by Orthodox rabbis except in cases where converts to the non-Orthodox Conservative Judaism become observant Orthodox Jews. While religious reasons in terms of Jewish religious law (halakha) are cited to justify the stringency, it is the concern for Jewish long-term survival which determines the views of Orthodox rabbis vis-a-vis prospective converts to Judaism. There is an understanding among Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora that the descendants of non-Orthodox rabbinic Jews will not remain Jewish as they will inevitably intermarry and assimilate. The reason many conversions to Judaism are not recognized by Orthodox rabbis is to prevent Orthodox Jews from marrying non-observant converts, something which would eventually lead to assimilation in the Orthodox community as well.

Historically were all Orthodox conversions universally recognized but in the last three decades have Orthodox rabbis increasingly began to not recognize the conversions of many fellow Orthodox rabbis due to concerns that their converts are not Orthodox in their observance of Judaism. Once an Orthodox rabbi is unrecognized are all conversions that he has ever performed deemed not valid anymore irrespective of the level of observance of individual converts. In a famous case was the Modern Orthodox American rabbi Haskel Lookstein unrecognized by the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He converted Ivanka Trump to Orthodox Judaism and the fact that Rabbi Lookstein is no longer recognized as a rabbi by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate means that Ivanka Trump and her children are considered non-Jews by the Chief Rabbinate despite all being practicing Orthodox Jews. Therefore the children of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner would not be able to marry in Israel once they become adults as Israel since the Ottoman era only allows religious marriages in weddings performed by state-employed clerics. The exception is marriages entered into abroad which are legally recognized by the Israeli state but are not necessarily recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. E.g. are Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner not considered married by the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate in Israel due to them not recognizing Ivanka Trump as Jewish despite her being a practicing Orthodox Jew.   

While the concern that descendants of non-observant Jews will marry non-Jews, assimilate and become non-Jewish is backed up by statistics on assimilation and is therefore valid, the same is not true in Israel where there are some 500 000 persons of Jewish ancestry who are not of matrilineal Jewish descent and therefore are not recognized as Jewish by Israeli Judaism. Most of those are either immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their descendants who are in practice denied the right to convert to Judaism by the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate. Those among the 500 000 who marry usually marry recognized Israeli Jews and if it is the mother who is not Jewish will the children not be considered Jewish either.

There is a consensus among most Zionist Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel that there is an urgent need for flexible and welcoming Orthodox conversions to Judaism that will attract the 500 000 to undergo Orthodox conversions to Judaism rather than deter them through Diaspora-style religious stringency in strictly requiring that anyone who converts is committed to become an Orthodox Jew. This leniency is however rejected by Haredi rabbis and by some rabbis in the conservative wing of Zionist Orthodox Judaism in Israel who all insist that Diaspora-style standards for conversions should be upheld in Israel as well despite this indirectly serving to undermine the Jewish nature of Israel. The new Israeli government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (who is a liberal Orthodox Jew) has a minister for Religious Services, Matan Kahana who is preparing drastic reforms to the state conversion system in Israel. Under the new proposed system will emissaries of Israeli Zionist Modern Orthodox municipal rabbis actively convince the 500 000 to convert to Judaism, something that most are willing to do provided that they are not mistreated during the process as is currently the case under the existing state conversion system of the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

However, Haredi rabbis do not think that non-Haredi Jews in Israel will remain Jewish either and will eventually marry Palestinians and other non-Jews. The general view in Haredi Judaism is that the descendants of non-Haredi Jews will become secular, eventually marry non-Jews and their descendants will become non-Jews. This is the main reason why Israeli Haredi rabbis do not recognize the converts of the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish since Haredi rabbis in practice only think about the interests of the Haredi community and ignore the future of Israeli Zionist Jews since they assume that their descendants will in any case become non-Jews. The majority of Haredi Jews are committed to the establishment of a Haredi theocracy (halakhic state) and regard non-Haredi Jews as a nuisance with no Jewish future. They expect Israel to remain Jewish only by virtue of the ongoing Haredi population explosion as Israeli Haredi women on average give birth to 8 children.

Most Zionist Orthodox Israeli rabbis are in contrast committed to the future of Zionist Jewry in Israel and therefore support liberalized conversion standards in Israel only. In the coming three and half years we will most likely see the conversion to Modern Orthodox Judaism of most of the 500 000 Israeli non-Jews of Jewish ancestry. This is a religious revolution in Israel which underscores the ongoing schism within Orthodox Judaism between Zionist Modern Orthodox rabbis and rabbis of Haredi Orthodox Judaism. This will be a return to the situation that prevailed until three decades ago when non-Jewish immigrants of Jewish ancestry were routinely converted directly upon immigrating to Israel by municipal rabbis without asking too many questions.

Published by Daniella Bartfeld

Daniella Bartfeld is the founding director of the Aliyah Organization.

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