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Conversion Bill Takes Aim at Diaspora

Our editor returns fire in the NYT

Marc Tracy
July 16, 2010
The Knesset.(Jim Hollander/AFP/Getty Images)
The Knesset.(Jim Hollander/AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, Tablet Magazine editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse published a New York Times op-ed about the so-called Rotem Bill, which would give a small coterie of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel the power over all conversions, and by extension over all other rites, and again by extension the power over Jewish religious identity in Israel. Sponsored by a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, the bill, Alana argues, represents a gigantic threat not only to Jewish life in Israel but to the “vital” tie between Israel and the Jewish diaspora:

If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

It’s a sad state of affairs, one this magazine has been covering for at least half of its existence—beginning with a story that Alana alludes to when she mentions “an American Haredi rabbi who had become one of the most powerful authorities on the question of conversion [who] resigned from his organization in December after accusations that he solicited phone sex from a hopeful female convert.” She’s referring to Leib Tropper, whose power, corruption, and lies we investigated last January (and which, frankly, we’ve been mystified about the non-reaction to):

-Allison Hoffman’s profile;

-Marissa Brostoff on one woman’s side of the story;

-Hoffman on the wealthy, possibly crazy heir who bankrolled Tropper;

-Hoffman on how other Haredi rabbis have been reluctant to condemn him;

-Oh, and you can listen to the tapes.

Below, a helpful cheat sheet for Alana’s essay:

• “Even if you are Orthodox—and especially if you are modern Orthodox—your rabbi likely doesn’t make the cut,” Alana writes. “(Don’t believe it? Go ask him.)” An under-covered aspect of this bill is the extent to which, again to use Alana’s words, “the criteria used by the rabbinate are driven by internal Haredi politics, not observance.” Which makes it all the more odd that while the Reform and Conservative movements have spoken out strongly against the bill, as have a host of other American Jewish organizations, Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel have been silent.

• The philosophy behind the bill, according to Alana, “is well outside the consensus established by Hillel—arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked.” The book in question is Hillel: If Not Now, When?, coming in September from Nextbook Press.

• Your final cheat sheet item? This bill is probably not a good idea.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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