2/16/2009

Lieberman’s Civil Agenda

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Avigdor Lieberman’s terms for joining a coalition, as strong component of which is a civil agenda with three main elements:

a. An oath of loyalty as a prerequisite for citizenship (upon reaching 18 years of age).

b. Easing of the conversion process.

c. Creating of a civil union/ marriage mechanism.

With regard to (a), I’m neither here not there. I have not been convinced that it is such a big that it warrants vehement promotion or opposition. It’s like pledging allegiance.

With regard to (b) and (c), I see significant overlap between the issues. The main reason for easing the conversion process is to make it easier for people to get married in Israel. There may be some other objective, but the primary one is that personal status issues in Israel are largely halakhically defined. Relaxing conversion standards will make a whole lot of people very happy.

The thing is, recognition of civil unions would accomplish pretty much the same thing. It would allow people to gain a certain personal status without having to go through a halakhic framework.

Allow me to illustrate: let’s say Sergei and Svetlana (names chosen at random) wish to wed. Sergei’s father and Svetlana’s mother are Jewish, and from a secular social perspective, neither identifies as being more or less Jewish than the other. Unfortunately for them, they may not wed in the State of Israel, as those who are halakhically Jewish and those who are halakhically not Jewish may not wed legally in this country.

Both (b) and (c) can provide a way out for our lovebirds. (b) would allow Sergei to get a Vegas conversion (sans kabbalat mitzvot, for all but the most incorrigibly naïve) so that he and Svetlana can live happily ever after. (c) would allow them to obviate the whole issue by essentially importing Cyprus into Israel. Sergei can therefore remain his (halakhically) gentile self and marry his basherte without having to convert.

In general, I’m in favor of civil unions in Israel, though I understand that the issue is very complicated. When compared with (b), however, it is by far the lesser of two evils. The conversion agenda is being promoted by people with minimal respect for the halakha and even less interest in observing it. The “problem” with conversion is that it requires a commitment to a lifestyle change that many potential converts are simply not interested in adopting. So what happens? Yvette and Tzipi get together and agree to promote an interpretation of the halakha that allows for wholesale conversions.

Civil unions, at the very least, would not further politicize the halakhic process in Israel. At best, it may start to rehabilitate it, as halakha begins once again to operate free of massive political pressure. Sure, there will always be rabbis who would be megayer a horse if you pay him enough. Nevertheless, we should not go around eating onions just because our breath already stinks.

An interesting difference of opinion regarding (b) and (c) stems, as far as I can tell, from the Reform and Conservative movements. The Reform movement does not want to stop with civil unions because they are aiming for state recognition. They want the state to actively recognize Reform conversions and weddings, and not simply offer a secular alternative to a religious ceremony. The Conservative movement seems to tend more toward (c) – let there be a civil union, the Rabbanut ceases to be the sole authority for weddings, and people can arrange their wedding ceremonies however they desire after visiting the civil authorities. They seem much less interested in state recognition of their religious services. I’m not really sure what causes this distinction.

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