Public Good

The key to our escape from the grip of COVID-19 is the development and distribution of vaccines. The pandemic has been global, but the vaccines have not been given equally around the globe. Instead, they have been used first in the wealthy nations where coronavirus has been incredibly deadly. How then will the vaccine make it to the poor, less developed parts of the world?

One possibility is that the breakthrough techniques for developing the vaccines will be made widely available. The United States has decided to support a patent waiver for the coronavirus vaccine sought after by countries like India and South Africa. While other nations support the suspending of intellectual property protections, the European Union has not yet joined the US.

Pharmaceutical companies are against the waiver because they worry that they will lose the financial incentive to develop life-saving medical treatments. Even if they have made billions from the US government to develop the vaccine, they worry about future losses without patent protection. They also argue that a vaccine is not just a recipe of ingredients; it is also a complicated process involving sophisticated procurement and technique. Just because a company in the developing world has the vaccine recipe does not mean it can produce a safe and effective product.

Global health advocates respond that the patent waiver is a positive step in an extraordinary situation in which so much is on the line. Even if the patent itself is not easily replicated, perhaps the waiver will spur the big pharmaceutical companies to either donate their vaccine or partner with companies in poor countries to produce it. After all, the best way to protect against a future waiver is to work with competitors in developing countries.

There is an instructive parallel in Jewish history. The printing press had a transformational impact on all intellectual life, including the Jewish world. Suddenly, religious texts could be distributed widely and relatively cheaply, which created competition. In fact, in the 16th century a Jewish printer published an edition of Maimonides Mishneh Torah. Shortly thereafter, a non-Jewish publisher put out an edition of the same text but cheaper.

The response was the creation of the haskamah, a letter of endorsement from a prominent rabbi banning the publication of the text by anyone else for a set period of time in order to protect the profits of the original publisher. Not all rabbis approved of the haskamah phenomenon. Some argued that by limiting the publication of Jewish texts, they stifled the proliferation of God’s word.

Both the case of medical treatment and holy texts raise the question of how to balance the public good against private profit. Pharmaceutical companies and publishers put in hard work and resources so that they can make money, but the things they produce are not just commodities; they are also have important social value. Governments are interested in promoting public health, and rabbis are interested in promoting the distribution of Torah.

In trying to find the right balance between profit and public good, perhaps we can learn some lessons from the printing of Jewish texts. Some rabbis felt that printing bans should only last long enough for the publisher to recoup profit from the initial printing run. After that, competition from other printers would be allowed. Similarly, drug companies could be guaranteed a profit, but still ensure that everyone who needs a treatment can get it.

The creation of intellectual property is complex because some examples (a movie, a novel, an appliance) have inherent value for individuals while others (holy texts, life-saving drugs) have inherent value for all of society. Those who produce the later are certainly entitled to compensation, but their work in some sense also belongs to all of us. It is a precious output that is built upon the work of generations and has the potential to advance the course of humanity.

The Fire is You

Tonight begins Lag BaOmer, a rather minor day on the Jewish calendar, but one filled with significance. According to tradition, in the time between Passover and Shavuot, know as Sefirat HaOmer, or the counting of the Omer, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a pandemic, but on the 33rd day (Lag = Lamed Gimmel = 33) the plague began to subside. As a result, Lag BaOmer became a day of joy and celebration.

I always thought that Lag BaOmer was a curious day. Why celebrate while a pandemic is raging? The Talmud specifically states that the plague happened between Passover and Shavuot, so people must still have been getting sick and dying even after Lag BaOmer. After all, there are over two weeks left until Shavuot.

After a year of actually living through a pandemic, I now get it. There is no date when we will be able to say, “OK the plague of COVID-19 is over.” I imagine that our ancestors decided just to pick a day, Lag BaOmer, to be the moment when they celebrated the subsiding of the disease.

We too are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and need to find ways to mark this moment of transition. Personally, I have chosen to look at what I call V-Day, two weeks after my last dose of the vaccine, as a kind of personal Lag BaOmer. COVID-19 is not over, but a return to normal is on the horizon.

One of the elements of Lag BaOmer is the lighting of bonfires, whose origins is shrouded in mystery, but may relate to the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. According to the Zohar, his death was marked by a fiery “wedding” celebration. Fire is incredibly important in Judaism because the flame represents the light of Torah and God, but the metaphor can be taken even further.

Someone recently asked the New York Times, “Where does a candle go when it burns?” It’s one of those things you don’t think about until someone points it out. It turns out that the wax and the wick are turned into carbon dioxide and water vapor which get mixed with the air. Both of these gases are produced in low quantities but could potentially be dangerous if lots of candles are burned in a space that is not well ventilated.

Smoke and other byproducts of fire are good analogies for understanding the spread of the coronavirus. While a virus is invisible and odorless, its easy to see how a candle, particularly a scented one, affects the room. The smoke and aroma of a candle are stronger the closer you get, which is why we try to stay at least six feet apart from others even as we understand that the virus, just like the carbon dioxide and water vapor of a candle, can travel much further.

The Times notes that these byproducts from a candle eventually mix with the air outside your room. “After about a year, atoms from your candle will have spread completely around the globe. For the next few years, every time someone takes a breath of air, they’ll be breathing in a few carbon atoms from the wax and a few oxygen atoms from the air in your room.”

Fire is a fleeting phenomenon, but one with long lasting effects. The flame of Torah also burns in the moment but then continues to spread its influence long after the initial engagement with the text. Where does a candle go when it burns? The answer is everywhere. The flame, or the Torah, eventually becomes a part of you and me, and everyone else in the world.

Justice for One and Justice for All

I still remember where I was when the OJ Simpson verdict was announced 26 years ago. I was in college taking a class on the history of New York City, and the professor understood that he would not be able to do much teaching that day. Instead, he had a television rolled into the lecture hall so that we could watch the result of the trial of the century.

The not guilty verdict in that case sent shockwaves throughout our country, and one of the most disturbing aspects of the response was the difference in reaction between white people and people of color. For many in the latter community, a not guilty verdict was a measure of justice, regardless of the facts of the case.

People of color had been abused and persecuted by the criminal justice system for so long that a non-guilty verdict for Simpson, in a case where the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming, was seen as a kind of cosmic poetic justice. Rich and powerful white people have gotten away with murder, both figurately and literally, for centuries. It’s no wonder that some were happy that a rich black man could get away with it too.

A lot has changed in the intervening years, particularly in the areas of domestic abuse and women’s rights. Even back in 1995, I was taking a class called Gender and Deviancy and we analyzed the complexity of the Simpson case that mixed so many difficult issues: race, gender, power, celebrity. Today, few would look to Simpson as a hero of civil rights.

I thought about the Simpson verdict this week as the nation held its breath waiting for a decision in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd last spring. Would justice be served? How would our communities react to whatever verdict was handed down? Most importantly, would there be unanimity in the response or would it again break down along racial lines.

The good news is that most people, regardless of race, were horrified by Chauvin’s actions and felt that he was guilty of murder. Unfortunately, today the dividing line instead is political as the scope and nature of policing has been called into question.

While many of us may be satisfied with the Chauvin verdict, we know that systemic change does not result from the outcome of one case. OJ Simpson was able to walk free not because he was innocent, but because he had the extraordinary means to hire an all-star legal team. I can’t help but ask, was Chauvin found guilty because the tide of discrimination and abuse of power has finally turned, or because a teenager had the courage to record George Floyd’s arrest. Did the media attention of case and the protests that followed last year lead to real change that will translate to others or will things go back to the way they were when we stop paying attention?

I can only hope that we continue to push for true systemic change even as there is some much-needed closure on a painful moment in the history of race and policing in our country. I am also reminded that regardless of the outcome of a trial, the victims can never be returned to us. Nicole Brown, Ronald Goldman, and George Floyd had their lives cut needlessly short. In order for their names to truly be blessings, may their memory inspire us to never stop fighting for justice for all.

Finding a Home

The world saw the end, this week, of one of the most remarkable marriages in history with the death of Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. They had known each other for over 81 years and were married for 73. He has been by her side through some of the most consequential moments in the United Kingdom’s history, from the Second World War to the end of the British Empire to multiple royal scandals.

Though it all Prince Philip shared the queen’s sense of duty, even if he served in his own unique way. He was known for his wit, even if it was sometimes offensive. He spoke his mind, which could get him in trouble with some, but also endeared him to others.

Prince Philip will always have a special place in the hearts of Jews and Israelis as the first member of the British royal family to visit the Jewish state after its independence. While his visit was not in an official capacity, it did break an unspoken boycott of Israel by the family. Apparently, there was ill will due to Zionist violence against British authorities in the Mandate period before the creation of the state.

Prince Philip came to Israel to visit the grave of his mother on the Mount of Olives and attend the ceremony recognizing her as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem for hiding three Jews in her palace in Athens. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, led a remarkable and troubled life. A German princess, she was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, born in Windsor Castle, married to a Greek prince who was forced into exile. Later she was committed to a sanitorium with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and became estranged from her family.

Princess Alice was torn during the war, her daughters having married German princes, some of whom were Nazis, while her son, Philip, served on the other side in the British Royal Navy. She lived a monastic existence helping the poor and risked her own life to save a Jewish family. A woman of deep religious conviction, she founded an order of Greek Orthodox nuns and died in the gilded Buckingham Palace with no earthly possessions.

Like his mother, Prince Philip represented the mixed European heritage of the aristocracy that was completely upended by the tumultuous conflicts of the twentieth century. As a Greek and Danish prince of German heritage, with connections to the royal families in England and Russia, he essentially had no home. It’s no wonder that he sympathized with Jewish and Israeli causes all his life. He understood what it meant to search for a home and a nationality.

He found his place in Britain when he was sent to boarding school at Gordonstoun in Scotland, founded by the exiled German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn, who would go on to start the outdoor educational program Outward Bound. Hahn’s philosophy was to build character through adventure, leadership, and concern for others. Prince Philip, like the Jewish people over the centuries, had to have a portable identity, tied not to a particular piece of land, but to sincerely held principles.

Eventually, Prince Philip, through all the hardship and turmoil of the century, found a home and stability in his marriage to Elizabeth around the same time the Jewish people found their homeland in Israel. It has been an unforgettable 73 years for the Queen with her consort and the Jewish state in its ancient land and a hopeful reminder that each of us has a place in the world if we have the strength to find it.

The Best That’s Yet to Come

The history of sports is filled with stories of great teams that never won championships or of great players who never got to show off their talent to the world. As a fan of the San Antonio Spurs, I still think, what if Kawhi Leonard didn’t get injured in the playoffs in 2017. Would the team have won it all? Or how about the previous season when the Spurs won an amazing 67 games lead by 4 hall-of-famers but lost in the second round. There are even more extreme examples of great teams who couldn’t quite make it, including this year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs, undefeated until they lost in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

There is even a documentary, appropriately called The Best That Never Was, about football player Marcus Dupree, who never got the career commensurate with his amazing ability. For the last two years, we may have a great (or heartbreaking) example of “the best that never was” in the Yeshiva University college basketball team. They possess a current win streak of 36 games, second-longest in NCAA Division III history, but they have no championships to show for it.

Last year, the Division III tournament was cancelled after two rounds, and while the YU Macs (short for Maccabees) got to play some games this season, their tournament wasn’t even scheduled. Unfortunately, Division III does not pull in the kind of revenue of the Division I tournament, and clearly was not a priority for a lot of universities or the NCAA.

The YU team, for now, will have to live with the what if questions. Were they good enough to win it all? Hopefully next season they will get to defend their streak and play for a championship, but until then, they have been an inspiration to the Jewish community, filled with talented players (one with NBA dreams) and great chemistry. Their mission has not only been to win basketball games but also to transform the very idea of Jewish sports.

Usually, the dilemma facing Jewish athletes is whether they can reconcile their religious tradition with the game. Sandy Kofax and Hank Greenberg were heroes in the Jewish community because they refused to play on Jewish holidays, while some contemporary players have chosen to play on those days. The YU team asks why we even need to choose and defiantly declares, “We can be proud, observant, kippah-wearing Jews and still destroy the competition.”

It would have been amazing to see YU go for that elusive championship, and maybe they still will. Theirs is a story of what we have missed during this pandemic, but also a reminder that what was does not have to be what is. With effort and dedication, a small, religious college can become a basketball powerhouse. The best that never was might turn out to be the best that’s yet to come.

Expecting a Different Result

As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. If that’s the case, then Israelis are surely considering institutionalizing themselves, or at least their politicians. After an unprecedented fourth election in only two years, the political situation is again deadlocked. There is no indication that any party or leader can form a stable coalition government.

So why are we here, with Israel in political turmoil and no clarity in sight? The reason is not ideological fracturing. Israeli politics is actually quite stable from election to election. As is the case this year, the parties of the right tend to get about 65 seats, the parties of the left about 45 seats, and the parties of the Arab community about 10 seats. As Americans we look at lots of small parties and think they are the cause of instability, but long-term coalitions among multiple factions are common in Israeli history.

Certainly there have been divisive splits within these ideological groupings. On the right there are secular parties that oppose the influence of the ultra-Orthodox, for example, but it should be possible to create a coalition if the deciding factor was ideology alone.

The dividing line in Israeli politics today, and the reason there is no stability, is simply the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, Israeli media groups the two blocs of parties in the vote as “Pro-Netanyahu” and “Anti-Netanyahu”. Despite his impressive success in vaccinating the country, bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control, and securing historic normalization agreements with Arab nations, he was unable to win a decisive victory in the election.

Netanyahu does not have enough votes in the upcoming Knesset to be the next prime minister, but while his opponents do have more than the 61 needed, they are too divided. There is little confidence that right-wing former Likudniks could sit together in a coalition with members of the Arab Joint List or the left-wing Meretz party.

For Israel to go forward with a coalition government, something dramatic will be necessary. Netanyahu reminds me a bit of Margaret Thatcher, who also dominated her country’s politics for over a decade, but in the end whose domineering style instigated a revolt in her party. She was forced to give up the premiership not because she lost an election, but because she lost the confidence of her party. Perhaps Netanyahu is somehow pushed out in the next few weeks.

One other intriguing possibility is that Netanyahu does what was once unthinkable and rely on the support of an Arab party in order to hold on to leadership of the country. There is a small conservative Islamic party that could give him a possible pathway to a government. In the past, it was unthinkable (by both Jews and Arabs) for an Arab faction to join a coalition, but in reality, the Islamic party shares ideology with the right in Israel, particularly Orthodox parties.

There are significant obstacles to a Netanyahu-led right-wing and Islamic government, but the prospect of yet another snap election might change some minds. An Arab party joining, or at least supporting, a coalition, would be a game-changer for Israeli politics and a real positive step forward for the country truly becoming a multiethnic democracy. And it might save the nation from the insane asylum.

Why Not Both?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about options. Usually, we want more of them. I don’t want just two choices: vanilla and chocolate. I want at least 31 flavors, if not more. But there is a downside to multiple options too, which is that usually we must choose. Sure, some ice cream shops might offer something like the kitchen sink, which is just a big bowl of all the flavors, but if you actually eat it, you’ll end up regretting the decision.

Options are a challenge because they force us to narrow the field. Sometimes it is easier to not have a choice at all or to let someone else decide. That way you won’t regret possibly making the wrong decision. No one likes to look back and think they should have done something differently.

In teaching my recent class called The Haggadah In Depth, I have been struck by the Haggadah’s avoidance of choice. There are multiple times when the Haggadah is presented with two options but decides to include both rather than choose. Of course, it is not accurate to say that the Haggadah decides anything. It is an inanimate object, not a being with free will, but the Haggadah did not have one editor that we can point to and say, “This person created the book.”

This composite document is filled with multiple options that get blended together and are often not even understood to be options. For example, the Mishnah instructs that at the Seder when we begin to tell the story we should start with disgrace and end with praise. The rabbis knew how to tell a good story: start out with our heroes in trouble but make sure there is a nice Hollywood ending.

The Talmud picks up on this mandate but asks, “What is the disgrace we should begin with?” Two conflicting answers are given: either begin with “We were slaves” or “Our ancestors were idol worshipers”. These two possibilities are offered by two different rabbis who disagreed with each other and yet the Haggadah presents both, which is odd.

It would be as if a movie had two opening scenes. You can’t really do that. Only one option can be the true beginning. The result is that in our Haggadahs the story begins with “We were slaves” but then like a good post-modern film that uses a fractured timeline, the story jumps back in time to when we were idol worshipers before Abraham’s time.

Another example is in the blessing over the second cup of wine at the end of the Maggid storytelling section of the Seder. The Mishnah presents two opposing options. Rabbi Tarfon says the blessing should be to thank God for the Exodus and that’s it. Rabbi Akiva says the blessing should ask God to redeem us in the future by rebuilding the Temple. For Rabbi Tarfon, on Passover we should just be thanking God for the Exodus, but for Rabbi Akiva the story of the Exodus should be the framework for our future redemption.

Rabbi Akiva was the first to try and make the Exodus story relevant to his times, something we have been doing for thousands of years. A perfect example is the new Hitler Haggadah, written by a Moroccan Jew in 1943 to celebrate the victory of the Allies in North Africa.

Rabbi Tarfon’s point is valid too. The whole point of the holiday of Passover is to celebrate a discrete moment in Jewish history when God brought us out of Egypt. We were slaves, but now we are free. It is a moment to celebrate a great victory, but of course the Haggadah incorporates both Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva’s blessings.

Options are nice, especially when in the Haggadah we don’t have to choose. Instead we sing with joy at the wonders done for our ancestors. At the same time, we recognize that the world is still broken and there is much for us to fix with God’s help. May our Seders be full of praise for the miracles that were done in the past, even as we look toward new ones in the future.

A Jewish Dog’s Life

In a second season episode of the TV show Shtisel, a character is kicked out of a yeshiva for having a dog. Even though they are considered filthy creatures in the ultra-Orthodox community, a family member helps the young man take care of the pup. They try to find a new home for the animal but are charmed by the dog’s cuteness.

The funny and heartwarming storyline demonstrates the ambivalence of pets in Jewish tradition. In ancient and medieval times, Jewish farmers lived in close proximity to domesticated animals and surely developed bonds with them. In the modern period as the Jewish community became urbanized, the only reason for many to be near animal would be purely as a pet.

So why the aversion to animal companions in Judaism? The characters in Shtisel dismiss dogs as impure in the sense of being unkosher, but of course pet owners don’t eat their dogs. There is nothing in Jewish law against owning an unkosher animal as a pet. Instead, there are several possible reasons why pets are frowned upon.

The first is that dogs, in particular, have been associated in some instances with oppression. Vicious German Shepherds, for example, were used by the Nazis in concentration camps. The second is that a pet is a discretionary purchase that might be frowned upon by a frugal Jewish culture. Anyone with a pet knows that between food and vet expenses, the cost of caring for an animal can be high.

American Jews, however, have certainly adopted a great many pets, like their non-Jewish neighbors. In fact, they tend to give their animals Jewish names like Mazel and Latke. When my wife and I adopted a dog over twenty years ago, we ultimately named her Georgia, but I always thought that her Yiddish name was Golda. Our current dog Foxy came with her name, but she has been known to respond to Foxa’le.

If dogs can have Jewish names and celebrate their bark mitzvah, the big question this month is how are they to celebrate Passover? Sure, they will enjoy the scraps of brisket that fall off the Seder table (or maybe are slipped to the pooch by a guest), but do they have to keep kosher for Passover like the rest of the house? It turns out the answer is yes, sort of.

While during the year your pet can eat almost anything, including non-Kosher food like pork, on Passover there is a strict prohibition on having any chametz (bread products) in your house and deriving any benefit from them (for example feeding them to your animal). So, before the holiday one must remove any pet food that contains chametz.

While this may seem daunting, there are solutions. First, check and see if your pet’s food actually contains any chametz. If the ingredients don’t list wheat, barley, pasta, etc., the food is fine. You don’t have to worry about kitniyot (beans, corn, rice, etc.) because even those who refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover may feed it to their pets.

If your pet’s food does contain chametz, you can switch to a brand that doesn’t, although this might lead to unfortunate tummy problems for Fido. One suggestion is to slowly introduce the Passover food before the holiday so the pet gets used to it. A suboptimal solution is to “sell” your pet to a non-Jew on the holiday and let them take care of your animal. The standard text of the bill of sale I use to sell the community’s chametz before Passover does include a blanket provision for all animals, but you would have to give up your beloved pet for 8 days.

As linguistics professor Sarah Bunin Benor notes, Jews tend to follow their gentile neighbors. Ownership of pets in America has exploded over the years, particularly as human birthrates have fallen. We love our animals, especially this last year as we have gotten to spend even more time with them at home. They are a beloved part of the modern Jewish family; it’s only natural for them to share in our holidays.

Not Rude, Just Excited

Dinner at my house during the pandemic has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is wonderful to spend time together as a family each day. Given that most of us in our household are working or doing school from home makes it easier for all of us to eat together. The downside is that after a year cooped up, we may be getting on each other’s nerves a bit.

My wife and I notice that around this time of year our kids start to get impatient with each other and with us. In a normal year, this phenomenon makes us all excited for summer camp, when each kid gets to spend time with their friends and we, the parents, get to experience a preview of the empty nest. At the end of the summer we are all happy and excited to be back together again.

Last year, with camps closed, we didn’t get a chance to enjoy the separation that brings our family closer together. Instead, we had to power through the challenge of prolonged closeness. This year, camps are set to open, and all signs point to a more normal summer experience.

Until we drop off our kids, however, we must endure some heated conversations at dinner. On the one hand, these arguments raise everyone’s blood pressure, but on the other hand, they do show passion and exuberance. The kids fight for their position on whatever the topic might be: coronavirus, politics, culture.

We often have to set rules and referee the conversation as well. Only one person can talk at a time; one should not insult someone else’s opinion. Interrupting is a major problem, but perhaps I am worried too much about it. It turns out that there is more than one way to talk over others.

Linguists distinguish between someone who jumps into the conversation to dominate and the more positive “cooperative overlapper”. The latter is so engaged by what they are hearing that they start “talking along with the speaker, not to cut them off but rather to validate or show they’re engaged in what the other person is saying.” A cooperative overlapper is not seeking to contradict what is being said, but to amplify and add to it.

This type of conversation has been linked to a number of cultures, including some in the Jewish community. We are all aware of the image of the noisy Jewish family engaged in loud conversation, often with extensive use of the hands. Of course, if one is not part of the culture, one may find this type of discourse rude, which is why Jews are often stereotyped as pushy and inconsiderate.

You may recognize yourself as a cooperative overlapper. If so, it is important to understand that not everyone will respond in the same way to this style. One way to overcome the misperception of rudeness is to say something like this before you comment: “I really don’t mean to interrupt. I just want you to know I really agree with what you are saying.”

I’m not sure if my family is always engaging in cooperative overlapping. Sometimes we are, in fact, trying to dominate the conversation, but I do think it is important to think about how we speak to each other as we approach Passover, whose Seder is the greatest conversation ever. We are not meant to just recite the Haggadah, but rather engage in a dialogue about freedom and redemption. At your table feel free to kindly and cooperative overlap as you tell the story of our people.

Recognized Community

It is often striking how American and Israeli culture wars follow each other. Both country’s political systems are paralyzed by divided societies. In the US it is an increasingly urban/suburban vs. rural clash, while in Israel the conflict pits Orthodox vs. secular Jews. This week the battle was intensified by a landmark decision of the Israeli Supreme Court recognizing conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements.

For decades, conversions performed by a “recognized community” in the diaspora, regardless of affiliation, must be accepted by the Israeli government for the purposes of citizenship under the Law of Return. However, in Israel, only conversions performed under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate are accepted. This led to the odd situation of people working towards a conversion in Israel with a Conservative or Reform rabbi, then taking a plane ride to a Jewish community outside the country for the formal conversion, and then finally returning to Israel to receive their citizenship.

The practical implication of the Supreme Court’s ruling is minimal. The liberal movements in Israel perform very few of them, and most people there who may want to convert are Israeli citizens already, such as the hundreds of the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants who are not Jewish according to halakha.

The real impact of this decision is in the precedent it sets. For the first time, Conservative and Reform rabbis now represent “recognized communities” according to the Israeli government. The court took pains to note that it was not wading into religious matters, and the decision does not require the Chief Rabbinate to acknowledge these converts as Jews. And yet, one can envision a future when the liberal movements demand, and receive, even more official recognition in other areas.

For right now, the decision has thrown a wrench into the upcoming Israeli elections. Orthodox parties have condemned the ruling and vowed to condition their participation in a coalition on a law that would overturn it. On the other side of the spectrum, the head of the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, is slated to enter the next Knesset as a member of the Labor Party.

The increasingly bitter religious/secular divide is the major cause of Israel’s political instability. Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party, refuses to sit in a coalition with Likud because of the presence of Orthodox parties even though on many other issues he aligns very closely with Netanyahu’s party. Without his obstinacy, Israel would have been able to avoid the last 3 elections in the past 18 months.

Just as in America, the role of the Supreme Court in Israel’s culture wars is deeply controversial. In the US, the court in various periods has made both liberal and conservative decisions with long lasting effects. In Israel, the court has mostly been a liberal institution owning to the way judges are selected. In the US, presidents, with the consent of the Senate, make the choice, while in Israel a committee does so.

This week’s decision will certainly not end the controversy over conversions in Israel, but it does move the debate forward. It is a great win for the Reform and Conservative movements, who have been fighting for religious freedom in Israel for decades and who now have added leverage against the ultra-Orthodox establishment. We are one step closer to an Israel where each person can decide how they want to express their tradition.