(Above, an otherwise unrelated video of Rabbi David Rosen talking about Hindus)
The American Jewish Committee Global Forum, currently underway here in the basement of the Washington D.C. Grand Hyatt, is full of impressive people. In the span of 30 seconds at last night’s reception, I spotted a half dozen people whose conference badges identified them as ambassadors — and then accidentally wandered into the middle of a cadre of at least a dozen cocktail-sipping Israeli Defense Forces colonels.
But my favorite so far is Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs, who gave a talk over breakfast this morning billed as “Religious-Secular Tensions, Pluralism and Interfaith Relations in Israel.” Rosen is a sharply groomed gentleman with a reassuringly authoritative British accent. His rabbinic smicha is ultra-Orthodox, but today he is a refreshingly and unabashedly confident proponent of relatively left-wing Modern Orthodoxy. Best of all — and most romantically — he was introduced to the breakfast crowd like this: “He is a Commander of the British Empire, a Knight of the Vatican and he knows all the best restaurants in Jerusalem.” (Rosen: “But I live in Jerusalem because if Britain and the Holy See were to go to war, I would be in trouble.”)
Rosen’s talk was a description of the history of the relationship between the government of Israel and Zionism on the one hand and right-wing ultra-Orthodox Jews on the other. One of his main thrusts, a point that I got the sense he sneaks in whenever he has an opening, was that civil marriage is the most important piece of Israel’s religion-secularism puzzle.
The issue of civil marriage is so important to Rosen that, as he put it, “Lack of civil marriage is Israel’s greatest flaw.”
The first question of the post-talk question and answer session came from a man who pointed out that, while the problems that could be solved by civil marriage in Israel are moving to American Jews, those problems irrelevant to them. Conversion, however, is much more relevant to American Jews. So, the question went, why emphasize the issue of civil marriage on behalf of the American Jewish Committee?
This piqued my interest. In an April 17 op-ed for the Forward, I wrote about my own recent conversion status dilemma withing the American Jewish community. However, I don’t know much about the even more complex conversion situation in Israel.
Rosen’s answer was that both problems, the lack of civil marriage and the messy conversion situation, are symptoms of the same underlying problem. Israel, Rosen said, chose long ago to mirror the old Ottoman millet system, a system under which the Ottoman Empire gave every religious community total authority over internal matters like membership and marriage. In Israel, Muslims, Jews and Christians marry under their own separate standards, which are recognized by the state — just as they did under the Ottoman millet system.
As Rosen sees it, the Israeli adaptation of the millet system is what keeps civil marriage from becoming a reality and it empowers the ultra-Orthodox to create the problematic situation regarding conversion. To solve the conversion problem, undermine and dismantle the millet system, Rosen said. To undermine and dismantle the millet system, advocate for civil marriage. It may not be the most important thing to American Jewry, but civil marriage is far more important to Israeli voters than conversion.
Another question: “The theme of this year’s Global Forum is ‘From Insight to Action.’ You’ve given us plenty of insight. Help us translate that into action. What can we do?”
Rosen hedged, “I don’t want to undermine the position of the organization I work for, but….” Rosen said the AJC should start bringing up the issue of the preferential treatment given to the ultra-Orthodox by the state in every meeting with any Israeli official. This, he said, has probably never been discussed in any high-level AJC meeting, but it should be. He said it would do more to fundamentally improve the relationship between Israel and the diaspora than anything else the AJC could possibly do.