Diaspora Letter : Conversion Crisis
Unlike in earlier times, Israel’s chief rabbinate is measuring potential converts to Judaism with the strictest halakhic yardstick. A new rabbinic fellowship begs to differ.
Many thousands of people in Israel want to convert to Judaism. Most are from the Former Soviet Union and have Jewish ancestry or Jewish spouses. Many others, of various national and religious backgrounds, have come to Israel to study Judaism and to become Jewish.
Thousands of people throughout the diaspora want to become Jews. They are drawn to the teachings of the Torah, or they have discovered Jewish roots, or they want to marry a Jewish spouse. Judaism has a profound message for people of all backgrounds. The Jewish people, with all their problems, are attractive. The fact that so many wish to become Jewish should be a source of tremendous pride and happiness to all Jews.
Troubling news. Not everyone is eager to help these would-be converts enter the Jewish fold. Instead of offering a compassionate and inclusive approach, the Israeli chief rabbinate has erected ever higher barriers to discourage conversion. Diaspora rabbinic groups have essentially fallen into line behind the chief rabbinate’s stringent positions, fearing that their own rabbinic status will be undermined if they do not conform to the rabbinate’s dictates.
In May 2008, Israel’s High Rabbinic Court, under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham Sherman, issued a horrifying decision that actually rescinds the conversion of a woman who had converted (under Orthodox auspices) 15 years ago. Since the court felt the woman was not religiously observant enough, it declared her and her children—born after her conversion—to be non-Jewish (see story, page 10). The chief rabbinate and the High Rabbinic Court have equated conversion with total acceptance and observance of all Orthodox halakha; those who are deemed deficient in religious observance are either not accepted in the first place or run the risk of having their conversions invalidated retroactively. Thousands of individuals have been thrown into spiritual turmoil, wondering about their Jewish identities and the Jewish identities of their children.
This is precisely the time for a visionary Orthodox rabbinic leadership to win the respect and admiration of the Jewish public by providing inspired, meaningful leadership. Yet in Israel and the diaspora, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment has chosen the path of retreat, restriction and exclusion. Their policies have alienated thousands of potential converts as well as thousands of born Jews who find these rabbinic attitudes reprehensible, narrow-minded and xenophobic.
The classic codes of Jewish law leave considerable latitude when it comes to informing converts of the mitzvot. Converts are expected to give a general acceptance to observe the commandments—but there is no indication that they first must study Judaism for years nor that they must answer very specific questions relating to the observance of all mitzvot, requirements that now have become standard within the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.
Some of my Orthodox colleagues have retorted: We don’t need to rely on those texts, since we follow the opinions of the great sages (invariably of the haredi ilk) of our generation. Or they have disingenuously argued that the Talmud, Maimonides and theShulhan Arukh did not need to specify the requirement for converts to accept all mitzvot in detail since they took it for granted that converts would be required to observe every law of Shabbat, kashrut, mikve and others.
In other words, these rabbis ignore, or read their own views into, the classic sources of halakha, seriously changing the historical meaning of conversion.
The notion that conversion entails 100-percent commitment to all the mitzvot seems to have first emerged in the late 19th century among East European rabbis. According to Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi, Israeli scholars who have thoroughly researched the conversion issue, Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak 2:100) introduced this idea in 1876. (See their book, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transformation From Gentile to Jew–Structure and Meaning, Continuum International Publishing Group.) This was a reaction to the growing number of Jews who were defecting from mitzva observance.
Rabbi Shmelkes and others apparently believed that by equating Judaism with mitzva observance, they were defending the Torah from its spiritual enemies. This equation, though an understandable strategy, was of course not literally true. Even the most extreme right-wing rabbis admitted that a born Jew is Jewish, even if he repudiates Judaism and violates every law in the Torah. But when it came to accepting converts, they upheld the most rigorous policy—a policy not dictated by classic halakha but by their own reading of the circumstances of their times.
We are not living in 19th-century eastern Europe. We have the right to revisit the classic halakhic sources and apply them honestly, compassionately and intelligently to our new circumstances. The rabbinate in Israel exists within a vibrant, modern, sovereign Jewish state. If rabbis in the shtetls dealt with conversions stringently in light of their historical circumstances, the rabbinate in Israel must recognize a broader responsibility; it must have the vision to create national policies that will serve the needs and interests of the Jewish state and the Jewish people at large.
Instead of locking itself into the most extreme and narrow positions of halakha, it needs to draw on the broad wellsprings of Jewish legal and ethical traditions, demonstrating halakha’s ability to address contemporary issues in a spiritually, morally and intellectually sound manner. The rabbis of the diaspora must not fall into the trap of creating their own rabbinic bureaucracies; rather, they must also have the vision and sense of responsibility to help converts enter the Jewish fold in a proper, nonintimidating manner.
As an Orthodox rabbi myself, I believe that those who wish to enter the Jewish fold should do so in a halakhically valid manner. Thehalakha provides a meaningful and accessible way for non-Jews to become Jewish. Instead of erecting higher barriers to discourage conversion, the Orthodox rabbinate should be expanding opportunities for those who sincerely wish to become full members of the Jewish people.
The great Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880-1953), argued for an inclusive approach to conversion. In one of his responsa, he urged rabbis to perform conversions even under less than ideal circumstances to maintain Jewish families and keep children in the Jewish fold. Those rabbis who adopted restrictive policies were doing a tremendous disservice to the would-be converts, to their families and to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Uziel wrote: “And I fear that if we push [the children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment, and they shall say to us, ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek’ (Ezekiel 34:4).”
Rabbi Uziel was not the only modern sage who allowed conversions even in non-ideal situations. (See Shmuel Shilo, in an article in theIsrael Law Review, 22:3, 1988. He discussed the lenient views of various halakhic authorities including Rabbis Uziel, Shlomo Kluger, David Zvi Hoffman, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, Yehiel Weinberg and Ovadia Yosef.)
Important news. Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has joined me in founding the International Rabbinic Fellowship to bring together like-minded Orthodox rabbis who will promote an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodoxy—one that will address the issues of our time in an open, nonauthoritarian and halakhically proper manner.
We have been working with Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat in Israel, and other religious leaders in the United States and Israel to establish a beit din for the International Rabbinic Fellowship—with offices in Jerusalem and New York—that will deal with conversion,aguna questions (women whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce) and other serious problems.
We are heartened by the many rabbis (the IRF already has about 150 members and is growing day by day) who have joined with us in this historic effort to create an engaged and engaging Orthodoxy that can provide leadership for the entire Jewish people. We are grateful to lay leadership for financial and moral support.
Every one of us, orthodox or not, can play a role in creating a better future for converts and for the entire Jewish people. We can support those individuals and groups within Orthodoxy that are working to change the rabbinic status quo. We can voice our opinion to policymakers here and in Israel and work in our own communities to foster a positive, inclusive approach to converts and their children. We can remind ourselves that we will one day be standing before the Almighty and will have to explain what we did—or did not do—to address one of the most dramatic challenges of our time. Let us be very sure that we can honestly say that we did seek to bring back those who were driven away and that we did seek those who might otherwise have been lost.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel is founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, www.jewishideas. org. Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, he is author of Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion (Ktav). His most recent book is a novel, The Search Committee (Urim Publications).