On the face of it Judaism welcomes converts, regardless of race or background, if their motive is a sincere conviction that they would like to live a committed Jewish life. But there were always differing points of view. The well-known Talmudic story tells about a potential convert coming to the great Shammai and asking to be converted if he can teach him the Torah standing on one leg. Shammai, going by the book, told him to get lost. The even greater Hillel, on the other hand, converted him by giving him a general overview that Judaism is concerned with caring for human beings, and then told him to come back for more lessons.
Two thousand years ago converts were legion. But then both Christianity and Islam made conversion to Judaism a capital offence, and Jews turned inward to avoid trouble. Come the Enlightenment mores Jews converted out than in. At that stage there was no alternative to religious identification. But as society became more open and secular, liberal communities began to accept converts who wanted to marry Jews rather than to live an Orthodox way of life.
History and circumstances changed. Even within Orthodoxy, the desire to encourage new blood and the establishment of a Jewish State led to many rabbis becoming much more flexible, particularly for those living in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally open and flexible. But in recent years, its hijacking by more right-wing rabbis or those more beholden to right-wing politics has led to complete chaos, with rabbi pitted against rabbi and community against community. Increasingly the right wing insists on no compromise of Orthodox demands, and the left wing insists on no restrictions at all. Caught in between are hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis who are not legally Jewish but are full citizens of a Jewish State, thousands of Reform converts not recognized as Jewish and hundreds of Orthodox converts whose conversions are not now deemed kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Orthodoxy today is as divided as in Hillel’s day between those who stand for what they see as religious integrity and fewer numbers and those who want to open up Judaism to more people, and in the case of the State of Israel want to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This chaos is proof that when religion and politics intersect, the result is total desecration of every religious value. It only makes a laughingstock out of Judaism.
Despite all this I am just amazed at the number of wonderful committed young men and women I have met who have persevered and jumped through all the hoops to become among the most impressive, committed and learned Jews I have come across. Although, yes, I admit I have also come across just as many who were not sincere and had other agendas.
This month conversion has been in the news in the USA and in Israel. In Washington a prominent Orthodox rabbi who had been a champion of centralizing and tightening up Orthodox conversions under the Rabbinical Council of America has himself been found falling short of the very moral and religious standards he claimed to and should have been upholding. What a shock it has been to those converted under his aegis. And coincidentally the Knesset in Israel, recognizing what a mess we have, has just passed some new laws trying to make the conversion process transparent and fairer there.
Israel’s marriage laws are an embarrassment. There is no civil marriage. You can only get married by a religious authority. You can marry across the faiths, but only if you agree to accept some religious authority of whichever religion. And hitherto one centralized authority controlled it all, and you had to go to the relevant clergyman in your district.
Under pressure, the Knesset last year opened up religious marriages in Israel to allow one to go to any recognized rabbi instead just one’s local poobah. Of course it still doesn’t help a secular Jew who wants nothing to do with his religion or any other. Travelling to Cyprus is his nearest option.
Now the Knesset has intervened to make conversions less hide bound and here too one can, in theory, go to any established rabbinical authority. The trouble is that the Chief Rabbinate was and remains so opposed to any compromise that, in the end, the political parties agreed to allow the Chief Rabbinate a veto as to who would be allowed to convert and who not.
So although in theory things have loosened up, a fat lot of good it has done because the Knesset Bill is not binding. The law was not passed as legislation but as a government directive. Legislation would have provided greater guarantees that the ability of municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions would not be overturned. The government directive is subject to the unpredictability of coalition politics. A simple cabinet decision could overturn it. So in fact if the Chief Rabbinate proves to be bolshie, it can. Of course one can always pray for a miracle, but that is not always very reliable.
Because the more open national-religious rabbinic leadership has been losing ground to more the extremes, a backlash has developed, led mainly by the Tzohar rabbinical association, against the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate. It has succeeded in galvanizing less rigid and more Zionist inclined rabbis to make both marriage and conversion much more humane and personal. Despite all attempts to squash them, they are flourishing. But the situation still remains inconsistent.
Those who oppose the change argue, in my view not at all unreasonably, that the decentralization of conversion can lead to individual rabbis giving in to pressure and bribes. This has, in fact, been the case for many years, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. But I do not believe it is worth making life impossibly difficult just because some people take advantage. It’s like school rules. The tougher you make them, the more likely the efforts to circumvent them.
It’s all very well to complain about the abuses, but unless Orthodoxy can come up with a consistent, humane alternative, we remain in a state of chaos and moral deficiency. Torah, instead of being a light, is in danger of failing in its moral and spiritual mission.
I stand solidly on the side of compromise. I fear, however, that I will be on the losing side, as I have been so far within Orthodoxy. This will not discourage me, but it will be tough on the campaigners and bad for Judaism. Why, oh, why do we seem to go out of the way to appear rigid, uncompromising, and extreme? Do we really want to shoot ourselves in the foot every time? For what it’s worth, I gather the pope has similar problems!