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November 21, 2014 11:49 am

Conversion Law

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Man applying tefillin. Photo: wiki commons.

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!

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  • Julian Clovelley

    The problem is not Judaism or even “Jewishness” – it is Zionism. In recent years Zionism seems to outsiders to have taken over the Israeli Government itself, and dominates every administrative level – and it is a nonsense. The present bad reception Israel gets is unfair to those people in Israel who do not swallow, or deliberately perpetuate, the Zionist myth

    The Rabbi makes very reasonable and reconciliatory comments on conversion, and within his words is a tacit recognition of the important role that conversion and assimilation into other cultures has played in Jewish history. But I feel there is a need to go one step further, and recognise that the core belief of Zionism, that a unique descent from the family of Abraham exists in the “Jewish people”, is bogus, and consciously so. It is deliberate “Doublethink”, to employ George Orwell’s useful term. The promulgator of the lie shares in the concurrent understanding of its falsehood, but play acts sincere belief in it for political ends. The very conversion processes and assimilation processes the rabbi recognises, have been going on for thousands of years, creating an intermingling whereby we are all descended from the same ancient families. St Paul – himself a Jew – got one thing right, there is neither Gentile nor Jew – and there never was. That is the reality, which when embraced, breaks through the Doublethink

    I am sure many Jews hate to hear it – But writers such as Schlomo Sand are correct – Like ANY other people – no more or no less, the Jewish people are pure invention. Like ANY other nation – no more or no less, the Land of Israel is an invention. A pattern of mythology far from unique to any particular clan – and far from universally believed within any particular clan – has been used to construct a purely artificial nationalism. And much of the intensity of that racist(sic) nationalism stems from rogue interpretation of selected mythology, carried out in the late nineteenth century. Like ALL nationalism, on the one hand it commanded defensive loyalty and provided focus, while on the other it created division, false identification, and created of its adherents a soft target for disastrous, and almost satanic, hatred

    The chronic mistreatment of those labelled by others, or by themselves, as “Jews” has created an understandable polite sympathy for a concept that really does not bear close analytical observation. We do not closely examine it because of the need to fight “antisemitism”. The horrors of twentieth century persecutions of many peoples and nations has made it difficult in the last seven decades to look closely at the reality of nationalist mythology. Sympathisers to the State of Israel amongst the Gentile population ALSO recognise what Rabbis themselves already know, that for many, being labelled “Jewish” became an exit visa from Eastern Europe, in the years before the Iron Curtain dissolved into history. But those Gentiles, too, have politely kept silent on the issue. At least it helped some people escape through frontiers that should never have existed. In preservation of their rush for freedom, silence seemed appropriate.

    What I would ask now however is, “how many of such people in fact live in the Settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, supported in the theft of Palestinian land by adherence to and promotion of the bogus Zionist myth?” Is this theft not – in Judaic terms “theft” – for I was taught that amongst the Torah commandments was “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house”

    I earnestly want to see the Middle East at peace, to see reconciliation between communities and cultures. But I can see NO way forward unless at least one party comes to terms with its myths of origin, and its own separatist and divisive culture. It is not enough for there to be so many Jews who dump the culture and become secular – or for new conversion and assimilation to openly display a process just as real in the ancient and more recent past. It requires Judaism itself – especially Israeli Judaism – to take that step and say to the Arab world that it is time to shed the past and move on

    Why does one of the most intellectually powerful groups in the world spend so much effort in creating a pseudo history that so obviously, in its defiance of archaeology ,defies the evidence of the real past. Why this obsession with being cloistered in a “Scheinwelt”?

    Shouldn’t Judaism be spreading that which is best within itself, the ability to be a supportive community, to have compassion for one’s fellows, to pursue professionalism, knowledge, and understanding, to the entire world? Why is it that the intellectual power and adulation of law and knowledge that can produce an Einstein is being squandered on opposing International Law, the International Criminal Court, the application of the Geneva Conventions, and in perpetuating the occupation of land in which cultures of many kinds have come and gone – with none having an over-riding right of possession

    The items the Rabbi courageously raises are not just about internal structures – they are about identity. They are about creating an identity capable of negotiating peace. That is the real “Greater” Israel you should be seeking. A far greater state, in which religion recedes into the background and individual homes where it belongs, and Arab and Jew, and all of us, recognise our kinship, and rejoice in reclaiming the brotherhood we have lost in the ages since our ancestors came out of Africa – or wherever.

    The Rabbi is reaching out and should be supported in this. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I disagree. But I do believe he is raising matters that desperately need to be aired in the interests of Jew and non Jew alike. To disagree but remain friends who would protect each other is how life and society should be. peace

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Come on, Zionism is no more than Jewish nationalism. We have prayed to return to Zion for two thousand years long before Arab Nationalism or political Zionism. Why is one nationalism any different or better than another?

      When competing national demands conflict either they try to fight it out or some great power forces a solution. That is how it has always been. If the Palestinians do not want to make peace its because of everyone else is telling them not to. The result is that its now all about proxy wars.

      I dont trust anyone else to protect our interests and I certainly would not trust anyone else in the Middle East to guarantee anything.

  • Steven

    It is shameful that you call yourself ‘observant’ you are nothing but a קל שבקלים
    Now to the facts, Jewish law requires that the potential convert converts for no other reason then the sincere desire to be part of Am Yisrael becouse of his love for God.
    People who want to convert becouse they are in love with a Jew or becouse their ticket out of Russia was to claim they are Jews but do not want to keep the Mitzvos are simply not Jewish.

    For you to delegitimize Geirus based on the personal failings of a Rabbi but a human being who can sin ( only in christianity there is the concept of ‘infallible ‘ ) is nothing short of outrageous.

    Civil marriage may be the only way out of this disaster where Jews like you are the cause of contaminating the Yichus of Klall Yisroel, at least when someone will do a civil marriage only in Israel there will be record of the lack of Their Yichus.

    Halacha has nothing but respect for genuine Geirim as it is written במקום שבעלי תשובה עומדים אין צדיקים גמורים יכולים לעמוד. Intorelable are people like you who want to legitimize Goyim according to the Halocho.
    Jeremy know one thing – there is a concept of ‘תינוק שנשבע׳ and tgere is the concept of someone who knows what is right but still goes against it.
    There is a famous story about a lady who came to tge Gerer Rebbi complaining ” my son is meshugge he eats pig and dances with Shikses – the Rebbe aswered her no! If he were to dance with pigs and eat shikses he would me meshugge but since he eats pig and dances with shikses he is not meshugge but stam a Sheigatz!
    You are that kid!