How to Solve the Jewish Conversion Crisis
Conversion is a serious matter. It signals a transformation and involves a tremendous amount of soul-searching. Human beings are more than just accumulations of plasma, complex robots or tool-making creatures that can change and adapt at the drop of a hat. Human beings have souls and profound emotions. They experience spiritual and moral struggles in which religion plays a major part.
Conversion is a far-reaching decision: it culminates in immersion in a mikva, a ritual bath that symbolizes the mother’s womb. “A non-Jew who converts is like a newborn baby,” says the Talmud. Conversion also implies a deep commitment to Jewish tradition. It requires a pledge to follow a particular lifestyle, the observance of the commandments and a deep emotional connection with the Jewish people. It means becoming part of this mysterious “Jewish soul,” which remains unexplainable but is as real as it can be.
So, what should we do with all those people who are unable to take that drastic, far-reaching step — but still want to be part of the Jewish people?
Today, Israel has many thousands of immigrants who are of Jewish descent, yet not halachically Jewish. Should we convert them even though we know that they will not live a fully committed Jewish life? Or should we abandon them, basically ignoring and excluding them as we do now?
Should we suggest that they lie to the rabbinical courts and tell the rabbis that they intend to live a halachic life, although we know that they will not, forcing them to violate a central principle of Judaism which is to speak the truth? Should we make them guilty of ignoring countless other commandments after their conversion, a situation which would be avoided if they did not convert?
Or should we convert them anyway, because of our obsession with Jewish unity and our fear that the State of Israel would otherwise be unable to survive? Yet, notwithstanding this concern, have we forgotten that the Jews exist to keep the great mission of Judaism alive? It is not the function of Judaism to keep the Jewish people alive. After all, what is the point of even having a Jewish people if Judaism is compromised, and its great ethical and deeply religious message for all humankind, based firmly on Halacha, becomes a joke?
The answer, I suggest, is the “two brotherly people solution”: Jewish Jews and non-Jewish Jews. This would involve creating communities of “non-Jewish Jews” in which those who are not prepared to go the whole way could develop their own brand of Judaism. They could have their own synagogues in which to practice aspects of Jewish tradition that they wish to keep. They could decide for themselves to what extent to observe Shabbat or keep kosher. Their wedding ceremonies could make use of many Jewish rituals, and they could have their own “Jewish” cemeteries where they could adopt as many Jewish religious practices as possible — rather than be forced to bury their dead in totally secular or non-Jewish burial grounds. We could set up outreach programs for them, enabling them to study Judaism and choose whichever aspects they wish to adopt. We could even create yeshivot and seminaries for this specific purpose.
In this way they would feel part of the wider Jewish community and would not feel coerced into complying with Halacha, while the Halacha would itself remain uncompromised.
To ensure that they feel at home in the Jewish state, we could offer them various privileges and advantages. We could provide a benign sort of protekzia, so that they would feel comfortable as loyal citizens of the state of Israel. We should help them succeed in their endeavors, so that they would want to continue living in this great country. After all, they are our brothers and sisters. They are not goyim. We share a sense of Jewishness with them, and they are part of the family — though slightly removed.
True, this would not solve all our problems. There would be “mixed marriages” between the two communities, the non-Jewish Jews and the Jewish Jews. Yet it would be reasonable to expect that the more familiar they become with Jewish tradition on their own terms, the more likely it would be that they would take that final step and convert properly and honestly according to Halacha. In this way, they and the Halacha would both be protected against dishonesty.
The benefits of this approach would be many. And not just for the non-Jewish Jews. There can be little doubt that many halachically recognized (but distant) Jews would join the educational programs and attend the non-Jewish synagogues. It would allow many to rediscover what it means to be a Jew and give them an opportunity to become more observant without being coerced.
Halachic authorities, educators and the government should consider this option seriously, rather than bury their heads in the sand, and pretending nothing can be done. For those who suggest that we should convert our immigrants without asking them to commit to Halacha, this is surely a convincing alternative to their convoluted attempts to justify the unjustifiable. Halachic Judaism offers tremendous scope for flexibility and creativity on a level that many of our leaders have never really considered.
It is time they did.
This column is excerpted from the soon-to-be-released book, “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage,” which is now available for pre-order.