Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

The Conversion Conundrum

New immigrants, 1999

Late last week, narrowly averting a looming crisis within world Jewry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a postponement, possibly indefinite, of prospective Knesset legislation making the Chief Rabbinate the arbiter of conversion in the Jewish state and thus of who may be eligible for citizenship under Israel's foundational Law of Return. The measure has stirred impassioned debate in and between Israel and the Diaspora, much of it a depressing if also revealing exercise in talking past each other.

Relevant Links
How to Fix a Broken System  Seth Farber, Forward. An activist Orthodox rabbi suggest ways to rethink Israel’s conversion process.
Against the Rotem Bill  Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Jewish Week. A piece of legislation started promisingly but, if implemented, will lead to disaster.
The Strange Case of Brother Daniel  David Twersky, World Jewish Review. The monk who claimed never to have left the tribe.

The Knesset bill itself was introduced by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose chief constituency is Israel's large group of recent Russian immigrants—a population forcibly alienated from Judaism for generations. Some 300,000 of these are not certifiably Jewish by religious criteria, and it has not been easy to settle on a conversion process attractive to them.

For its part, the Chief Rabbinate, in recent years increasingly the property of ultra-Orthodoxy, has been notably unwilling to relax any of its standards; two years ago, it retroactively annulled some 15,000 conversions performed by more moderate, Religious Zionist rabbis. The Interior Ministry, charged with immigration policy (and controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party), also seeks a tightly-regulated conversion system for reasons of its own.

The new legislation would, for the first time, have allowed presumably less dogmatic local rabbis to perform conversions, so long as they did so in partnership with Rabbinate-designated religious judges. By this somewhat more inviting measure, Rotem hoped to bring relief to at least some of his constituents. But even before the bill was rewritten and made more stringent in committee, complications abounded.

The idea of legislating conversion is itself a major departure. Until now, conversion, along with other flammable religious issues, has been dealt with through a longstanding status quo that has made the Supreme Court the final arbiter, as it was in 1988 when it ruled that non-Orthodox converts would be considered Jewish under the Law of Return if they were part of a recognized community abroad.  Engraving conversion in law, and granting jurisdiction to the Chief Rabbinate, could imperil both that decision and the Court's authority in this realm.

These were the key factors stirring much of organized American Jewry into vehement opposition to the bill. For, no matter what, the new law would necessarily have rendered conversions performed by the Reform and Conservative movements, emphatically unrecognized by the Chief Rabbinate, irrelevant to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Orthodox opinion is a story of its own. In Israel, some moderate Orthodox bodies, regularly at odds with the Chief Rabbinate on a host of issues, but sharing its aversion to Conservative and Reform, acquiesced in the bill. Tzohar, an organization of younger Zionist rabbis, announced its support in the hope that passage would enable its members to perform Rabbinate-recognized conversions. In the U.S., the modern-Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America acted likewise. The International Rabbinic Fellowship, a growing body of liberal Orthodox rabbis, is making efforts to mediate among the parties.

But this leads to a larger feature of the conversion imbroglio, namely, the very different social and religious configurations of, on the one hand, Israel's Hebrew-speaking majority as a whole—whether religious or not—and,  on the other hand, the masses of liberal-minded American Jews on whom Israel relies for material, moral, and political support.

To the ultra-Orthodox who run the Chief Rabbinate, as to their Religious Zionist adversaries, whether they supported the bill or not, the basic question is a familiar one and its terms have been set for decades: in the chaos of modernity, is Judaism best served by uncompromising adoption of the strictest interpretation of religious law, and by the dismissal of all who fall short of it, or does Jewish survival require both a strong commitment to people and nation as well as to religion and a principled willingness to engage in the endless negotiation between tradition and change? Metaphysical considerations have a role as well. For ultra-Orthodoxy, converts, in assuming their new ontological identity, also assume responsibilities for which they and the Jewish people will be held strictly to account in divine judgment. For Religious Zionism, the fragmentations of Israeli society, regrettable as they are, nevertheless reflect a larger, redemptive whole.

Such disagreements aside, America's Reform and Conservative movements speak another language altogether: a language of religious diversity, pluralism, personal autonomy, and open-ended spirituality that is unintelligible not only to Israel's ultra-Orthodox rabbinate but also to many Religious Zionists—and that, into the bargain, is very foreign to the Israeli public at large. In Israel the Reform and Conservative movements enjoy virtually no constituency to speak of, and are reliant on the courts for the meager rights they possess. It is their ironic good fortune to have, in Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister who, however removed from their generally liberal politics, understands the realities of Diaspora Jewry and feels tied to it. 

If the disposition of non-Orthodox American Jews is one twist, another derives from the very particular predicament faced by the masses of Russian Israelis. In a famous case from 1962, the country's Supreme Court ruled that a Jewish-born Carmelite monk who had converted to Christianity while hiding from the Nazis could not claim citizenship under the Law of Return. Though still considered Jewish under Orthodox law, he had so visibly left the Jewish nation that, as far as Israeli law was concerned, he was no longer a Jew.

The assumption then was that peoplehood and religion were obviously and inextricably entwined. But now this very assumption is being challenged from two directions: by Russian Jews who, living in Israel and serving in the army, have undeniably thrown in their lot with the Jewish people whether or not they are technically Jewish according to religious law, and by a significant current in American Judaism that has increasingly decoupled religious and spiritual life from a strong commitment to nation and people.

In brief, the various worldviews evident in the conversion debate reflect some of the deepest conundrums of Jewish identity in our time. What then? At the very least, Diaspora Jewry needs to be honest with itself about why its urgent concerns simply do not resonate even with much of the non-religious Israeli public. Beyond that, in the time made newly available by the postponement of a vote on the bill and by Netanyahu's appointment of a commission to consider options, perhaps a few things can be rethought. 

The Law of Return reflects Israel's starkest reason for being: the need to guarantee the safety of any Jew.  It has never been clear just how religious, if religious at all, one need be in order to claim citizenship under this Law. Perhaps, then, Jewishness for the purposes of citizenship can be conceived as its own category, encompassing its own set of qualities. Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, an independent-minded Shas parliamentarian, has suggested a little-used but traditional term, "seed of Israel," to capture the peculiar status of many who are already living in Israel and undeniably sharing its burdens and destiny. Another alternative, proposed by the American liberal Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, is to re-formulate the traditional requirements of religious law itself with a principled openness to converts who may not become fully Orthodox in their observance but are firmly committed to Jewish ethics and peoplehood.

As for the Chief Rabbinate and its related apparatus, these historically arose from three factors: the Ottoman system of state-sanctioned religious institutions, religious Zionism's desire to build governing institutions paralleling those of secular or "state" Zionism, and David Ben-Gurion's hope that by granting official status to religion he would be better able to control it. The Ottomans are long gone, Ben-Gurion too, and the Rabbinate's agenda is by now the opposite of its creators' vision; indeed, the institution is by now destructive.

Too many interests are invested in the Rabbinate for it to be abolished any time soon, but efforts to minimize its deleterious effects on Israeli and Jewish life are a vital first step.

Tags: , , ,


Kenneth Besig on July 26, 2010 at 7:49 am (Reply)
As Israel has become a very attractive place to and with the development of it's economy, more and more people, many Jewish but far too many illegal non Jewish immigrants, have come to Israel to live and work.
This has created serious social and religious problems in certain parts of the country, Tel Aviv and Eilat for example, where non Jewish illegal foreign immigrants are literally destroying the quality of life and the local economy.
Thus the idea that an individual would convert for social and economic reasons is a serious reality for Israel in 2010 and a cause for serious concern not just for the government but for the Jewish religious community itself.
I truly doubt that the Reform and Conservative movements would massively perform conversions in order to flood Israel with their members. Nor do I think that the conversion rituals these groups use are in any way unacceptable to most modern Orthodox.
But Israel does have it's own unique and difficult population problems to contend with, and a very politically powerful and very radical ultra Orthodox religious establishement to contend with, while at the same time trying to maintain an even and positive relationship with the Diaspora and it's varied and sundry Jewish movements and sects.
This is why this problem pokes it's ugly head up every few years, and why it has yet to be dealt with to the satisfaction of the ultra Orthodox, the modern Orthodox, the Conservative Movement, the Reform Movement, the Progressive Movement, and all the rest.
I'm not sure that Solomon in all his wisdom could solve this problem and not hurt someone's feelings!
david Willig on July 26, 2010 at 8:16 am (Reply)
It is wrong, and impossible to ask any Rabbi to lower his religious standards for political reasons. OTOH it is wrong, and unprecedented, for rabbis to use the police power of the State to settle religious arguments. Therefore, the only practical solution is an American style system where any Rabbi can convert and marry as per his view of his own religious obligatons. OTOH no other Rabbi is bound to accept anyone's "psak halacha" (religious ruling).

Whatever Israel is, it is NOT an institution of halachic law. When it is put in any situation where it is asked to make an halachic ruling it should "punt", leaving halachic decisions to qualified halachic authorities. Israel can define "Who is a Jew" for political purposes. Basically, anyone that Hitler would have considered a Jew is entitled to the protection of the State of Israel. It is not qualified to rate or rank Rabbis, or to decide who is an halachic authority and who is not.
Let the Rabbis make their own decisions. Unity is a great idea, but we survived for 2000 years with Rabbinic diversity. Rabbis do not have to accept a more lenient ruling, but they cannot use the power of the State to enforce their more stringent opinion. As in America, certain converts will not be accepted by all. In America we live with it. Israel can live with it to.
Michael Yomtov on July 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reply)
Handing over the right to franchise to a small group of ego driven fanatics also hands them the right to disenfranchise by fiat. For over 2000 years many of the troubles of our People have come from the mixing of religion and state by all and sundry.

Once the rebbunim have kicked away and made aysvorfen of 95% of world Jewry, including, probably most of the Knesset and the PM, who will mind the store for the guys who don't work, don't pay taxes, don't serve in the IDF, don't believe, some of them, that Israel exists? Who will defend and support the fanatics? The DREAM of 2000 years will collapse around their peyyes while they throw stones on Shabbat.

Then, what of Jewish Ethics and Peoplehood?

The actions of a few suicidal meshiggonim will accomplish what haman and hitler did not!
Les Scharf on July 26, 2010 at 10:46 am (Reply)
As an American Reform Jew who is not planning to make aliyah, I am interested in the "conversion conundrum"; but I don't believe I have standing to give any advice as to what Israel should do. Whether the orthodox rabbis in Israel (or anywhere else) think my son (whose mother is not Jewish) is a Jew makes no difference to me. Abram will be Bar Mitzvah in October, and has attended religous school since kindergarden. That is more than enough for me. As an aside, there is no question but that Hitler would have considered him to be a Jew.
Kenneth Besig on July 26, 2010 at 11:40 am (Reply)
I find it truly sad and disgusting that any Jew would in any way reference Adolf Hitler as an authority on Judaism and Jewish practices.
Geoff on July 26, 2010 at 11:48 am (Reply)
I see this entirely differently. I see this as the newest move by the Chief Rabbinate to remake itself into the Jewish Vatican and remake Judaism from a de-centralized, non-hierarchical religion into a hierarchical, authoriterian religion with them in charge. The primary difference being that Jews will have two popes, a Ashkenazi one and a Sefardic one.
ralph r. garcia on July 26, 2010 at 3:31 pm (Reply)
I could care less if I get the right to become an Israeli Citizen or not. My Jewishness comes from the heart and no one; not chief rabbi of Israel or anyone will change the fact that I am a Jew. Maybe the law of return should be be placed in the superfluous bin.
Ron on July 27, 2010 at 6:37 am (Reply)
Interesting Comments.

Although I recognize flaws in the Rabbanut in Israel, I would have to disagree with several folks here regarding the Halachik Authority of Israeli rabbis.

You are entitled to your opinion on the matter, but if we are going to approach it from a Halachik point of view, we should be intellectually honest about what indeed is written regarding the matter.

The Torah in the land of Israel, by Halacha, is greater than the Torah of chutz la aretz, or outside the land of Israel by almost any measure. There are countless phrases pertaining to these matters in Masechet Brachot and other volumes to buttress this claim, while there is not 1 source I know that claims that Torah outside the land of Israel is greater in any form.
Les on July 27, 2010 at 8:15 am (Reply)
Ron. When Halacha talks about Torah in the land of Israel, is there any reference to the idea that the government can appoint one or more chief Rabbis whose opinion is "binding"? I confess to being vey poorly informed re Halacha. I am interested in the general idea of there being a hierarchy of authority among Rabbis.
Thanks for any light you can shed.
P.S. Abram is my grandson, not my son.
Joel Meyers on July 29, 2010 at 12:26 pm (Reply)
My friend, Yehudah, ignores several crucial matters. For example, the Rotem Bill provides the legal basis for the rabbinate to declare every Jewish marriage retroactively invalid. It also gives ultimate review authority to a single individual who could still deny conversions. It does not establish good conversion programs or adequate rabbinic courts. If one needs further proof of what will go wrong, just go back to 1978-79 debates and the Neeman Commission and the establishment of the conversion program. Examine what occurred to those candidates who appeared before the batei din for conversion. I contend the real issue is not conversion but what kind of a Homeland Israel will be for the Jewish People. The real struggle is whether Israel, as our Homeland, will be vibrant, inclusive of the diversity of our People as we have been through history, and welcoming in both its Jewishness and its halacha, or a closed, narrowly guarded society with people defined out, not in. One final word - there is no sense in claiming as Yehudah does, that the non-Orthodox religious streams have not made significant gains until they have equal treatment in law. There are more than 50 Masorti kehillot in Israel. Can they receive the same government funding as Orthodox synagogues? Can their rabbis officiate at marriages - halachic marriages to be sure - with acceptance? When we can answer "yes" then we can do a fair comparison of accomplishments.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham