Let My People In

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Debates over conversion to Judaism show no sign of abating, least of all in Israel. Last week, the legal adviser to the country's chief rabbinate declared that all conversions may retroactively be annulled at any time. In the ensuing firestorm of criticism, even some on the religious Right chimed in, especially those reflecting a historically more lenient Sephardi approach.

A great deal of institutional politics is involved here, including between the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the Modern Orthodox in the United States; some of this came to light in the recent disgrace and resignation of an ultra-Orthodox foe of the moderates. But there is also genuine—if frequently no less bitter—conflict over principle. For the Orthodox in general, a key question is the place of the traditional requirement that a convert assume the often rigorous demands of Jewish law in their entirety. Is that requirement still necessary, and if so, what is its proper scope?

Is Jewishness a matter of belief, of belonging, of nationality, of religious practice, or of something else? The question, rendered ever more urgent by the quandaries of contemporary Jewish identity, is relevant not only in the Israeli context but (as a recent court case in Britain illustrates) to Diaspora Jews as well. It is perhaps relevant most all to that sizable number of individuals who actively seek to assume the burdens as well as the rewards of this fractious identity, each of whom has a story to tell.


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