How Orthodox can you get?

Some years ago, my wife and I attended in London what is usually called an “ultra-Orthodox” wedding — though, in spite of the fact that I am myself guilty of using this term, I do not like it. Two hundred years ago — not a long time in terms of the history of the Jewish people — the phrase “ultra Orthodox,” denoting a particularly fearful, obdurate and immoderate form of Orthodoxy, did not exist. Indeed the term “Orthodox” did not then exist. Jews were Jews, some more observant, some less so.

The Jewish world was then highly decentralised. We had, it is true, a common body of core religious texts that governed social relations and much else besides purely theological tenets. But even over the interpretation of these there was no agreement (far from it!). Each Jewish community, town or village where Jews lived, had its own rabbi and, though these religious leaders were naturally in communication with each other, each was autonomous. What is more, a ruling made in one community — for instance to recognise someone as Jewish — was invariably recognised by and within other communities.

Paradoxically, the very decentralised nature of the Jewish world acted as a powerful unifying agent. When my two Polish-born grandmothers, who had arrived in England around 110 years ago, wished to get married, how did they prove they were Jewish? The answer seems to be that they simply produced reliable witnesses, from Poland, who knew their families. Nothing else was apparently required or demanded.

But to return to the “ultra-Orthodox” wedding my wife and I attended some years ago. A fellow guest was Rabbi Menachem Gelley, senior dayan of the United Synagogue’s Beth Din. Rabbi Gelley gave an address that was admirably learned, mercifully brief and certainly to the point. As I recall, he paid special tribute to the bride and to her deep devotion to her faith. I went out of my way to congratulate Rabbi Gelley on his remarks. But what he knew, and what I knew (but what I suspect most of the guests did not know) was that the bride was a convert. This modest bride — whom we could rest assured would never be seen at a disco, in jeans or wearing an open-necked blouse — was not just a convert. She was an ultra-Orthodox convert.

Each town or village had its own autonomous rabbi

Some of you reading this may disagree with this description. Some of you may recognise only one “Orthodox” standard of assessment by which a convert is to be judged, namely the “ultra-Orthodox” standard. My answer is that this criterion, too, is of recent origin, as recent as “ultra Orthodoxy” itself, if not more recent.

Many learned tomes have been written on this subject by genuine experts — which I will be the first to admit I am not. But this I do know: that some of the most learned and pious rabbinical expositors of modern times have cast doubt as to whether a candidate for conversion must have first accepted, explicitly, every obligation of normative Orthodoxy.

Some rabbis have of course argued fiercely against this approach. They are entitled to their views. What they are not entitled to do is to reject the validity of an Orthodox conversion simply because it does not satisfy their religious particularisms.

I was, therefore, heartened to read that, in evidence to a committee of the Knesset last week, Shimon Ulman, the legal adviser to the Israeli chief rabbinate, revealed that disciplinary action — up to and even including dismissal — is being contemplated against rabbis under the jurisdiction of the chief rabbinate who refuse to accept the halachic validity of conversions carried out under its authority.

This dramatic statement must be seen, in part, in the context of the unique situation in Israel, whereby a significant number of conversions have been publicly repudiated by certain rabbis on the grounds that (not to beat about the bush) the converts do not lead an “ultra-Orthodox” lifestyle.

In one recent case, the Chief Rabbi of Ashkelon, Yosef Bloi, refused point blank to marry a couple because, he alleged, the woman did not lead an “Orthodox” (by which he clearly meant “ultra-Orthodox”) lifestyle.

The importance of these developments for certain problems we face within British Jewry is, I trust, blatantly obvious.

    Last updated: 4:32pm, December 10 2009

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