Converted Reform? You are a Jew

By Jonathan Romain, June 20, 2008

A Reform leader replies to Charles Golding’s attack last week on the validity of Reform conversions

How could he have got it so wrong? When Charles Golding launched his blood-frothing attack on Reform conversions on this page last week, he made two major errors.

One was his timing. It was so last century. Most Jews today — whatever their religious inclination, be it left, right or centre — agree that the days of “ya-boo-I’m-better-than-you” fulminations are no longer appropriate.

Open the pages of the JC in the 1980s, and it was full of intra-religious strife, with Orthodox and Reform leaders castigating each other, Liberals voicing their dissent from both, and Masorti occasionally lobbing in a spiritual grenade. None of the protagonists ever changed their mind, most readers despaired at the continual broiguses, while it was a terrible example to the younger generation who saw their elders bicker and point-score.

Since then, a cross-communal consensus has arisen: genuine differences exist, but we are mature enough to live with that diversity and stop pretending that any one of us has the only answer suitable for all Jews.

It is partly a matter of history — think of the first century when Judaism was divided into Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and others, all striving to act “for the sake of heaven” but in very different ways.

Remember, too, how we now look back at their in-fighting and blame the sinat chinam — “causeless hatred” — as one of the reasons for the decay in Judean society which led to the destruction of the Temple.

It is also a matter of common sense. That is why Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz attended the opening of the West London Synagogue’s new extension in 1934, stating: “I feel my presence here requires some words of explanation. It is certainly not due to the fact that I dismiss the issues that led to the formation of this [Reform] Synagogue as of trifling importance... If I have nevertheless decided to be with you this morning, it is because of my conviction that far more calamitous than religious difference in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry.”

Hertz recognised what many of his successors ignored: that meeting together does not mean endorsing each other, and working harmoniously in certain areas does not mean agreeing on everything else. Above all, he understood that there were far more crucial tasks than internal squabbles — be they the problems of assimilation or antisemitism — that should exercise Jewish energies.

Modern Jewry has now caught up with Hertz’s principled stand and realised that it does not threaten our own integrity to accept the integrity of others. Communal leaders regularly repeat the mantra that “what unites us is greater than what divides us”. That is why Golding’s attempt to go back to sneers and leers is so passé.

His other major error is his factual presentation. It is simply not true that people convert so that the Jewish partner can marry a non-Jew. Intermarriage is now so widespread that an enormously high percentage of Jews are content to marry outside of the faith; it is only when the non-Jewish partner is sufficiently motivated to convert that they do so. The easy route would be to go straight to the register office, not delay for a considerable period to have a chuppah.

He may also not know that 50 per cent of those converting via the Reform — perhaps others too — do so several years after marriage, having become part of Jewish life and deciding to adopt it for themselves.

He may also not realise the wide beneficial effects that conversion can have — such as on the Jewish partner, who has to study alongside the convert and whose own appreciation of Judaism is profoundly deepened. More-over, converts often become active in the community, much more keen to organise, support, learn and teach that with which many born-Jews cannot be bothered.

He may also not appreciate that Reform conversions demand time and commitment. They involve study, personal observance and communal participation; they include mikveh immersion and circumcision for males. That this is exactly what is prescribed in the Talmud may or may not impress him, but it does not matter. What counts is that Reform converts know that they are fulfilling Jewish standards and becoming part of Jewish life.

He may also not be aware of something else. Reform has come of age. It is massive in America and powerful in the UK. It does not need the approval of others. It is confident in its ability to marry tradition and modernity. It appeals to born Jews, welcomes converts and concentrates on building a vibrant Jewish future.

The variations between the groups within British Jewry today is not a problem but very healthy, giving choices so that different types of Jews can each find a home in one of them. Let’s enjoy being part of that rainbow of Jewish pluralism, each strong in our own identity but valuing what other strands have to offer.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK

Last updated: 1:59pm, June 20 2008