This conversion row could hit us all

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 30, 2008

Israeli ultra-Orthodox inflexibility over converts could re-shape the diaspora

The controversy over conversion in Israel, which culminated last week in the dismissal of the head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Chaim Drukman, is more than just another dispute between religious viewpoints. Drukman’s firing, shortly after the Supreme Rabbinical Court ruled that his conversions were invalid, is a cultural and political debate that will determine the shape of the Jewish people for decades.

Over 300,000 Israelis, born in the former Soviet Union, cannot get married in Israel and have to be buried in separate cemeteries. While they are eligible, thanks to their Jewish ancestry, to Israeli citizenship, they are not descended from Jews through the matrilineal side, and so are considered non-Jewish by religious standards. Two government commissions and millions of shekels spent on streamlining the preparation courses and making the rabbinical courts more user-friendly have failed to make a significant change. Only a paltry 2,000 or so immigrants are converted to Judaism each year.

Successive governments have not had the political willpower to order the rabbinical judges, who are government employees, to show any flexibility towards the prospective converts. Their insistence that a Jew from birth remains one, even if he observes none of the mitzvot, while a convert must observe a full religious life according to Orthodox standards, remains an insurmountable obstacle. The intransigence of most of the dayanim on this requirement, as ordered by the senior strictly Orthodox rabbis, is coupled with the inquisitiveness of most marriage registrars whenever a convert applies for a wedding permit. In many cases, if the dayanim whose name appears on the conversion certificate are suspected of being too easy-going, they turn them down.

In a country which by law has no civil marriage, the registrars, who take their orders from the rabbis and not from the authorities who pay their salaries, have absolute powers. It takes over a year of rigorous study and major changes to the candidate’s way of life before he or she can appear in front of the conversion court. Little wonder that few immigrants embark on this long and arduous road in the knowledge that they could well be turned down, for reasons that, to them certainly, seem arbitrary.

Demographic changes in the Jewish people have turned this into an international issue. The two fastest-growing sections in Israel and the US, as well as in smaller communities like Britain and Germany, are the ultra-Orthodox community and mixed-marriage families. In previous generations, Orthodox rabbis were capable of showing more flexibility, but the current ultra-Orthodox establishment, lead by the 98-year old hardliner, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has succeeded in bringing most  rabbis in line with the strictest definitions of giyur.

The Rabbinical Council of America has recently ended the practice whereby local rabbis could perform conversions, and agreed only to an approved list of rabbis, vetted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, itself beholden to the ultra-Orthodox leadership. As for Britain, the London Beth Din has long been regarded the most conservative over conversions, fully in step with the rabbis of Jerusalem.

But while weak politicians in Israel and an indecisive leadership in the diaspora have allowed an ultra-Orthodox hegemony on conversion, the growing constituency of Jewish family members, both spouses and children, not Jewish according to the rabbis, but eager to be part of their Jewish communities, creates a critical challenge. Their numbers give them political power in Israel and an incentive for dwindling communities around the world to find a way to accommodate them.

The Reform and Conservative (Liberal) rabbis have their own, more flexible conversion processes, but while these movements remain largely powerless outside the United States, they are not a solution. Moreover, they only serve to highlight the threat of a split between two parts of the Jewish people: those who welcome newcomers on their own terms, and the club with exclusive membership rules.

The hardliners insist they are only adhering to the strict rule of halachah. But enough historical precedents exist, from the time of Abraham to the last generation, of different attitudes toward gerim. There are still Orthodox rabbis who believe that. Rabbi Drukman is one of them, and this belief, not the ridiculous technicality that he
has reached the mandatory retirement age, was the real reason that lead to his abrupt dismissal last week.

There is a firm belief among some, but not all, Orthodox circles that if they heighten the walls around their insular communities, maintain high birth-rates and persist with their kiruv (outreach) efforts, the remaining secular Jews will dwindle through intermarriage and assimilation into irrelevancy. Opening the gates of conversion will thwart these hopes. Those rabbis who still believe in finding a golden path of inclusion are steadily growing isolated, and what’s worse, in Israel and abroad, not receiving any backing from the political leadership.

Many secular Jews believe that conversion is a religious racket, of no concern to them. But the battle over who controls the gateway to the Jewish people will have a profound effect over the nation they belong to.

Last updated: 4:02pm, May 29 2008