Top dayan answers conversion questions

The London Beth Din's most senior judge has openly addressed one of the most sensitive areas of its work - conversion - in a public lecture.

Dayan Menachem Gelley spoke for nearly two hours, answering questions for half the time, as the concluding speaker in a series on conversion at the London School of Jewish Studies.

Explaining the Beth Din's policy, he said that every convert had to mirror the Israelites' original acceptance of the 613 commandments at the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

"The core of the conversion," he said, "is the undertaking to be totally observant, without reservation, without exclusion."

On average, conversions took 18 months to two years, although circumstances varied. A single person might be asked to spend a few months living with a Jewish family in order to experience Judaism first-hand. "This is to expedite the procedure. It is not meant to be some type of prison sentence or make it difficult for someone," he said.

He explained that for some years it had been the practice of the Beth Din not to issue conversion certificates to single people until they wished to marry.

If a young woman found a suitor -"a Jewish person and someone who is observant and wants to leave an observant lifestyle - we'll be delighted to allow the union to go ahead. It just gives us a little bit of a hold, a little bit of encouragement to continue."

But if, on the other hand, she wanted to marry someone straight after the conversion "who isn't observant or religious, we know the whole thing is just going to go down the drain. It's just not going to work."

One could not have a union where one partner would refrain from driving on Shabbat and "the other one is going to the beach on a sunny Shabbat afternoon".

Dayan Gelley denied that the Beth Din inserted a clause in the conversion certificate stipulating that a woman, when married, would cover her head. "We're not Taliban," he said.

But it was explained to female conversion candidates early in the process that it was a commandment for married women to cover their hair. It was important "to give an indication of the type of standards that we would expect of a person".

The dayan added that someone could undergo conversion even if their original motive was to marry a Jewish person, as long as they demonstrated commitment to religious observance.

However, in cases where a mother's Jewish status was in doubt, they could not simply give "token conversion" to the child.

When the "whole debacle" over admissions to JFS arose, it had been suggested that as a compromise, the Beth Din might offer children in such circumstances who attended a Jewish school "some token conversion when they finish as some type of creditation".

If the person was observant and fulfilled normal requirements of conversion, it would be "fine", he explained. Otherwise "it doesn't work".

    Last updated: 12:55pm, July 1 2010