The latest conversion row could tear us apart
The conflict over Israeli conversions will lead modern Orthodox to split from Charedim
Shavuot is a time for reading the book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I go, your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God …” It is a time when Jews should focus on matters relating to conversions. There is much to consider.
In May last year, three rabbis in Ashdod annulled an Orthodox conversion of a woman who only attended the rabbinic court to collect a get, a Jewish divorce decree. Annulling the woman’s conversion did alleviate the need for the get, but only at the cost of stripping the couple’s four children of their Jewish identity.
On appeal this year, the High Rabbinical Court backed the rabbis in Ashdod and rescinded every one of her rabbi’s converts over two decades. The ripples have been fanning out ever since. Having swept away one of Israel’s most respected modern-Orthodox luminaries and Israel’s Conversion Authority, these now tsunami-sized waves threaten the very fabric of Orthodox unity. Left in the wake of this ill-tempered spat are an estimated 20,000 Israeli Jews whose conversions have been rendered undone, at least in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox.
Recent voices entering the fray include the widely respected Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, who lent his name to a letter accusing the High Rabbinical Court of a “sin of the first magnitude… an abuse of rabbinic power highly detrimental to the well-being of the Jewish people”, and Professor Marc B Shapiro, probably the most influential scholar of modern Orthodoxy, who has called on “the modern-Orthodox/religious-Zionist world [to institute a] complete break with the Charedi halachic authorities”.
Writing in 1989, Lord Jakobovits, then Chief Rabbi of British Orthodoxy, asked how to “preserve the oneness of the Jewish people”. His message was that all streams of non-Orthodoxy should back away from conversions, since only the Orthodox could be trusted to save this “essential oneness”. With the High Rabbinical Court unwilling to find a way to save even the oneness of Orthodoxy, that claim now seems mortally flawed.
A whole series of legal, not to mention personal and political, issues are at stake. Perhaps the most important from a legal perspective is the issue of the level of commitment to Jewish life a convert should undertake, and how to balance this against principles such as the unity of the Jewish people — achdut Yisrael and the needs of an individual in distress — sha’ah dechak. Judaism mandates the acceptance of converts but only of those who accept the covenantal duties of the Jews, the mitzvot. This raises the question of how “frum” a convert is expected to become. A commitment to “feel Jewish” void of covenantal performance rings hollow, but we do well to remember the words of the funeral liturgy, “There are none who do only good and never sin.”
Since the dawn of modernity, two Orthodox approaches to this question have emerged. On the one hand, authorities in worlds of uniform observance incline towards a maximal sense of what should be required; the Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski claimed that “where it is evident that someone will desecrate Shabbat and eat forbidden foods, we may presume he converted only for show” and his conversion may be annulled (Achiezer 3:26).
On the other hand, rabbis who engaged with a more pluralist and differentiated Jewish world (and in particular rabbis associated with Zionism) have taken a more liberal approach. The one-time Israeli Chief Rabbi Benzion Uziel stated: “Conversion is not conditional on candidates keeping the commandments … it is permitted, even commanded to accept converts, though we know they will not keep all the commandments. We should open up an opportunity for candidates. If they fail to keep the commandments, they [and no-one else] bear the guilt” (Piskei Uziel 65). Uziel is driven by a desire to heal breaches in the fabric of the people of Israel. He is seeking to bring those on the edge of Jewish life into its centre.
In another response, Uziel mandates accepting a conversion for the sake of marriage even though legal codes explicitly exclude such an intention from being considered appropriate. He is no fan of conversion for the sake of marriage but, following a rabbinic doctrine of choosing the lesser of two evils, he argues that it is better to accept the candidate than leave the Jewish partner in an intermarriage.
The American modern-Orthodox rabbi, Marc Angel, argues forcefully that, “when an intermarried couple comes to a [court] seeking the conversion of a non-Jewish partner, we must allow such a conversion. We may not take the haughty position that these are wicked people who deserve to suffer the fate of transgressors.” This kind of outreach has not, however, been a marker of contemporary ultra-Orthodox courts in this country or in Israel.
Increasingly, the liberal and modern voices that once held sway in Orthodoxy have been driven out, replaced by an ultra-Orthodox, often anti-Zionist, rabbinic leadership; judges whose concept of decency, kindness and a love for all Israel have been shaped not by an engagement in the “real world”, but by a life lived in bastions of self-secluded meticulous observance.
It is not that it is wrong to insist that converts meet standards beyond that of the majority of the Jewish community; it is not even wrong to reject a candidate for conversion if their intention seems flawed. But these demands must be balanced against the other voices in the tradition — voices of warmth, gentle welcome and a commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Rabbinic judges must understand how divisive a rejection of a convert can be, especially if such a rejection is performed retrospectively, especially if there are children involved. As a rabbi, I know the tools I can rely upon to save me from acting cruelly. They are among the most important sources I know.
In electing to overlook the warm and gentle option, the High Rabbinic Court has abdicated its concern for Jakobovits’s “oneness of the Jewish people”. As a Jew and as a rabbi, I gave up on the ultra-Orthodox as guardians of this “oneness” some time ago: perhaps the time has come to offer any wavering modern-Orthodox friends a warm welcome in the broader and kinder Jewish world my less authoritarian rabbinic colleagues and I inhabit.
Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Masorti Synagogue