Six months ago, in the wake of the JFS case, consecutive commentators blasted the British courts for appearing to brand Judaism racist because it determined Jewishness by matrilineal descent and not by religious practice. Judaism cannot possibly be racist, they said, because anyone can convert into it — no matter their skin colour or ethnicity. “To be told now that Judaism is racist, when Jews have been in the forefront of the fight against racism in this country, is distressing,” wrote Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “To confuse religion and race is a mistake.”
If only his own rabbis had listened. Last week, Mill Hill’s Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet — chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue — used these pages to urge an end to all conversions by Orthodox rabbis. Apparently completely deaf to the political implications (though this is the least offensive aspect of his thoroughly insensitive piece), he appeared to be promoting a Judaism closed to outsiders, in which race is all that counts.
This is not a Judaism I recognise. Indeed, the idea of banning conversions has little historical precedent. The Torah clearly stated that proselytes must be loved. The Talmud set out a clear path for people wishing to enter the Jewish faith — a path which is, incidentally, far less rigorous than our conversion system today. For 2,000 years, with few exceptions, gerim have been welcome in our midst. Judaism, we have always claimed, has a universal message. The path of worshipping one God by accepting his commandments is open to all humanity.
Under Rabbi Schochet’s vision, this universal appeal is abandoned in favour of narrow sectarianism. Apparently, God has given him the right to tell a woman who comes to his shul office, explaining that she is certain Judaism is the true religion and that she will follow all the mitzvot, that this path is closed to her. This is completely unrealistic in a modern, open society. And I do wonder whether Rabbi Schochet considered how his absurd proposal might make the United Synagogue’s existing converts feel, before he sat down to write his piece.
Still, behind his idea lies one incontrovertible truth. The global Orthodox conversion system is broken.
As he relates, in 2008, the head of Israel’s high rabbinical court, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, ruled more than 10,000 conversions invalid, devastating countless families. Meanwhile, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has issued a legal opinion suggesting that any convert, at any time, can have their giyur annulled.
In the UK, the London Beth Din refused to recognise Kate Lightman and Helen Sagal as Jewish although they were given Orthodox conversions in Israel.
In the United States — Rabbi Schochet leaves this out, perhaps it is too embarrassing — the head of a powerful strictly Orthodox group advocating stringent standards for conversion resigned recently, following allegations that he had phone sex (and worse) with one of his conversion candidates. This man’s organisation, Eternal Jewish Family, had already joined forces with the Israeli rabbinical courts to declare the conversions of all but 50, mostly Charedi, rabbis in North America unacceptable.
Who is to blame for all this? Reading Rabbi Schochet’s piece, one would think it all “just happened” — “this storm has blown into the Orthodox world and is sowing confusion and discord”, he writes passively.
But the truth is that, in every single instance, the confusion and discord is sown by one party: Charedi rabbis who are imposing ever stricter standards for conversion, standards that are unprecedented historically, halachically dubious and which increasingly tend to exclude any convert who is not willing to take on a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. For them to break a perfectly good system and then come complaining that it “doesn’t work”, and needs to be abandoned, is simply chutzpah.
So what must be done? In Israel and the US, there exists a cadre of highly regarded, modern Orthodox rabbis, who can combine halachic standards of conversion with more realistic expectations from converts and, perhaps, more respect for them as well. Responsibility for conversion needs to pass to them.
Here in the UK, we must insist that the United Synagogue — supposedly a moderate, centrist institution — appoint to its Beth Din and to its pulpits only rabbis who support its vision and its values. Sadly, radical rabbis like Yitzchak Schochet do not have the solution — they are the problem.