Tradition tells us that when the Israelites stood at Sinai and embraced the Torah, they were as converts. From that day till the present, the process of conversion entails a “Sinai moment”. By definition, just as the Israelites accepted upon themselves the obligation of mitzvot then, so too the modern-day convert must accept upon himself the same.
Over the past half a century the Jewish world has become mired in controversy over the definition of what that obligation entails. As the debate goes to the core of identifying who is a legitimate member of the Jewish faith, and as all Jewish people, without exceptions, are one entity, like one body with one heart and one soul, then the tragedy of this schism affects the totality of the Jewish people.
Until recently, I always placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the heterodox movements. It is they who broke ranks by introducing a new form of conversion and thus a new means of Jewish identity. This caused an unprecedented split in the Jewish world. Rabbi Joseph Klein, who in 1961 helped author part of the policy by which Reform Judaism defines Jews, acknowledged this reality in a lecture delivered in 1986 by recanting his position and asking: “Why can’t we do everything we can that keeps us in harmony with our Orthodox brothers and sisters?”
Similarly, Dr Bernard Mandelbaum, Chancellor Emeritus of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary wrote in 1988: “Shouldn’t the continuity and consistency of a long heritage of Jewish law be binding on all Jews as to what makes a Jew? Isn’t this the only way to assure Jewish unity?”
In recent times, however, this storm has blown into the Orthodox world as well and is sewing confusion and discord. There was the Druckman controversy in 2008, when Rabbi Avraham Sherman, head of Israel’s High Rabbinical Court, invalidated the conversions of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s State Conversion Authority. The Conference of European Rabbis endorsed the court’s stance, while the Rabbinical Council of America rejected it.
They did not accept converts during King David's time
More recently the Israeli Chief Rabbinate issued a document in which they reserved the right to revoke any conversion at any time. Closer to home, we have had the Lightman case which featured as part of the whole JFS saga: the conversion in that instance was carried out by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel and rejected by the London Beth Din.
To be sure, I have heard allegations of mishandling of conversions in regard to practically every Beth Din I know, our own London one, renowned for its “gold-standard” conversions, being no exception. The accusations do not necessarily involve the dayanim per se and are often without merit. But the friction generated through the mistrust or worse, the delegitimising of any one rabbi or Beth Din, means that we have to consider a radically different approach.
I believe it imperative for the Jewish world to desist engaging in conversions altogether for the foreseeable future (except perhaps in special circumstances such as adoptions). We might have different criterion for kosher, hence a variety of different kashrut authorities, but we can all carry on eating in accordance with our individual standards.
When the root of the problem, however, affects the totality of Judaism, then a common denominator must be established. Either there is one standard of conversion acceptable by all or, in the more likely event of this never occurring, a cessation of all conversion process henceforth. For those for whom conversions are a way to bolster numbers or accommodate marriages, this may fall on deaf ears. But for those who are concerned about the unity of our people, this is worth considering.
The Talmud states, “The Jewish people have been dispersed among the nations only so that converts might be added to them” (Pesachim 87b). On a basic level, this is a reference to numerous non-Jews who have come into contact with the Jewish people and have been inspired to convert to Judaism.
Judaism can certainly boast many great converts including the tanaitic sages Shamaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel and Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Akiva was a descendant from converts. The descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak; descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem; descendants of Sennacherib gave public expositions of the Torah. (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b). Most famous of all is Ruth, the forebear of the Davidic dynasty. But that was then, when there was a universal standard for conversion and every rabbi was beyond reproach.
Today the world is fundamentally different. The debates are not on the level of Hillel and Shammai where there was an overriding mutual respect, notwithstanding the difference of opinion. Moreover, suspending conversions is not an entirely novel approach. “They did not accept converts, neither during the time of King David, or during the time of King Solomon,” the Talmud observes (Avodah Zarah 3b). Indeed, the Talmud states elsewhere, “Converts are a bane for the Jewish people” (Yevamot 47b). This is a more accurate description of our current era because of the politics that have arisen.
So what about those who may be inspired by the Jewish faith? Part of the Jewish mandate in being a light to the nations is to encourage the non-Jewish world to embrace the seven universal laws (Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 8). Small groups of B’nei Noach — non-Jews who have broken with their former religions to study and perform those Torah laws unique to them under rabbinic authority — are springing up through the United States and certain other countries.
Conversion is the single biggest issue ripping at the fabric of Jewish society. If we persist in our current trend, we will self-destruct. Even if the whole Jewish world will not accept a change in approach, at the very least I call on my Orthodox colleagues, in the absence of all conversion authorities pulling together, to consider it.