Slamming the Door on Converts

Opinion

By Marc D. Angel

Published November 07, 2007, issue of November 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Every year, thousands of non-Jews make the fateful decision to convert to Judaism. Some are seeking spiritual fulfillment. Many are married to or planning to marry a Jewish spouse. Others have a Jewish father or grandparent and desire a full sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and wish to reconnect with their roots. Many are living in Israel and want acceptance as Jews in the Jewish state. Whatever their original motives, they are a remarkable — and growing — part of the Jewish people.

The conversion phenomenon should be a source of celebration for Jews. Each convert gives eloquent testimony to the ongoing attractiveness of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

At a time when thousands of people are considering conversion to Judaism, however, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic establishment is raising ever-higher barriers to them. While Israel’s chief rabbinate accepts many candidates who are willing to become fully committed Orthodox Jews, it will not readily accept those who are not ready for total commitment. Thus, a would-be convert must usually spend years studying Torah and halacha, or Jewish law, and adopt an entirely Orthodox lifestyle in order to be considered for conversion.

Now, Israel’s increasingly ultra-Orthodox-dominated chief rabbinate is attempting to impose its views on the Jewish Diaspora. Here in the United States, it has already forced the Rabbinical Council of America — the Diaspora’s largest Orthodox rabbinical association — into line.

In the spring of 2006, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, proclaimed that the chief rabbinate would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, except for those specifically approved by the chief rabbinate. The RCA had to decide how to respond to this affront to the integrity of its members. After all, the chief rabbi was basically saying that RCA members can’t be trusted to do proper halachic conversions.

Sadly, the RCA leadership capitulated to the demands of Rabbi Amar. The RCA agreed to establish regional rabbinic courts to handle conversions in line with the dictates of the chief rabbi. This means that individual RCA rabbis may no longer perform conversions and expect them to be sanctioned by the RCA — or by the chief rabbinate. Power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and only into the hands of those who agree to adopt stringent and restrictive positions. The result is that many non-Jews who considered halachic conversion will turn to non-halachic means of conversion, or will give up on conversion altogether.

This is a tragedy — and an unnecessary one at that, since there is no halachic reason why the chief rabbinate’s view should carry the day. The Talmud and classic codes of Jewish law actually grant considerable leeway in the halachic acceptance of converts. While converts must “accept the mitzvot,” or commandments, there is wide latitude in understanding what this phrase means. The Talmud itself says that we must instruct the candidate for conversion in “some of the major and some of the minor commandments.” There is no requirement or expectation that the candidate must learn all the mitzvot in advance of conversion, nor that he or she will promise to keep all the mitzvot in every detail after conversion.

Yet many contemporary rabbinic authorities have taken a far narrower and more exclusionary view. Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi (in their book “Giyyur ve-Zehut Yehudit”) found that the narrow view gained traction only as recently as 1876 when Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes ruled that conversion was to be equated with an absolute commitment to observe all mitzvot. Any candidate for conversion who was not committed to becoming fully Orthodox in observance was to be rejected. Later rabbis adopted this new position, until it became normative among right-wing (and much of the rest of) Orthodoxy.

Of course, great rabbinic voices opposed this radical change in approach. They favored maintaining the far more flexible and inclusive views of the Talmud, Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch. A great representative of the classic halachic view was Rabbi Benzion Uziel, who served as chief Sephardic rabbi, first in British Mandate Palestine and then in the State of Israel, from 1938 to 1953.

Rabbi Uziel argued that not only may rabbis do conversions in less than ideal circumstances, but they are obligated to do so — even when the would-be convert is not expected to become fully observant religiously. Since so many conversion cases involve intermarriage or potential intermarriage, Rabbi Uziel believed we should perform conversions in order to maintain whole Jewish families that can raise Jewish children within the Jewish community. He viewed himself as being “strict” in his opposition to intermarriage, not as being “lenient” in matters of conversion.

Historically, the halacha has allowed rabbis to draw on the full array of halachic sources; to consider the nuances of each individual conversion case; to use their own judgment on whether to accept or reject a candidate for conversion. Now, the halachic options have been sharply curtailed. A rabbinic bureaucracy is usurping the authority of individual rabbis.

Several important Orthodox voices in Israel and the United States have risen in protest of the vast injustice being committed in the realm of halachic conversions. In matters of conversion, we are not dealing with an abstract legal nicety: We are dealing with real human beings with real families. We have a responsibility to address issues of conversion with a full halachic toolbox. Indeed, our tradition demands this.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that one who oppresses a convert is violating 36 Torah laws. How many laws will be broken by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in causing torment to halachically valid converts and their children? How many tears will be shed by victims of religious narrowness? How many would-be converts will be turned away from any possibility of a life of Torah and mitzvot due to the intransigence of certain rabbis?

This is precisely the time when we need a visionary, inclusive Orthodoxy that can convey the message of Torah Judaism in a spirit of love and compassion. I believe this kind of Orthodoxy will rise again. I believe every Jew can help make this happen.

Rabbi Marc D. Angel is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, and founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (www.jewishideas.org). A past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, he is the author of “Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion” (Ktav, 2005).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.