Preaching to the Converters

Tracing How People Joined the Jewish Community

By Lawrence Grossman

Published February 26, 2012, issue of March 02, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policy-making in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa
By David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis
Stanford University Press, 216 pages, $30

David Ellenson
hebrew union college
David Ellenson

In Herman Wouk’s autobiographical novel, “Inside, Outside,” Wouk’s alter ego falls in love with a gentile woman and is somewhat surprised to find that his grandfather, an Old World Orthodox rabbi, doesn’t consider it “the end of the world.” Grandfather handles the matter, Wouk writes, by simply “taking down the Shulkhan Arukh [Code of Jewish Law], and learning with me the section on conversion, for no apparent reason.” Were he to come back to life today, Grandfather would undoubtedly be puzzled to read, in David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis’s new book, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance,” that conversion is, if not quite the end of the world, “a bellwether issue for the Jewish world.”

In contrast to the Shulkhan Arukh’s lengthy and complex regulations regarding everything from prayer and the Sabbath to eating and conducting business, conversion takes up just one apparently straightforward chapter of the code. It states that a court of three qualified judges must determine that the candidate knows the basics of Judaism and something about its teachings on divine reward and punishment, that he wants to join in full awareness that Jews are a persecuted people, and that he has no ulterior motive for converting. A male convert is circumcised, and if the procedure has already been performed, a symbolic drop of blood is drawn. The final step is immersion in a mikveh.

A note identified with an asterisk in the heading of this chapter hints at why conversion to Judaism has emerged as a major fault line in Jewish life: This procedure is to be followed in only those countries whose rulers allow conversion.

Daniel Gordis
zion ozeri
Daniel Gordis

For centuries following the talmudic discussions that produced the code, Christian and Muslim monarchs generally banned conversion to Judaism, making its implementation rare. Furthermore, the few who managed to convert entered a Jewish community whose behavioral norms were uncontested and enforced by the leadership. Only beginning in the 19th century, as civic emancipation was gradually extended to European Jews, who increasingly mingled socially with non-Jews, did Jew-gentile marriage become a live option, and with it the phenomenon of conversion. But conditions had changed so drastically since the law was set down — in particular, Jewish communal autonomy had dissolved and multiple forms of Jewish identification had emerged — that controversy was inevitable.

Ellenson, a Reform rabbi and president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Gordis, a Conservative rabbi and president of Jerusalem’s nondenominational Shalem Foundation, skillfully mine responsa literature — written answers to questions about specific cases — to trace how Orthodox rabbinic authorities have reframed conversion procedures over the past two centuries to address the changing reality. After an introductory discussion of the early halachic sources, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance” devotes chapters to German Orthodoxy, Central European (mainly Hungarian) writers, post-Holocaust Europe and the United States and the State of Israel.

Amid the cacophony of voices that get a hearing in the book, two central points of debate emerge. First, is a convert required to pledge acceptance of Jewish law, and if so, how much of it? The early sources, which presupposed the entrance of the convert into an organized, observant Jewish community, do not spell this out clearly, and even in the Orthodox world today there is hardly a consensus on what adherence to Jewish law entails. Second, is marriage to a Jew considered an ulterior motive that makes conversion impossible? As intermarriage rates rose, it became increasingly difficult to veto all conversions for the purpose of marriage, a policy guaranteed to drive innumerable mixed-religion families away from any Jewish identification.

As Ellenson and Gordis demonstrate, ambiguities in the law and changing patterns of life have combined to make the job of Orthodox rabbinic experts as much a matter of social policy — de facto legislation — as of judicial decision making. One school of rabbis perceives secularization and religious pluralism as unmitigated disasters, and responds by circling the wagons even at the cost of inevitable demographic losses: Converts must accept the total package of strictly Orthodox Judaism, and there can be no conversions motivated by marriage. Some even go so far as to invalidate conversions already performed that were not in conformity with these standards.

A contending rabbinic view sees matters in the broader context of Jewish peoplehood. Especially vocal in Israel — whose continued existence depends on Jewish solidarity irrespective of religious observance, and where thousands of halachically non-Jewish Russian immigrants have yet to convert — these rabbis look for leniencies in the law to encourage conversion.

Although somewhat marred by wordiness and unnecessary repetition, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance” lays out the contrasting positions with admirable objectivity. Only at the end, in a short conclusion, do the authors explicitly state their shared preference for the more liberal rabbinic view.

And here lies a great irony. Two non-Orthodox scholars analyze the Orthodox legal tradition on conversion, in the hope that showing how strongly it has been influenced by public-policy considerations will aid those who seek to interpret Jewish law in a way that strengthens the Jewish people. But those Orthodox rabbis who currently make decisions on conversion do not care what anyone outside Orthodoxy thinks, nor do they acknowledge that extralegal considerations influence their own stand, since they consider their restrictive rulings objective applications of the law. Sadly, this book will convince only those who need no convincing.

Lawrence Grossman is director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.


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!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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.