The 2013 Pew Research Center report underscored the fragility of the Jewish future in North America and has led to anguished discussions and debates about how to reduce the number of Jews relinquishing Judaism and Jewish identification in favor of other options.
But as dramatic as the 2013 Pew report was, it may be that a Pew study from 2008 offers more crucial insights for Jewish continuity. That report found America to be “a very competitive religious marketplace,” in which “every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents.” Fully 44% of Americans reported they had left the religious group into which they had been born. In this fluid reality, the only religious groups not declining in number were those attracting new members at a faster rate than they were losing them.
Yet the Jewish community — so talented in many ways — has seemingly been outstandingly inept in attracting new members. Of course, as all Jews know, we have not really been inept, but rather intentionally averse to receiving converts.
But Jewish continuity is not only a matter of quality. Numbers matter. Even if we do our best to maintain a high retention rate of born Jews, many will nevertheless leave us, given the general religious atmosphere prevalent in the United States. We must do our utmost to be warm and encouraging toward those seekers who, unhappy with their current religion, indicate interest in joining us.
But can we? While such a policy shift would be greatly advantageous, can it be validated within the halachic framework?
In order to answer in the affirmative, we do not need to seek unanimity, for Halacha is characterized by a wide range of legitimate views. Rather, we must see if we can find within halachic sources strong voices stating that in matters of conversion there should be a certain amount of lattitude. If such voices exist, then — even if they are numerically in the minority — they should be followed in a time of crisis (she’at ha-dehaq). And we are now in a time of crisis.
Fortunately, three great 20th-century rabbinic authorities have explicated the halachic grounds for such a positive and welcoming policy : Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel (1880–1953), Rabbi Joseph Mesas (1892–1974) and Rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi (1924–1998).
Uziel, the first Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, notes that classic rabbinic texts teach us that God loves converts. The Talmud states that God dispersed the Jews throughout the world so that non-Jews would have the opportunity to become acquainted with them and choose to convert. It is a positive commandment to warmly accept proselytes, whenever this is permitted by the law of the land. Uzzel writes: “According to Torah, it is both permitted and a commandment to accept men and women converts, even if we are aware that they will not observe all the commandments.”
Ultimately, Uziel believes, all Jews will choose to become fully loyal to Torah. In the meantime, all converts, whatever the degree of their religious observance, will — in the eyes of God and of Halacha — be no less Jewish than a born Jew leading a similar lifestyle.
Joseph Mesas, chief rabbi of Haifa, stated in 1965 that in matters of conversion, the general policy to be followed is to accept all people seeking to convert. Rejection of people seeking to become Jewish achieves no positive results, and frequently leads to unhappiness, resentment and bitterness.
To illustrate this, Mesas related a case in which rabbis refused to convert a woman who then proceeded to move with her Jewish husband to another location, where they “passed” as Jews. Fifty years later, it was discovered that the family’s matriarch was not Jewish; ipso facto, neither were her daughters or their children — although all of them had grown up thinking they were Jews. Several members of the family agreed to convert, while others were so upset and distraught that they left Judaism entirely.
Mesas criticized those rabbis for lacking the foresight or will to comprehend the cost of their rejectionist policy. Indeed, he said, under contemporary conditions, rejecting candidates for conversion was not a sign of true religious commitment but rather of sanctimonious pseudo-piety.
In the early 1970s, HaLevi, soon to become chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that rabbinic leadership in the centuries just before and after the beginning of the Common Era was very encouraging toward converts. Indeed, he writes, the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah held that the conversion of a man could be valid through ceremonial immersion alone, even without circumcision. While HaLevi himself did not advocate implementing this specific leniency today, he praised ben Hananiah for doing the utmost to make conversion to Judaism a live option for the masses of Romans seeking a more attractive religious life.
The competitive religious marketplace of 21st-century United States is not that different from the marketplace of late antiquity.
Judaism possesses a rich and diverse religious-cultural tradition, woven together from biblical times to the present by talented and creative individuals and communities. Furthermore, Jews have developed a strong and vibrant sense of togetherness, kinship and family — a resource increasingly valuable in times such as ours. Is it not reasonable to assume that of all the tens of millions of non-Jews seeking fulfillment, many could find meaning and satisfaction in Judaism?
Rabbis and other Jews have forgotten that Judaism has a tradition of attracting adherents not born as Jews. If Orthodox rabbis are indeed (as they see themselves) the true keepers of the halachic tradition, they are especially called upon to acknowledge all of the above, and to respond to the strategic call of responsibility for the future not only of Orthodox Jews, but also of all God’s flock.
Will future generations look back in regret and say, ”Had Rabbi Uziel’s and Rabbi Mesas’s and Rabbi HaLevi’s opinions been accepted in the Beit Midrash, the face of history might have looked very different”? Or will they say, ”How great were the Torah leaders of those times, who chose the halachic path most appropriate to the American religious landscape, and led the entire American Jewish community from seemingly inevitable numerical decline to numerical and spiritual growth”?
Zvi Zohar is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem. His most recent book is “Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East” (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013). A longer version of this article can be found on the Shalom Hartman Institute website.