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Adlerstein vs. Angel on Conversion

Last month, Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of New York’s historic Congregation Shearith Israel, penned an impassioned critique of the adoption of new — and, he argued, needlessly restrictive — conversion policies by the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization he once served as its president.

The article generated plenty of discussion in the Orthodox world (including a response from several other past presidents of the RCA in a letter to the Forward). While the RCA is the main body for Centrist and Modern Orthdox rabbis, Angel’s article has also generated discussion in more religiously right-leaning precincts.

Indeed, the debate has now migrated from the pages of the Forward to a new venue: the blog Cross-Currents, a lively forum on Jewish issues whose contributors include a number of prominent Haredi thinkers. One Cross-Currents blogger, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Los Angeles, penned a lengthy reply to Angel’s Forward article. Now, Angel has responded on Cross-Currents, and Adlerstein has weighed in again.

The debate is a bit esoteric for the general reader, but its contours are nevertheless quite interesting.

While I’m definitely no halachic expert (I’m actually a halachic ignoramus), I’ll nevertheless toss in my two cents:

I was struck by how Rabbi Adlerstein began his original post. He wrote:

Most issues raised by Rabbi Marc Angel’s recent essay on conversion standards are not going to change the quality of your life, unless you are a candidate for conversion. One issue does, and it deserves the attention of all committed Jews.

In Rabbi Adlerstein’s view, it seems, the issue that, broadly speaking, matters is not so much the dispute over the conversion process, but rather Rabbi Angel’s interpretation of the halachic process, the process by which Jewish law is discerned.

Now, as I stated before, I’m in no way qualified to weigh in on these halachic issues. But I do think that one of the problems when it comes to the issue of conversion is reflected in the way Rabbi Adlerstein begins his essay, and the relative unimportance he seems to ascribe to the issue of conversion (at least compared to the great importance he places on issues of halachic process).

The fact is that the Jewish community has a crisis on its hands: Without consensus on the definitional matter of “Who is a Jew,” we will no longer be one people. In Israel, there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who — although many may identify as Jews, and have Jewish ancestry — are not recognized as Jews by the Orthodox establishment, and for that reason cannot even marry Jews in Israel. Many, however, would be open to converting, and a Joint Conversion Institute has been established, with cooperation of Orthodox rabbis, to enable them to become Jews through a legitimate conversion process. The official Orthodox rabbinic courts, however, rather than helping repair this fissure in Jewish peoplehood, have been obstructionist. (See this Haaretz article for more on this.) Here in the United States, many with Jewish fathers, who would like to be recognized as full-fledged Jews, face similar challenges.

A recognized path to Orthodox conversion that maintains its halachic integrity while still allowing for a degree of flexibility would be a great help in addressing this issue. Is such a thing possible under Jewish law? I’ll leave that question to the rabbis. I will, however, say that this is an issue that affects not just potential converts, but anyone who cares about the Jewish people — and “deserves the attention of all committed Jews.” I also believe that when Orthodox rabbis recognize that this is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed, we are more likely to see halachic interpretations and religious practices that are helpful rather than obstructionist.

Instead, too many Orthodox rabbis have privileged their commitment to a very restrictive interpretation of halacha over the practical needs of the Jewish people, letting the principle of klal yisrael fall victim to ideology. I should add, however, that the Orthodox have no monopoly on this type of behavior. Indeed, this tendency has a mirror-image in Reform Judaism, which has also created a great definitional rupture in Jewish peoplehood. Privileging its commitment to religious liberalism over and above Jewish unity, the Reform movement unilaterally recognized patrilineal descent as a basis for Jewishness and began a policy of active outreach to non-Jewish religious seekers.

In taking these actions, the Reform movement not only parted ways with the Orthodox, but also with Conservative Jews. It’s one thing for Jews to differ on worship; it’s another to split on the very basis of Jewish identity. Rather than risk a unbridgeable schism, we would all do better to seek consensus and cooperation on these very fundamental questions. That, however, requires a pragmatic willingness to privilege Jewish unity over the sectarian comforts of ideological purism.

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