Ultra-Orthodoxy Cancels Conversion, Sends Modern Orthodox for Reeducation

Gershom Gorenberg

The divide between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews over who is Jewish continues to widen. In the latest developments, ultra-Orthodox rabbis in both Israel and the U.S. have asserted that conversion is reversible — that a convert can cease to be Jewish if she or he does not live according to halakhah, Jewish law, as most strictly and constrictingly interpreted. The immense irony is that regarding conversion as conditional is itself a radical break from halakhic tradition.

My new article on the latest round of the conversion controversy is now at Moment magazine:

…the idea of universally accepted conversions collapsed completely with a decision of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinic Court publicized in May. The panel of three judges upheld a lower court’s ruling that a woman who had converted 15 years ago-under state-sanctioned Orthodox auspices-was not Jewish, because she’s not currently living by Orthodox law…

The decision undermines the last teetering arguments for state-established religion in Israel. It removes the basis for the controversial agreement on conversion between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)-representing modern Orthodoxy-and the Israeli rabbinate. And it demonstrates that ultra-Orthodoxy is not old-time religion, but rather a modern movement…

Read the full article here.

Yet even as ultra-Orthodoxy sets itself off from the rest of Judaism by undermining conversion, it is casting a strong influence over modern Orthodox young people from America who come to Israel for a year or more of study after high school. The aim of the popular year programs is to inoculate youth against leaving the Orthodox fold, but this is one vaccination with fairly common side effects. It seems to set off an autoimmune reaction against the modern side of young modern Orthodox Jews’ personality. My friend Shaul Magid has an excellent essay here on

the steady encroachment of ultra-Orthodox Judaism on Modern Orthodoxy in America, in this case through the (re) education of its young men and women. While the reasons may be understandable, the price may be high. “Torah values” is not a value-free term. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaisms in America claim to embrace “Torah values,” each having very different understandings of what that means. Is Modern Orthodoxy abandoning its principles by succumbing to the “Torah values” of a religious community that has a very different relationship to modernity, a crucial part of Modern Orthodoxy’s dialectical world-view?

To be fair, the ultra-Orthodox are not the only ones to redefine Jewish identity in radical ways. Ask many secular Israelis what makes them Jews, and the answer will run along the lines of “I live here and serve in the army.” A helpful South Jerusalem reader (keep those emails coming, friends) sent me the link to a survey by YNet and the Gesher organization showing that much of the Israeli public

believes that serving in the IDF is considered a more important criterion than keeping the commandments when deciding upon whether or not someone is conversion-worthy.

Conflating Israeli civic identity with Jewish identity has its own side effects. It defines full participation in Israeli society as being “Jewish.” So if an Israeli Arab does some form of national service, does he or she give up Arab or Palestinian identity? Civic identity should be a neutral field, capable of including both Jews and Arabs. But that would require secular Israelis to define their Jewishness in a manner that goes beyond living here and serving in the military.

Most Jews, thankfully, will quickly contradict their own definitions of Jewishness if pressed with real-life cases. Who is a Jew? Perhaps the basic requirement is to have several contradictory opinions on the matter.

Related:

Jane Austen Explains Conversion to Judaism

How Do You Prove You’re a Jew? (New York Times Magazine)

8 thoughts on “Ultra-Orthodoxy Cancels Conversion, Sends Modern Orthodox for Reeducation”

  1. I greatly enjoy this site and its opinions and perspectives, but this is my first time back since the latest redesign and I have to tell you that light green italic type on white is impossible to read, even if I bump up the font size. You have to use a different style for your blockquotes. Thanks!

  2. Maybe civic identity should be a neutral field, but I don’t think it is, or can be. If you’re willing to have a civic identity – over and apart from your religious identity – you’ve already made the central step toward Modern Orthodoxy et al … the “dialectical” world view that Magid is talking about.

    The issue to me is less whether the government has a role in determining who is and who isn’t a Jew – or what kind of religion they are more generally (governments make these sorts of determinations all the time in a million unnoticed ways) but how they do it, and this means that liberal Jews need more involvement in the government.

  3. If the Supreme Rabbinate Court can “revoke” conversion, how long will it be before they sanction “excommunication” of other Jews who do not follow halakha in accordance with their interpretations?

  4. I’d like to back up Fred on the site comments – the green text on white is very hard reading. In addition, the green links to your names to the right of “HOMEPAGE” at the top are almost invisible on the wood plank background. I only discovered them when something looked strange about the wood planks. Finally, text size seems to have shrunk to microscopic. Oh, my aching eyes!

  5. Religion and State in Israel

    After reading your recent Opinion article in Moment, I then went on to read Prof. Breger’s article “The Failure of Religious Zionism”.

    The Failure of Religious Zionism

    I think his final lines summarize the issue very well.

    “The goal of the state rabbinate should be to serve the needs of the entire population, not merely already committed Orthodox Jews.

    If the rabbinate continues to fail in this awesome responsibility, the question of the relation of synagogue and state will, of necessity, remain open, and disestablishment will be a real possibility.”

    My only question for you and your readers is the following:

    Have we only reached the “if” point?

    Joel Katz

    Religion and State in Israel

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