Rabbis v. Jewish Tradition: More on the Conversion Crisis

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest piece on the conversion crisis is on-line, a bit late, at the Hadassah Magazine site. Crisis is too nice a word. What’s really happening is that part of the Israeli state rabbinate has adopted a radical ultra-Orthodox innovation: regarding conversion to Judaism as something that can be annulled.

Yes, folks, I said, radical ultra-Orthodox innovation. That’s not a contradiction in terms; it may be a redundancy. Like other contemporary religious communities that claim to represent old-time religion – salafist Muslims, fundamentalist Christians – ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a creation of modernity. The ultra-Orthodox assault on conversion is just the latest bit of evidence.

So here’s the article:

Nearly two years ago, a Danish-born Israeli woman named Yael and her husband appeared before the rabbinical court in Ashdod to end their marriage. Since the couple had agreed on an amicable divorce, they anticipated a pro forma procedure.

Yael could hardly have expected that the court would declare that her Orthodox conversion to Judaism was null and void. Nor could she have known that her case would set off the latest round in the long-running Israeli dispute over who is a Jew. By no choice of her own, she is now at the center of overlapping debates on the meaning of conversion in Judaism, and over the connection between religion and state in Israel.

Yael grew up in a Prot­estant home. In the late 1980s, while traveling in the Far East, she met a young Israeli man. She came to Israel to visit him and stayed. When they decided to marry, she chose to convert.

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

11 thoughts on “Rabbis v. Jewish Tradition: More on the Conversion Crisis”

  1. Thank you so much for writing such great articles about the current conversion climate. It’s very troubling to me as a convert. In the end, the people being most hurt by these decisions are the converts who want to be Jewish but it seems will never be accepted as Jewish.

  2. Aliza, I have no idea about your situation, but I’d say if you converted then that’s proof there are some Jews at least who do accept you as Jewish. (I’d accept you as well – if you define yourself as Jewish, who’s a goy like me to tell you otherwise – though that might be little consolation.)
    The question is, by whom do *you* want to be accepted, to which Jewish sub-community do you want to belong?

  3. Gershom:

    Thanks for staying on top of this subject. I am thinking about getting kosherized one of these decades; I can see that one bit of annoyance that converts will have to put up with is some who were born into the family will view you suspiciously.

    Getting to graduation day is a whole other mess. I’m essentially [half] self-taught with a little guidance from my Rabbi, Telushkin, Wouk, et al. and of course my aquaintance, Haim. There exists no consistent supervision nor standard non-RAMBAM qualifications (things you have to do, know, or experience) that would help determine when one was ready to take the big plunge. In a religious context that takes itself so seriously that the word pilpul was invented, this is evidence that Judaism, for a variety of reasons, is generally not enthusiastic about encouraging conversions even for the serious-minded.

  4. First, let me say, I come from a long line of Jews and was raised in the Reform movement. So, believe me when I say, there are Jews who accept converts into their communities.

    Second let me say, if humility is a desirable quality in a Jewish person (and the Rabbis of the Talmud seemed to think so), what I learn from their wisdom is that it’s not my place to judge anyone else’s Jewishness. Anyone who chooses to throw his or her lot in with us is voluntarily assuming our challenges and our work; they ought to be endowed with our blessings and our advantages, as well.

    Third, while I wish the Ultra-Orthodox would go home and keep their own lives as Kosher as they want but leave my Jewish life alone, there is a benefit here in the United States that we have gained from our exotic religious sects, and Mr. Gorenberg reminded me of it in his article. Israel, needs Civil Marriage, and it may be the Ultra-Orthodox that finally inspire everyone else to fight for it.

    The whole ‘exotic sects’ thing, however, works best when they’re not IN POWER! I sure wish there was a way to get the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis out of the government, but I guess that’s as repressive and judgmental and intolerant as the people who don’t want me praying out loud at the Western Wall.

    Chag Sameach! (It’s easier to spell than ‘Chanukah’)

  5. “Who’s the better Jew” has long been a frequent point of discussion in the extended family, one that highlights diversity with the tone of a friendly competition.

    “Who is a Jew”, defined by a relatively small group of people with a common mindset, seeking to exclude those who don’t measure up to their own criteria of observance, is indeed a new innovation, and a pretty frightening one at that.

    Fortunately the Diaspora and folks like Heidi are still around to maintain a more inclusive (and traditional!) point of view.

  6. I am mystified by the whole issue of “who is a Jew?” mainly because I don’t understand why some are put in a position to make this determination. Lloyd mentioned getting “kosherized” and his study for it. Isn’t the study in itself worthwhile without having to have someone pass on whether that study is acceptable?

    If there is good in Judaism, isn’t it accessible to anyone without some authority saying that some test has been passed? Can’t one attend synagogue without even being a Jew?

    Isn’t it nonsense to say someone is a Jew, who might not even know they are, purely because of genetics but another who loves and admires the tradition and puts it into practice is not because of genetics? Gershom answered someone who was enthralled that ancestors were Ashkenazi – this person no different before than after except for a mental picture suddenly transformed by the dead whose actual lives and deeds were completely unknown. What fantastic castles we build in our minds!

    But to return to topic – why would anyone desire to be a member of a social group (religious groups included) that has self-appointed judges? Why put oneself under the authority of a Pope who is no more or less capable of goodness or sanctity or of learning whatever is good about Catholicism than you are? If you like what you see in any group, practice it! That is what counts and that is what makes you part of the group, whether or not some authority says you are. Practice your convictions and leave it to others to believe themselves to be authorities.

    Now if such social authorities are placed in a position to make legal determinations and to set the official status of persons then there is dilemma, a problem that has to be solved by those who have decided to set up such a situation. It would seem obvious the danger of elevating those who assert their own specialness into a position where they can deny that others are special. Where is the check on their power and the limit to any absurdities they might concoct?

    I recommend study of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine who had a few things to say about keepers of the faith.

  7. This Haredi “innovation” of ex-post annulment of conversions cannot be dismissed as a radical new stringency dressed up as an ancient law. Rather, it’s a response to a problem that has never existed before: never before have there been a lot of people who have no intention of accepting the yoke of the Torah, but who would nevertheless like to “convert” to “Judaism.” The Haredim are right that if you don’t want a bunch of those people running around calling themselves Jews, you are going to have to be a lot stricter than ever before.

    I hasten to point out that I’m not *in favor* of any of this. What the Haredim think is a huge problem I think is a complete non-problem: I don’t care at all how many Israelis aren’t halachically Jewish, or are Jewish by some religious standards but not by others, and I would love to see a complete seperation of religion and state. I’m just pointing out that the Haredim aren’t just making up new chumras for the heck of it.

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  9. To David Balan…

    I am not debating that a halachaic convert must accept the yoke of the Torah. But this article was not arguing that. The subject, Yael, probably did at some point live a frum life. Being shomer shabbat and shomer kashrus is what it usually takes for born Jews to be regarded as frum.

    No the problem here is twisting Orthodox Judaism into something that it is not. It is not a cult. It is about yiras h’shamyim and casting your lot with Am Yisrael. It is about recognizing HKBH and seeing that Torah is emes. Years ago I had a Reform conversion. One of the reasons why I left Reform Judaism and came over to Orthodox Judaism is because someone pointed out to me “If you believe that the Torah came directly from Hashem, then you are Orthodox.”

    Again, I am not saying we should convert people who do not intend to keep the mitzvot, chas v’shalom. But we should understand that conversion is not revocable in most cases. Only Hashem knows the intentions of the heart when a ger enters the mikveh.

  10. As a goy, it’s not my place to comment on the general revocability of conversion. What I don’t get on a simple logical level however is how Yael’s current insufficiently (according to some rabbis) observant lifestyle reflects back on the sincerity of her original conversion. If she, as Rishona said, did live a frum life at one point, we can probably infer that those same rabbis would’ve accepted her at the time. If they now feel compelled to invalidate her original conversion in order to “expel” her, as tortured as this course of action seems, aren’t they implicitly saying that conversion is indeed irrevocable? After all, they aren’t saying she ceased to be Jewish, but that she never was a Jew to begin with.

  11. Well…I learned something new today.

    “Judaism as something that can be annulled”

    As a “fallen” Catholic, my father’s brother always encouraged my rejoining of the “church”.

    My father died when I was young and my uncle felt responsible for my faith and worked the issue with every meeting. As my uncle was aging, he once again tried to pry the oath out of me.

    To be fair, my uncle had charm and wit, but even with that, the cajoling could be bit much. My uncle knew me to be a believer in a singular entity who is represented in all things, but that was not enough, Catholics required more. Tiring of his pleas, I said I would have a rapprochement the Catholic church if two conditions could be met met.

    Hopefully, my uncle ask me what they were. I told him:

    One, my dogs must be allowed to join me in heaven should I make it over the wall. I can’t imagine being happy for very long without my dog beside me.

    I looked at him and I could see his eyes were shining and I knew he was thinking to himself that with some priestly intervention and some special dispensation the deal could be done. Not an easy one, but a doable deal.

    So cautiously he asked, “what was the other condition”?

    Two, I said, the cardinals in Rome must elect an Irish Pope.

    A load groan came forth from my uncle and he said “for pity’s sake, why must you always ask for the impossible”.

    So in spite of best efforts of family and priests I am fallen Catholic, however, it appears, had I been a Jew, the Rabbis wouldn’t wait for me to stumble and fall, they’d of tripped me.

    [The above is a true story from my life. I am only trying to make a rhetorical point, that faith requires more from some than others, if you can keep the covenant why should you be turned away?]

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