The recent news that members of the Chueta community of Mallorca have been
recognized as Jews by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak is certainly historic.
Thanks to the hard work of Michael Freund and Shavei Israel, this will open the
door to over 15,000 people whose Jewish ancestors were forced to convert to
Catholicism 500 years ago, helping them return to the Jewish people.
there is far more that we can and must do to welcome non-Jews of Jewish ancestry
back into our nation.
At least 300,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants of
Jewish descent currently reside in Israel. They serve in our army, study in our
schools, speak our language and socialize with our children. A high percentage
seek to convert to Judaism but have met resistance from the Israeli Rabbinate,
which questions their level of commitment to religious observance, a
prerequisite for conversion.
Let me state in the clearest of terms that
according to traditional Jewish law, not only can we convert these immigrants,
we must convert them.
JEWISH TRADITION demands that we not relate to the
descendants of Spanish “Anusim” and the Russian immigrants of Jewish descent as
gentiles. While they are not Jewish and, of course, require the three steps
demanded of all converts – circumcision, immersion in a mikve (ritual bath), and
acceptance of commandments – they actually fall into a unique category called
“zera Yisrael” (seed of Israel). According to some of the most prominent
medieval sages, this designation means that while they are not Jewish, they do
embody “the holiness of Israel.”
Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen Rabinowitz of
19th-century Lublin, Poland, explains that Isaiah referred to zera Yisrael when
he described the “lost ones” who would rejoin the Jewish people through
conversion upon our return to our homeland. Since these Russian immigrants have
“the holiness of Israel” and it has been foretold that they will return to
Judaism, we must do everything we can to help them convert.
about the rule that a gentile must ‘accept the commandments’ as a prerequisite
to conversion?” one might ask. “While the immigrants in question will surely
fulfill circumcision and ritual immersion, they are not committed to performing
all the commandments! Doesn’t Orthodox law require a verbal commitment to
fulfill all the commandments prior to conversion?” The simple and
straightforward answer is “no.” The greatest of rabbis never demanded this. The
Talmud clearly requires only that we teach conversion candidates “some lenient
and some strict commandments.”
None of the great sages ever demanded that
the conversion candidate fulfill all the commandments; this is a modern
The candidates in question agree to fast on Yom Kippur, to
refrain from eating leavened bread on Pessah, to recite the Kiddush prayer and
light the candles on Shabbat night, and for those in the IDF, to risk their
lives to protect the Jewish state (what greater mitzva can there be?). The
classic texts are replete with sources permitting the conversions of these zera
Yisrael immigrants based on their intention to observe these basic commandments,
especially in light of the fact that we should be proactively seeking them out
ONE ADDITIONAL issue demands that we convert these
immigrants immediately. If we don’t allow them to convert, these immigrants are
going to marry our children anyway. They grow up together, go to grade school
together, serve in the army together, study in university together, and
thousands will inevitably choose to spend their lives together. And then, in the
coming decades, Israel will be ripped apart with disputes regarding which
citizens are Jews and which are not. Non-Jewish children will be raised as Jews,
but will not be recognized as Jews by the rabbinate or the state.
will polarize Israel in ways it has never been polarized before.
leadership demands that a problem be solved before it even arises, and in our
current circumstance, that means relying on those valid and lenient opinions to
convert these hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
The Israeli version of
the Arab Spring has erupted in the summer of 2011. As the nation begins to
address its internal problems, with the Facebook protest over the price of
cottage cheese and the erection of tent cities to demand lower rental fees, I
hope this internal reflection expands to include the plight of our fellow
citizens who so badly want to be Jews. I will not rest until we solve their
problem, and I hope all fellow Israelis join me in this quest.The writer
is founder and chairman of the Am Shalem political movement.