When American Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel was arrested and accused of spying on naked women at his synagogue’s mikve in Washington, the media reported that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate would reexamine the validity of his conversions, which was ironic, because Freundel once served as the head of the Rabbinical Council of America’s conversion committee and had close connections with the Chief Rabbinate.
Together with the rabbinate, the RCA reduced the number of conversion courts in North America, and by centralizing the procedure, played a role in rejecting independent conversions. Some rabbis accepted the policy, others continued to convert independently, and some fought back by establishing an alternative Orthodox association.
Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Bronx, head of the new group, made headlines last year when the Chief Rabbinate refused to accept his testimony as to the Jewishness of his congregation members.
In a conversation we had last year, which would be funny if it weren’t so sad, Freundel told me that his discussions with the Chief Rabbinate had resolved Rabbi Weiss’s case.
To my claim that the RCA itself was the problem, he remarked, “I don’t understand what Avi Weiss wants. We did approve a part of his conversions.” He ignored my question about what he would have done if only a part of his conversions had been accepted.
When I heard that he was accused of voyeurism, I well understood the Talmudic story about Mar Zutra, an Amora sage of Babylon. A silver vessel was stolen, and when he saw a disciple washing his hands and drying them on someone else’s garment, he knew that the disciple was the thief.
The expression about the pot calling the kettle black is accurate 99.9 percent of the time.
After coming under pressure, the rabbinate retracted its initial statement about reviewing Weiss’s conversions and renounced Rabbi Freundel, arguing that he managed to mislead them, as well as the community. While that is probably true, the rabbinate’s claim that it is unrelated to its conversion policy is not. The Freundel case is an indication of the quality of the conversions. As Rabbi Prof. Adam Mintz of New York said to the concerned people he had converted: “Your conversion is as good as I am good.” This is Halacha: The Chief Rabbinate cannot change it by supervising or imposing sanctions on it.
In fact, each valid conversion from a halachic point of view (whether done by an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbi) but unrecognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel could create more serious halachic problems.
This is where the current conversion bill from Knesset member Elazar Stern and the Hatnua party of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, which has just advanced a step toward a final vote, offers a partial solution. There is no halachic hindrance to enlarging the Israeli conversion system or to granting authority to local rabbis to establish conversion courts in their municipalities. Hearing applicants to conversion lament about courts that do their best to reject them, treating them as superfluous, is a convincing reason for why they should have the choice of where and when to undergo the process.
Stern described the characteristic traits of most Israeli “non-Jewish Jews” seeking conversion: “Most of them were born and raised here. In the former Soviet Union, their families were called zhids and faced oppression, so they came here.”
The same paradox lies in Israeli law: Many citizens considered Jewish under the Law of Return are not considered Jews when it comes to matters of marriage or divorce, which are governed by religious institutions.
“It is important also for our children, who would gladly marry them,” Stern said.
“The children of this blessed immigration, especially from the former Soviet Union, are no less talented, smart, beautiful and determined to serve the country than our children, and they want to be Jews, like our children.”
While those words were beautifully said, his conversion bill is not adequate, because it does not solve the problem of thousands not regarded as Jews by even the most lenient Orthodox courts. Orthodox conversion assumes that a gentile wants to convert because he wants to belong to a religious community and live according the Torah, and therefore, the applicant must undergo a long preparatory process in order to become an observant Jew. Once before the rabbinic court, he must prove his understanding and his intentions to that end.
The outcome is that most Israeli applicants alienate themselves from their way of life as secular Jews and lie, at least partly, regarding their future way of life. Most of the conversion applicants are not interested in joining an Orthodox or other religious community. They just want to officially belong to the Jewish community, get married as Jews, and raise their children as secular Jews.
Conversion must be adapted to the present nature of Jewish society. A conversion should be regarded as proper as long as it reflects the Jewish community to which the converted wishes to belong. A proper Israeli conversion law, which recognizes individual rights and the diversity of Jewish communities in Israel and abroad, should reflect the various ways of joining the Jewish people.
From this point of view, the Stern bill is not sufficient. Conversions made by various denominations should be accepted also for issues of marriage and divorce; one must enable different Israeli communities to build meaningful conversion processes of their own that will reflect today’s Israeli Jewish community. Couples who do not want to convert should have the option of civil marriage.
Such a comprehensive solution does not seem achievable in the near future, and although the conversion bill may delay such a solution even more, it is better than nothing.
Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow, lecturer and educator at Shalom Hartman Institute.hartman.org.il