"The State of Israel considered me Jewish and invited me to make aliya – so I just assumed I was Jewish.”
These words, spoken by a Russian-born conversion student, and quoted in When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, a new book by Michal Kravel-Tovi, embody the delicate and difficult issues surrounding the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants, which has bedeviled rabbis and politicians alike since the Soviet regime opened the gates to Jewish emigration in the late 1980s.
The author, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, based the title of her book on a comment by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of Beit Morasha, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and Leadership in Jerusalem. Brandes criticized the state’s framework of conversion as a “wink-wink” process, in which each side – both the converts and the rabbis – figuratively wink at each other, acknowledging the other’s lack of sincerity.
Potential converts know that they must answer questions in a manner that appears as though they intend to observe all the commandments, even though many will ultimately discard most of them. Their rabbis and teachers are aware that most of the converts will not adopt a fully observant lifestyle, yet continue to perpetuate a sham.
Despite the book’s title, Kravel-Tovi posits that the encounters between converts, their teachers and the courts are not quite as hypocritical as some have charged. In her view, Israel’s conversion policy, rather than producing “winkwink” conversions, generates morally loaded and deeply engaged “win-win conversions” for both the representatives and national subjects of the state.
The fact that most immigrants from the former Soviet Union do not seek to undergo conversion underscores conversion agencies’ efforts to succeed with the relative few who do seek out conversion. In her view, the conversion process constitutes a complex human experience that cannot be confined to a binary logic of truth and falsity.
As one of the rabbinic judges told Kravel-Tovi, “Given that the Halacha cannot be changed, the only wiggle room we have is in reality – not in Halacha.”
Jewish law requires the performance of three rituals for conversion – circumcision for males, a declaration of acceptance of the commandments before a rabbinic court, and immersion in the ritual bath.
Among the three, Kravel-Tovi explains, the acceptance of the commandments has been the subject of different interpretations over the years. But, she asks, is the acceptance of the commandments an outcome of conversion or a prerequisite? In ancient time, when the number of converts was relatively small, this question was largely theoretical.
However, at the end of the 20th century, with the arrival of close to 300,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants, the issue became more complicated. Could the state truly educate thousands of students, and inculcate within them the acceptance of the commandments?
Kravel-Tovi traces the history of conversion in Judaism from ancient times until the present day, and explains how the state’s position on conversion gradually changed from David Ben-Gurion’s opposition to the creation of any state apparatus for conversion, to the current circumstances in which the entire process is subsidized by the government and viewed as a national mission.
The author also explains how the shift from stringency in Israel’s conversion policy to a more lenient one was developed by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF, and later Israel’s chief rabbi, who regarded conversion as one of the moral prerogatives of state institutions.
Kravel-Tovi also explains the differing approaches by leading contemporary rabbis, from the lenient approach of Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun who favored mass conversion via ritual immersion of thousands of immigrants, to the more stringent requirements followed by the official Chief Rabbinate, which requires the acceptance of the commandments.
Kravel-Tovi also describes the contradiction between the Law of Return, which expanded the pool of those eligible for citizenship to include immigration of intermarried families, and Jewish law, which excludes those same non-Jewish immigrants from the nation, in matters of personal status.
The most compelling sections of the book are the extensive interviews that Kravel-Tovi conducted with judges, teachers and conversion students. Most were honest, open and forthcoming in their comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the system, as it is presently constituted. Readers will learn how teachers prepare conversion candidates for their interviews with the judges, how they are taught to construct their biographies in a way that make their story and interest in converting sound more authentic, and the types of responses that rabbinic judges prefer.
While to some these preparations may seem deceitful and insincere, they reflect the reality of a situation in which prospective converts are attempting to successfully convert and normalize their belonging to Israeli society and the Jewish state. The author quotes the late Rabbi Israel Rosen, the first director of the Conversion Institute and senior rabbinic court judge, who said, “Our default is to trust people, not suspect them.” Or, as one conversion educator put it, “We must admit, we don’t have X rays for examining souls.”
The book is well organized, and while occasionally weighed down by a surfeit of anthropological and ethnographic terminology as well as excessive use of the word “foregrounded” as a verb, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of how the conversion process really operates.
Given the current criticism of the state’s official conversion system, it would have been relevant had the author compared the procedures, results and feedback from converts of the state system with those of the rabbinical court of Giyur Ke’Halacha, which is headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, and which conducts conversion outside the official framework of the state.
The conversion story in Israel today can be viewed from two perspectives. Statistically, writes Kravel-Tovi, the state conversion project could be considered a resounding failure. Most of the non-Jewish Russian immigrants have elected not to convert. However, for those citizens who do seek to convert and for those rabbis seeking to convert as many citizens as possible, the actual realization of conversion is a remarkable achievement.