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Contentious issues surrounding conversion are one of the hardy perennials of Israeli politics. In recent years, the issue has been largely driven by the presence in Israel of 300,000 to 500,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
That large number is the result of deliberate government policy. Throughout the '90s, frequent warnings were sounded that the Law of Return, as currently drafted, would result in tens of thousands of new immigrants with only the most tangential relationship to the Jewish people. And the Law of Entry, under which those granted citizenship under the Law of Return can bring in dozens of collateral relatives, only exacerbated the situation.
After returning from a trip to Israeli embassies in Moscow and Kiev in 2001, Diaspora Affairs Minister Michael Melchior lamented: "We could not find Jews, [only] people with no connection to Israel or the Jewish people." Typical was one family of eight with "a grandfather who was a quarter Jewish and who died 20 years ago."
In addition, the Jewish Agency deliberately adopted a policy, in the words of former Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, of "turning over every stone in Vilna in search of a drop of Jewish blood." Some Jewish Agency emissaries viewed the influx of hundreds of thousands of gentiles as a positive development.
Dov Kontorer wrote in Vesti of Jewish Agency emissaries who have "fully internalized the ideology of creating a new Israeli nation, for which Slavs are preferable to haredim and Moroccans." One of the emissaries told Makor Rishon: "Israel lacks sane, non-religious, leftist people. . . . One [way to solve the problem] is to bring in goyim and create a new nation."
By 1999, the Knesset heard testimony that of 1,004 recent immigrants from Chaburusk, only 38 were Jewish. Yet as late as 2004, Prime Minister Sharon was still calling for another million immigrants from the FSU.
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of non-Jewish immigrants provided a useful battering ram for those eager to render obsolete Saadia Gaon's famous dictum that the Jewish nation became a nation by virtue of the Torah. Yossi Beilin, for instance, suggested a new "secular" conversion. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres asked: Why should the new immigrants have to be any more mitzva observant than me to join the Jewish people? The various proposals for non-halachic conversion standards would condition entry into the Jewish people on the average level of mitzva observance among those born Jewish, or to turn being Jewish into the equivalent of being Israeli - i.e., dependent on knowledge of Hebrew and army service.
For the national religious world, the presence of so many non-Jewish immigrants has obvious theological implications: They are not exactly the Ingathering of the Exiles envisioned by the prophets. "Secular" conversions, however, offer no solution to the theological problem. So within that world, the search for solutions has taken the form of looking for ways to preserve the outward forms of geirut (conversion) - brit mila for men and immersion in a mikve for both men and women in the presence of an Orthodox beit din - while draining it of its inner content.
The Ne'eman Commission recommendations in the late '90s were one failed initiative in that direction. They called for a network of conversion institutes in which the faculty would be drawn from all "streams" of Judaism, while the actual geirut would be under Orthodox auspices. Were conversion a Jewish literacy test - What do Jews eat on Yom Kippur? - that might make sense.
But conversion is a commitment to mitzvah observance. That little detail rendered the Ne'eman Commission proposals inherently incoherent. How could those trained by teachers who themselves might have no commitment to mitzvah observance be expected to make such a commitment themselves?
THE UNHAPPY TRUTH IS that there is no solution for the current situation, within the ambit of halacha. And that has nothing to do with the recalcitrance of the rabbinic establishment to accept converts. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, widely viewed as the preeminent living posek (halachic decisor), has ruled that the traditional rule that we push away would-be converts does not apply in the case of intermarried couples or children of Jewish fathers. Following Rabbi Elyashiv's directives, Eternal Jewish Family is currently spending millions of dollars in Israel working with intermarried couples.
But not pushing away certain converts does not mean that the ultimate standard for conversion - a full acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot - can be waived. That standard is not a haredi invention, as some have alleged. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, leading decisor of the World Mizrachi movement, described it as axiomatic in his famous article Kol Dodi Dofek. Rabbi Shlomo Daichovsky, one of the most respected dayanim in the national religious world, declared at a Mossad HaRav Kook symposium last year that there is unanimous agreement on the requirement of a full acceptance of mitzvot. Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, former head of the Conversion Authority, recently reiterated that requirement.
Acceptance of mitzvot is not just a pro forma declaration by the would-be convert. The beit din has a duty to ascertain that he or she is sincere in that acceptance. Perhaps 350 years ago, when mitzva observance was the norm, it could be assumed that the prospective convert understood that joining the Jewish people entailed mitzva observance. And given the circumstances of the Jewish people then, it could also be assumed that the convert was not motivated by ulterior motives. But in modern times, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog pointed out, neither assumption obtains, and a beit din must assure itself of the sincerity of the convert.
And therein lies the rub. The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU do not wish to commit to mitzva observance. And the longer they remain in Israel and integrate into Israeli society without becoming Jewish, the less inclined they are to do so. That - not bottlenecks in the process or overly stringent demands by the rabbis - is the reason that there were less than 1,000 conversions, outside the IDF, last year.
By its very nature, conversion is an individual commitment. As such, it cannot be subjected to numerical quotas, and any attempt to do so can only result in a complete falsification of the halachic process.
Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman's recent proposal to employ retired IDF rabbis on special conversion courts falls into that category (as do the earlier transfer of the Conversion Authority from the Chief Rabbinate to the Prime Minister's Office and the creation of a special conversion track within the IDF, with specific numerical targets). The impetus for Ne'eman's proposal is not to expedite the process, but the desire to lower the standards for conversion. (Many of the speakers at last week's conference on "Conversion as a National Mission," at which Ne'eman made his proposal, explicitly called for more lenient standards.) Thus he deliberately chose those rabbis most socialized to view themselves as halachic problem-solvers for the state and who are not generally drawn from the upper echelons of rabbinic scholarship.
Such attempts to subject the halachic process to the dictates of the secular state serve neither the interests of religion nor the State.