Both proponents and opponents of the proposal to remove army track conversions
entirely from the purview of the Chief Rabbinate, or at least to turn the chief
rabbi into a rubber stamp, agree about one thing: The goal of the proposal is to
make conversions much easier and therefore more numerous.
proponents, a way must be found to solve the problem of more than 300,000 people
from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha,
who arrived since the early 1990s.
First, we must acknowledge that the
problem (the official estimate of 300,000 is conservative) largely resulted from
deliberate government and Jewish Agency policy. Former absorption minister Yuli
Edelstein once described the Jewish Agency’s approach as “turning over every
stone in Vilna in search of a drop of Jewish blood.”
The results were
predictable. By the end of the previous decade, nearly two-thirds of the
immigrants were non-Jewish. And the Jews tended to be the elderly and infirm
When prime minister Ehud Barak went to Ben-Gurion Airport to
greet the millionth new immigrant from the FSU, there were almost no Jews on the
Returning from a 2001 trip to Moscow and Kiev, minister for
Diaspora affairs Michael Melchior reported, “We could not find Jews,” among
those waiting to immigrate. Instead he found “people with no connection to the
Typical was a family of eight, of which the long-deceased
grandfather was onequarter Jewish.
Among the new immigrants were many who
not only felt no connection to the Jewish people, but harbored extremely
negative feelings. “We are seeing an influx of those same anti-Semitic types who
made life miserable for Jews in Russia,” former Prisoner of Zion Yosef
Mendelevich complained to prime minister Ariel Sharon. A secular teacher in
Karmiel described her Russian-speaking students, “They are simply another
people. I see in them contempt for Jews and Judaism that has no parallel among
For some policy-makers, the large influx of non-Jews
constituted a counterbalance to the growing Sephardi and Orthodox influence, as
well as a means of de-Judaizing the state. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews,
they realized, would be the battering ram to bring about civil marriage and to
end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion.
THE PROPOSAL to greatly
expand the army conversion track and remove it from Chief Rabbinate supervision
rests on an implicit assumption: Halacha is infinitely malleable and rabbis can
be impressed into the service of the state to manipulate it to serve its
interests. In the process, an inherently individual decision – to convert to
Judaism – becomes subject to numerical quotas and goals.
the proposal rarely address halachic standards for conversion, other than to say
that they should be “more lenient.” At most, they view conversion as a formal
ceremony: circumcision (in the case of males) and immersion in a mikve, in the
presence of three Orthodox rabbis. The historical standard for joining the
Jewish people – commitment to observance of the mitzvot given at Sinai – is
replaced by a short course and perhaps a minimal Jewish literacy
The result can only be a trivialization of Halacha and a slap to
any rabbi who views himself as its guardian. Imagine the Knesset passing a law
to recognize completion of a short IDF medic’s course as sufficient to practice
medicine, which required the health minister and all government bodies to
recognize such graduates as full-fledged doctors. Would we hear about the
urgency of such recognition to address the problem of a growing doctor shortage?
Would those who insisted on formal academic training be pilloried for their lack
of support for our soldiers or new olim? Of course not. We understand that
inadequately trained doctors constitute a hazard. But with respect to
conversion, many take the attitude, “Who does it hurt if a non-Jewish soldier
wants to call himself a ‘Jew’ just like his army buddies? If it makes him feel
good, why not?” THE PAINFUL truth is that any effort to maintain halachic
standards for conversion cannot produce the numbers of converts the state
establishment demands. And any proposal that can produce the numbers will only
be at the expense of trampling Halacha. Conversions cannot be mass produced.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on various efforts to bring those
who are already Jews to full mitzva observance.
Yet despite the efforts
of the most impassioned teachers, I would be surprised if the total number of
ba’alei teshuva in a given year reaches 2,000, and is likely far fewer. How much
more difficult will that be with respect to non-Jews, many of whom have no real
Jewish connection other than living here.
And if one were to conceive of
an environment to inspire commitment to mitzva observance, the IDF would be the
last place. Even many soldiers from national religious homes, who have attended
religious schools all their lives, leave observance in the army. Responsible
conversion courts invariably require that the potential convert already be
attached to an Orthodox community.
Without that, the commitment to mitzva
observance cannot be believed.
But the community of army buddies to which
a converted soldier returns is largely nonobservant, and often overwhelmingly
so. All the societal messages he receives tell him that mitzva observance is
irrelevant to being a Jew. Indeed it is that message to which olim are subject
from the moment they arrive and that largely explains why such a small
percentage have shown any interest in converting, in any framework.
proposals for increasing the number of converts through creative new approaches
“within Halacha” inevitably involve subterfuge. At a recent session of the
Jewish People Planning Institute, the Israeli Reform representative admitted
honestly that any conversion in which Reform participates will not be an
Orthodox conversion. Yet such participation was built into the very fabric of
the Joint Conversion Institutes proposed by the Neeman Commission, which have
produced so little on $20 million a year budgets.
IF THE state wants to
confer benefits on soldiers, no one would object. The means of doing so,
however, should not be to equate army service with being Jewish. The state does
not have a “moral obligation” to convert every new immigrant, as Seth Farber
insists (“We need an answer,” January 3). At most it owes those who were denied
the ability to practice as Jews for 80 years a Jewish education – something it
has largely failed to provide.
But treating Israeliness – aliya, speaking
Hebrew, army service – even when accompanied by some sort of religious ceremony,
as sufficient to be considered a Jew is a dangerous path. It will further weaken
whatever societal bonds still exist between citizens in the “Jewish state” based
on a shared Jewish identity by creating a situation in which large numbers of
those who self-identify as Jews will not be recognized as such by millions of
their fellow Jews. And equating being Israeli with being Jewish will further
diminish ties between Jews of the Diaspora and of those of
Further, employing minimal standards for entry into the Jewish
people conveys the message that being Jewish is something trivial, and makes our
ancestors’ willingness to give their lives for their religion something bizarre
That is not a message we wish to send when trying to
explain to our young why there is any reason to remain here in the face of
threats all around.
Finally, Farber claims that the “audacious” solutions
needed must begin with removing the issue of “conversion” from the realm of
politics. He fails to recognize that for the state to enlist rabbis to solve
social problems, especially in violation of their own halachic conscience, is
the ultimate politicization of religion.The writer is the director of
Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post
Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish