The invective swirling around the proposed Israeli conversion legislation runs
amok. It “spits in the face of Diaspora Jewry,” says an American non- Orthodox
rabbi in The New York Times. Not to be outdone, the president of Hebrew Union
College pillories “retrograde rabbis hijacking Jewish law.” Another rabbi tells
his congregants that “Judaism does not belong to the most reactionary elements
In letters and sermons these past weeks, the Israeli Orthodox
rabbinate – and by intimation all of Orthodoxy –was derided as power-hungry
politicians who are about to disenfranchise all Reform and Conservative Jews,
and are splitting apart the Jewish people.
Duly incited, non-Orthodox
Jews blitzed Israel with an avalanche of protests, and now the legislation has
been postponed in order to “preserve the unity of the Jewish
Lost in all the incendiary rhetoric are some basic facts about
the actual conversion procedures of most American Reform and Conservative rabbis
– procedures which they would like to export to Israel. It is useful to look at
these facts – as witnessed by an Orthodox rabbi who served in an American pulpit
for over 40 years.
During these years, many non-Jews asked me to convert
them to Judaism. Unfortunately, I had to refuse most of them, because it was
obvious that their desire to become a Jew stemmed not from a love of the God of
the Jews, but from the love of a daughter or son of the Jews. That is, in order
to avoid the appearance of an intermarriage, many Jewish parents would try to
arrange a conversion for their child’s non-Jewish intended, so that a “Jewish
marriage” could take place.
One wealthy but desperate congregant once
tearfully offered to make a $25,000 contribution to our hardpressed Shul – plus
a nice fat fee for me personally –if I would officiate at the conversion and the
It was also quite apparent that many conversion candidates had
not the slightest idea of what Judaism is.
Some were stunned to learn
that as Jews they would not celebrate Christmas or Easter. Although as an
individual I was sympathetic to distraught parents, as a rabbi I was constrained
by the halacha which explicitly cautions against converting people who have
motives other than love of Judaism.
To affiliate with the eternal Jewish
people is not a frivolous move. The convert must be aware of what he or she is
getting into – literally. To enter Judaism is a serious undertaking. It cannot
be done in six easy lessons, nor even in 12.
It requires discipline,
self- sacrifice – plus the willingness to suffer the fate of all Jews, whatever
that fate might be. To become part of Am Yisrael is not like changing a dress or
a suit of clothing: off with one, on with the other. It requires more than
liking blintzes or Jewish deli.
IN ORDER to demonstrate seriousness,
candidates for conversion must make certain minimal but basic commitments:
acceptance of the one God; no dual allegiance to any other religion;
familiarization with essential Jewish beliefs and practices ; a sincere pledge
to live as a practicing Jew. The process of study – which can take a year or
more – is then culminated by immersion in the mikveh – plus, in the case of
males, ritual circumcision.
This immersion is the final step in creating
a new Jew, and is a sine qua non of the conversion procedure.
this, the genuine convert is fully welcomed into our fold – although we are not
out to save souls from damnation, and do not go about seeking
All this transcends being stringent or lenient or
Rather, it is a matter of viewing conversion as a fateful,
life-changing step. As a result, during 40 years in the rabbinate, I converted
less than ten people. Total.
During that same time, my Reform and
Conservative colleagues were converting numerous non-Jews each year. Though I
had good personal relations with them I must say that these rabbis were more
than lax in their requirements. Influenced by liberal zeitgeist buzzwords like
pluralism, personal autonomy and religious diversity, they did not insist even
on the minimal conditions prescribed by Jewish law.
The course of study
was quick, easy and user-friendly.
Commitment to Judaism as a new way of
life, and a willingness to observe Jewish practices were – with some rare
exceptions – largely missing. Rarely did their new-found Judaism effect a change
in life-style. In addition, in some Reform conversions, circumcision and mikveh
immersion were not required. In many instances, these conversions were
meaningless wrappings for a papered-over intermarriage – for obviously there
were not numerous non-Jews in our city who annually fell hopelessly in love with
Judaism. Instead of conversions of commitment, these were conversions of
And so I could not recognize these converts as
This was painful, because for the innocent converts this was an
untenable situation: their rabbis claimed they were Jews, but halachically loyal
rabbis could not recognize them as such. Did this make me a reactionary, a
“retrograde rabbi hijacking” Jewish law? Was I the one splitting the Jewish
people in two, or “spitting in the face of non-Orthodox Jews” and delegitimizing
them? Of course not, and my non-Orthodox colleagues understood this fully, and
treated my stance respectfully.
They knew that my non-recognition applied
only to non-Jews who entered Judaism under non-halachic guidelines, but that
obviously all non-Orthodox Jews remain Jews in the eyes of halacha.
this light, the pious cries we now hear of a schism ring very hollow. Where at
one time there was a clear standard of how to become Jewish, today that standard
has been breached – and when the Orthodox protest that people converted by such
diluted standards cannot be recognized as Jews, the result is invective and
political pressure. Who is causing the schism? Surely this Diaspora conversion
chaos should not be exported to an Israel which is chaotic enough. Methinks the
namecalling rabbis protest too much. Their gross overreaction suggests that
something deeper is troubling them.
Are they hyper-sensitive about their
own lax conversion procedures ? The saddest aspect of this entire imbroglio is
that a sacred aspect of halacha – how to join our holy people – one that is
discussed in the Talmud and the Codes, has been demeaned and reduced to an
enactment in a secular legislature, morphing into a political football to be
debated, amended, negotiated and kicked around by self-serving demagogues who
have no connection to halacha, and subjected to strong-arm pressure from
non-Israeli institutions who somehow feel threatened by it. This truly is a
hijacking of sacred Jewish law.
The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, was
rabbi in Atlanta, GA for 40 years. The former editor of Tradition Magazine, he
is the author of nine books, most recently Tales Out of Jerusalem.