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Item: 'Government panel to alter conversion policy' (Jerusalem Post, March 5); Item: 'Since intermarriage is inevitable, humanist liberals say that conversions are unnecessary' (Haaretz, March 28); 'New calls for reform of rabbinic conversion courts' (Jerusalem Post, March 29); Item: "Conversion in crisis" (Jerusalem Post editorial, April 5)
I have in my hands a copy of the eagerly awaited Inter-Ministerial Committee to Re-Examine Yom Kippur Practices report. The reexamination is in response to widespread demands, led by liberals and the secular media, to loosen the Yom Kippur restrictions, which have become a major stumbling block for non-Jewish immigrants who want to convert to Judaism.
Transcripts of interviews with these immigrants reveal that many abandoned the conversion process because of the adamant attitude of the rabbinic courts. The immigrants, most of whom are Russian, were willing to accept Judaism, but balked when told about Yom Kippur.
"These restrictions are 3,500 years old. Why should I have to deny myself food and drink for 24 hours?" asked one potential convert.
"This is the 21st century, not primitive times," said another. "These uncaring rabbis force things upon us, refusing to compromise. If they cared, they would not prohibit food for a full day."
OTHER IMMIGRANTS stated they were willing to go along with other unreasonable demands, such as forswearing bread and eating tasteless matza for the entire Pessah week, and even to suffer the resultant stomach problems.
"We were even willing to celebrate that other festival by eating cold soup in an unheated Succa during chilly autumn nights. But these harsh Yom Kippur demands are the last straw. The rabbis obviously do not welcome us."
Others complained that though they love the benefits that Israel gives its immigrants, these religious demands are cruel and unusual. "Not only would we not be able to eat, but also not to drink. Have we left one Gulag to enter another? We pleaded with these medieval rabbis, but they would not budge. Do they not know that it is dangerous to go without water? One could become dehydrated."
Other immigrants were shocked to discover that the Yom Kippur prayers take several hours at night, and then continue from sunrise to sunset the entire next day. "Even Russian Easter services take only a fraction of that time. And one may eat on Easter!"
BELOW ARE excerpts from the committee's report:
a) We must not put unnecessary stumbling blocks before potential converts. If Israel wishes to have new blood, it has to change these draconian religious demands. A modern state cannot expect people to go without food and water for 24 hours and to remain virtual prisoners in synagogue for an entire day.
b) Rabbinic judges must not insist on primitive halachic norms that were made for the shtetl, where fasting was designed for a food-deprived economy. If the rabbis were more Zionistic, they would be more sensitive to people who want to build up our country. To bring new people into Israel is a social need. What does religion have to do with conversion to Judaism? The rabbis are aggrandizing this power to themselves.
c) It is unconscionable that the rabbinic court system should be dominated only by rabbis. We recommend the establishment of pluralistic courts, with input from all streams of Judaism - including secular modes of observance. It is time to liberalize laws and streamline procedures.
d) It is immoral to deny food and drink on the holiest day of the year to 300,000 Russian immigrants who have made the arduous trek from Russia. In the very portion we read on Yom Kippur,
Isaiah 47 says: "Is this the fast I have chosen?â€¦ Better to divide your bread with the hungry..."
In ignoring this prophetic dictum, rabbinic judges are imposing their own hidebound standards on innocent people.
e) After careful deliberation, the committee strongly urges the implementation of the following guidelines, which are based on Maimonides. In this spirit we present here a pluralistic approach to the problem of Yom Kippur:
1) Limited eating and drinking will be permitted after returning from the long Kol Nidre service. Out of deference to the occasion, this should be only a light snack, with alcoholic beverages to be avoided wherever possible. In case of great need, vodka in limited amounts will be permitted.
2) Out of respect to ancient Jewish practice, breakfast on Yom Kippur morning will be skipped entirely. In case of great need, coffee will be permitted. So that congregants can have a full night's sleep in preparation for next day's prayers, morning Yom Kippur services will begin at 10 a.m.
3) At 12 noon there will be a one-hour recess for tea/coffee, light refreshments and social
4) A similar recess will take place at 2 p.m. Since this is Yom Kippur, full meals will not be served, and snacks will be limited to soft drinks, tea/coffee/milk, fruit, cake and cookies. Such breaks will prevent the physical weakness that presently settles over congregants during the afternoon, and that disturbs full prayer concentration. Our research shows that there is no greater aid to spirituality than food.
In order to guard against any discomfort that might disturb one's prayers, services will end at 4 p.m., immediately followed by a break-the-fast meal.
This revised Yom Kippur protocol will bring Judaism into the 21st century, and will send a message that Judaism is not unbending, but is a flexible way of life consonant with current standards of personal well-being. This in turn will encourage people to make aliya, which will strengthen the Jewish state.
THE MEDIA was ecstatic about the report. Wrote Haaretz: "Loosening the religious stranglehold of the haredim is a historic breakthrough. These unfeeling rabbis want only to preserve their religious monopoly.
The Post editorialized: "It is time to end haredi control over religion and the lucrative sinecures that come with it. These innovations show pluralism at its creative best.
Yediot intoned: "Benighted regulations from obstructionist rabbis are a violation of human rights. The refreshment breaks during services are a model of halachic originality."
Declared Maariv: The ultra-Orthodox have taken away our bread on Pessah, our comfort on Succot, and deprived us of our food and drink on Yom Kippur. These inventive recommendations will pull Jewish law out of the deep freeze.
ON THE following Yom Kippur, the new procedures were implemented, to great public acclaim. All haredi judges were banned from rabbinic courts; the newly appointed judges swiftly converted 200,000 additional new immigrants.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, the government appointed a new committee to reexamine all religious practices that could potentially cause discomfort and inconvenience, specifically targeting kashrut, Shabbat, mikve practices, and all the fast days.
The writer, a former editor of Tradition magazine, served as a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, for 40 years and is the author most recently of Biblical Questions and Explorations.