Reflections: Conversion – Moving from Shammai to Hillel

Conversion to Judaism in Israel is making the front pages once again, as a bill granting municipal chief rabbis the right to convene conversion courts became a government regulation.

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November 6, 2014 15:11
The Torah

The Torah. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Whenever I hear about the problems of conversion in Israel, I recall three stories told in the Talmud concerning non-Jews who were repulsed when they approached Shammai for conversion and then turned to Hillel, who welcomed them.

The most well-known is of a heathen “who came to Shammai and said to him, ‘I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.’ Shammai repulsed him with the builder’s cubit he had in his hand. He then went to Hillel and Hillel said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.

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Go study.’” Later, these three said, “The irritability of Shammai would have driven us from the world. The patience of Hillel brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence’” (Shabbat 31a).

Conversion to Judaism in Israel is making the front pages once again, as a bill granting municipal chief rabbis the right to convene conversion courts was withdrawn from the Knesset and instead became a government regulation.

Before that the bill, which passed its first reading in the Knesset, was quashed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although he had promised to support it, he changed his mind due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox.

Since he might need them for his next coalition, he was sacrificing the possibility of opening conversion to more and more people. Fortunately, coalition politics forced him to change his mind again, and agree to accept it as a government directive.

The downside is that a government directive can be rescinded just as easily by a new government – and if the next government includes the ultra-Orthodox parties, this may indeed happen.

This bill was an attempt to move conversion in Israel from the position of Shammai to the way of Hillel. Hopefully now, the current dreadful situation may improve, because there are certainly local rabbis who are more open and sensitive than the current conversion courts, rabbis who would be willing to convert children and youngsters according to the requirements of Jewish law. Thus, anyone interested in promoting conversion among the hundreds of thousands of olim, or immigrants, from the former Soviet Union, and in making conversion more available, should support this move.

It must be admitted, however, that this it is not a panacea. It is unlikely to bring an end to the conversion crisis, for the simple reason that it still gives the Chief Rabbinate the final say. Unless the chief rabbi agrees to sign the certificate, the conversion is not official and the position of the rabbinate until now has been straight out of the school of Shammai. The chief rabbis have already expressed their opposition and have stated that they will not recognize the conversions performed by these new courts, but reality may change their position.

We will have to wait and see, but I remain skeptical.

My skepticism, grounded in personal experience, has a good basis. In 1997 I was asked by Netanyahu to serve as the representative of the Masorti Movement on the Ne’eman commission.

That commission was appointed to deal with the thorny question of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, a matter which was threatening to bring down the government coalition and endanger Israel’s relations with the Diaspora.

Then, as now, the prime minister’s main concern was to preserve his coalition.

The commission went beyond its initial mandate, however, and investigated the matter of conversion of some 300,000 immigrants from the FSU who were not Jewish according to Jewish law. A proposal was made that an Institute for Jewish Studies be established under the joint auspices of the three Jewish streams, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, which would prepare candidates for conversion under an agreed-upon curriculum. That curriculum would include a positive approach toward the existence of different streams within Judaism, and the institute would employ educational staff representing all the streams.

At the same time, the Chief Rabbinate would appoint conversion courts that would be more welcoming and flexible, and would convert according to the demands of halacha, but not according to the extreme interpretations that were – and still are – in use. Jewish law is much more liberal on these matters than the rabbinic courts here demand.

This institute was to function on a trial basis for a few years, during which time the non-Orthodox groups would refrain from performing conversions in Israel. If things worked out well, this would become a permanent agreement.

The commission members were given to believe that the Chief Rabbinate had indicated a willingness to agree to this arrangement, and we asked to receive the rabbinate’s agreement before adopting the proposal. What we received instead was a vitriolic letter from the chief rabbis in which they not only refused to have anything to do with such a plan, but castigated the Conservative and Reform movements as being responsible for the decline of Judaism throughout the world, and for assimilation and intermarriage.

As a result, the Ne’eman commission disbanded and, although the chairman sent the government a report describing the proposed institute, the commission itself never issued an official report or made any recommendations.

The government adopted the idea of the joint institute and established it in partnership with the Jewish Agency.

The Masorti and Reform movements both agreed to participate, on the condition they would not have to halt their own conversion programs in Israel and would initiate court action to have their converts recognized as Jews by the Interior Ministry.

That institute continues to function to this day, with programs both in the civilian and military spheres. As a member of the board, I know it does excellent work. Unfortunately, when measured by the number of actual converts, its success has been limited.

The main stumbling block from the beginning has been the rabbinical courts, which in all too many cases continue to follow Shammai and make extreme and unnecessary demands.

They turn away converts who could and should be accepted. The result is that many potential converts simply do not register, since they do not believe they will be accepted.

As the years go by, more and more of these Russian olim and their children have been brought up in Israel, attended Israeli schools and gone into the army, considering themselves well integrated into Israeli life. An increasing number also marry Israeli Jews in civil ceremonies elsewhere, so that intermarriage has become a reality in Israel.

The optimal time for these conversion programs to have succeeded has long passed and, thanks to the rabbinate, the golden opportunity to solve this social and religious problem with relative ease has been missed.

History will judge the Chief Rabbinate harshly for this failure.

If new conversion courts are established to handle the matter properly, recognizing that these people – who have Jewish ancestry, and wish to live in the Jewish state and be part of the Jewish people – must be treated with sensitivity, and if the rabbinate does not vindictively refuse to recognize the converts, we might yet be able to deal with this challenging problem.

But all of that is a big “if.”

How wonderful it would be if Hillel’s approach were victorious, and we succeeded in bringing our brothers and sisters who live among us into the Jewish fold under the wings of the Divine Presence!


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