Lay-led Conversions (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The conversion crisis in Israel has reached breaking point. There is no need to rehearse the statistics or recount the horror stories of rabbinical incompetence and obtuseness, and the resultant injustice and personal suffering. The issue is not merely to right the wrong committed against this or that particular individual who was mistreated by the rabbinical courts. It is not about the unwillingness of this or that religious group to cooperate with other religious groups, Orthodox or otherwise. What is at stake is the Jewish soul of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people were brought to Israel "on eagles' wings" under the banner of Jewish solidarity. The release of the captives of Zion was considered a shining realization of the modern Zionist dream wedded to the ancient mitzva of rescuing captives. None of this would have meant anything to anyone and none of it would have happened were it not for the fundamental commitment to Jewish peoplehood that undergirded both of these values, secular and religious. But the vision and the reality did not coincide. Hundreds of thousands of new immigrants came to Israel and have struck deep roots in the land and in the society. They live and die for Israel. But they are not recognized as Jews. There are hundreds of thousands of such people who would gladly participate in a conversion ceremony welcoming them into the Jewish people, but only if it were based on honesty and respect. Instead they have languished for a generation, giving the lie to any proclamation on the part of Israeli society that it cares to be a Jewish state. The Orthodox establishment has been unwilling to engage this population and the rest of society has ignored the problem or contented itself with some hand-wringing and finger-pointing. For years various compromise plans were suggested and attempted. But none of them has had the full support of the ministries or the rabbinical powers entrusted with jurisdiction over personal status matters. These thousands have been left stranded. They are once more "captives of Zion" - in Zion. Now we are witnesses to a religious establishment that has gone mad. This is the direct result of generations during which its blinkered refusal to respect the great majority of the Jewish people was coddled and supported by a complacent public, represented by a corrupt governmental system. Now the Israeli rabbinical system no longer merely obstructs non-Orthodox groups and Israeli citizens. It is no longer even satisfied with forcing its control upon the Orthodox rabbinate in the United States. It has now begun to turn in on itself, attacking Israeli Orthodox rabbis of hitherto sterling reputations. What is to be done? The crisis must be met now. Every year that passes lessens the interest and willingness of Israeli non-Jews to seek a means to unify their identities with their existential destiny by means of conversion. Ironically, it is ancient rabbinic tradition that offers the solution to contemporary rabbinic paralysis. In its own inimitable manner, mixing historical periods, Biblical verses, legal analysis and fantasy, the Talmud (BTYevamot 78b-79b) discusses the ongoing discomfort that Jewish religious leadership has felt regarding conversion, especially when the conversion candidates are suspected of not being ideal. The story told is that, after much struggle, 150,000 controversial new converts were accepted into Israel during the time of Solomon. The medieval commentators register a difficulty. The Talmud had earlier reported (BTYevamot 24b) that no converts were accepted in the times of David and Solomon out of concern that conversions might be motivated by the impure desire to join a thriving society rather than to join a religious way of life. How, then, could such a large number of converts have been accepted in that era? David Greenstein is yeshiva head of The Academy for Jewish Religion, New York, an independent, pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary. Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.