Who is a convert – again?

Nativ continues to function to this day, with programs both in the civilian and military spheres.

An illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
An illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
HOW MANY times must we struggle against the Chief Rabbinate’s attempt to attain complete control over conversion in Israel and, perhaps, in the entire Jewish world? Since the earliest days of the Jewish State when it was decided that Jews alone had an automatic right to citizenship in Israel, the question of how one not born a Jew could enter that fold became a matter of fierce debate. The Law of Return specifies that converts are eligible, but does not specify how one becomes a convert.
That very question – how does one become a Jew – has a long and complicated history.
To put it briefly, in the Torah there is no mention of the way in which this could be done.
No specific ceremony exists marking the moment when one ceased to be a member of some other group and became instead a member of the people of Israel. What is specified is that there were some who could eventually join “the community of the Lord” and others who could not. Deuteronomy 22 states that Edomites and Egyptians can “be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation” (22:8-9) while “No Ammonite or Moabite…even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” because of their treatment of the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness (22:4-7). It would seem, then, that throughout the Biblical period non-Israelites who lived among the Israelites in the land of Canaan – termed gerim (strangers) in Hebrew – could gradually be assimilated into the society of Israel.
After the return from Babylonian exile, Ezra determined that all the foreign wives Jewish men had brought with them had to be expelled together with their children since such marriages were a sin against God that would bring with it God’s punishment upon the returnees (Ezra 9-10). There was no remedy offered, no way in which they could join the community of Jews. Ezra did not suggest that they wait three generations. Some scholars believe that the book of Ruth reflects a rejection of Ezra’s action since it depicts a Moabite woman, no less, who had married a Jew and now marries another after declaring “…your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). She even becomes the ancestress of David the King! One can see in this book the beginning of the idea that by accepting membership in the people of Israel and declaring allegiance to the God of Israel one could change one’s status immediately and become a Jew.
Could it be that Ruth triumphs over Ezra and actually suggests a new development in the process of conversion? During the period after the return, the Second Temple, the process of conversion that we have today became a reality. The term Ger becomes ‘a convert’ rather than simply a stranger. All the stories told of converts during the time of Hillel and Shammai, 1st century BCE, reflect that idea and it was then that Jewish proselytizing became common. The Sages even read this back into early history, going so far as to depict Abraham and Sarah as conducting conversion classes! (See Genesis Rabbah 39:5) To return to current problems in Israel, time after time laws have been proposed limiting the recognition of conversions to Judaism so that only those conducted by the official chief rabbinate of Israel would be recognized. None of these has succeeded. Once again during this year’s session, Knesset members representing ultra-Orthodox groups have attempted to foist a law on Israel in which it would be forbidden for anyone but a Conversion Authority controlled by the Chief Rabbinate to conduct conversions here. Usually these laws have been aimed at disenfranchising the Masorti/ Conservative Movement and the Reform Movement, but they have never been adopted and, thanks to the courts, such conversions continue to be performed in Israel and to be recognized by the Ministry of the Interior.
Obviously the Rabbinate does not recognize them, so they cannot be married by the Rabbinate.
Unfortunately if such conversions are performed in Israel rather than abroad, they are not recognized for the purpose of attaining citizenship under the Law of Return, although there is no law stating that. The matter has been before the court for years and has yet to be adjudicated.
The current legislative attempt is somewhat different in that it is aimed also at Orthodox conversions done in Israel that are not supervised by the Chief Rabbinate. A group of modern Orthodox rabbis has been conducting conversions outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate with great success. This worries the Chief Rabbinate and is seen by its supporters as a major threat. Why are Orthodox rabbis doing such conversions? Obviously because they recognize that the Chief Rabbinate’s conversions are not following the requirements of Jewish Law but going far beyond them in strictness and are therefore discouraging many potential converts and rejecting many others who do apply.
I have been through these battles before. In 1997 I was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to serve as the representative of the Masorti/Conservative Movement on the Neeman 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 Jewish Law, but not according to the extreme interpretations that were - and still are - currently 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 members of the Commission were given to believe that the Chief Rabbinate had indicated a willingness to agree to this arrangement.
The Commission asked to receive the Rabbinate's agreement in writing 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 Neeman 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 a joint institute and established it in partnership with the Jewish Agency. The Israeli Conservative/Masorti and Reform Movements both agreed to participate with the condition that they would not halt their own conversion programs in Israel and would initiate court action to have their converts recognized as Jews by the Ministry of the Interior.
THAT INSTITUTE – known now as Nativ - continues to function to this day, with programs both in the civilian and military spheres. As a member of the Board I know that the Institute 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 under control of the Chief Rabbinate, which in all too many cases continue to 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 that they will be accepted.
One of the great tragedies of Jewish life in Israel in the last half-century has been the failure to deal with the fact that a huge number of olim from the former Soviet Union are either not Jewish according to Jewish Law or unable to prove their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate. The vast majority of these people identify themselves as Jews and want to be members of the Jewish People, although not necessarily observant of all the laws of Judaism as interpreted by the Rabbinate.
As the years go by, more and more of these Russian olim and their children have been brought up in Israel, attend Israeli schools, go into the Army and feel 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. Instead of finding a way of dealing with this problem the Chief Rabbinate has continued to place every possible stumbling block before these potential converts. History will judge the Rabbinate harshly for this failure.
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. Go study.'" The other two were similarly rebuffed by Shammai but encouraged and accepted by Hillel. 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).
Orthodox conversions courts free of the influence of the Chief Rabbinate represent an attempt to move conversion in Israel from the position of Shammai to the way of Hillel. These rabbis who are more open and sensitive than the current conversion courts, would be willing to convert children and youngsters according to the requirements of Jewish Law. Because of that, anyone interested in promoting conversion among the hundreds of thousands of olim from the FSU and in making conversion more available should oppose any move that would stop these courts from functioning. Indeed any law that increases the power of the Chief Rabbinate to control conversions must be opposed by those who want to solve the problem of these olim or who believe in Hillel’s way as opposed to Shammai’s when it comes to conversion.
If new conversion courts can be established that will 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 will 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 would be victorious and we would succeed in bringing our brothers and sisters who live among us into the Jewish fold under the wings of the Divine Presence!
Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a founder of the Masorti Movement in Israel. His most recent book is ‘Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy’ (JPS), now available in a Hebrew edition published by Yedioth Books and the Schechter Institute.