Bearing the yoke

Rabbis split on whether national unity should be a consideration in the conversion process.

amar 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amar 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently sent out a press release to religious affairs reporters that seemed to have no news value whatsoever. In the communiqué, Amar, who is personally in charge of supervising the National Conversion Authority, clarified various legal aspects of the process that transforms a gentile into a Jew. The chief rabbi's main message was that becoming a Jew entailed embracing an Orthodox way of life, known in Jewish legalese as "accepting upon oneself the yoke of the commandments." For most Orthodox-minded Jews, Amar's message was no big surprise. Amar seemed to be reiterating the obvious. True, Amar's statement was a relevant message ahead of Shavuot, a holiday that focuses on conversion as a major theme. On Shavuot we read the story of Ruth the Moabite's decision to cleave to Naomi's people. Ruth is seen as the archetypical Biblical conversion story. Shavuot is also the holiday that commemorates the "conversion" of the entire Jewish people via their acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, seen on the backdrop of the latest controversy rocking the Conversion Authority, Amar's innocuous missive was no less than an attempt to stave off a massive haredi offensive on the chief Sephardi rabbi's credibility. Amar was restating the obvious in an attempt to defend himself against haredi rabbis and machers who accused him of being negligent in his position as Israel's guardian of the gateway to the Jewish faith. The saga that precipitated Amar's hasty press release began about a month ago when Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a highly respected rabbinical judge, published a 50-page diatribe thinly veiled as a halachic decision. In it, Sherman discredited Rabbi Haim Druckman, who headed the authority, and he also severely criticized the raison d'etre of the authority. Sherman, who lives in the large haredi enclave of Bnei Brak, wrote that the rabbis who worked in the Conversion Authority had a Zionist agenda and were, therefore, guilty of allowing irrelevant ideological considerations to corrupt their judgment. "All these rabbis have one thing in common," wrote Sherman, referring to rabbis serving on state-run conversion courts. "They all see in conversion a sacred commandment as part of their national responsibility... "But in reality, for tens of years now, the vast majority of converts via the Conversion Authority remain gentile in their behavior, except for the performance of rituals that remain for these converts empty of spiritual content. These converts see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people solely in a patriotic, nationalistic way without any religiously significant feelings of belonging. "Therefore, these [conversion court] rabbis should be seen as intentional transgressors of Jewish law... and their conversions invalid." According to Sherman, who in his decision represented the haredi rabbinical stance on conversion, religious Zionist rabbis have put their profane political goals of national unity before their religious commitments as rabbis. For the sake of a stronger, more homogeneous Israeli society, these rabbis have compromised a central principle in Jewish law - the obligation to accept the yoke of the commandments. UNDENIABLY, THE rabbis who work in the Conversion Authority - almost all of whom are religious Zionists - view conversions as a national priority. One of the judges in the special conversion courts run under the auspices of the authority, Rabbi David Bass, eloquently described the challenge facing the rabbis of the State of Israel in an article that appeared in the rabbinic periodical Tzohar before Rosh Hashana. Some 300,000 non-Jews have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return, pointed out Bass. These immigrants have integrated into Israeli society. They attend state schools, serve in the IDF, study at universities and participate in the labor market. "Within a few decades," wrote Bass, "a rift is liable to be created between totally secular Jews willing to marry non-Jewish immigrants [whom they meet in day-to-day to life] and religious Jews who will not marry gentiles. Eventually, the Jewish people of Israel will be split into two separate peoples who are unwilling to marry one another. "In my opinion, if we do not succeed in assimilating the waves of immigration into the Jewish people and its heritage, if we do not succeed in creating a consciousness of a common destiny, a common purpose among the religious, traditional and secular Jews of Israel, I do not see how we will manage to exist in this part of the world in the long run. "Therefore, conversion should not be seen solely as the interest of the non-Jewish immigrant looking to integrate into Israeli society, it is also an existential imperative of the State of Israel as we enter the 21st century." For Bass, conversion to Judaism is a means of creating stronger social cohesion and a broader common denominator among the diverse segments of Israeli society. If rabbis could convert en masse non-Jewish immigrants to Israel and their gentile offspring, they could head off the inevitable social rupture that would result from a reality in which one segment of the society is unwilling to marry another. In contrast, for Sherman and other haredi rabbis, introducing national unity into a discussion of the finer points of halachic discourse is nothing short of blasphemy. Maintaining the strength of the state has no inherently religious value. Therefore, it is illegitimate, and downright forbidden, to sully the conversion process by utilizing it as a means of fostering "national unity." Besides, Israeli society is and has always been fragmented. Performing a "quickie" conversion on a few thousand gentiles will not fundamentally change anything. IN REALITY, though, the chasm separating Sherman and Bass and the two rabbinic camps they represent is not so wide. Both camps agree that accepting all the demands of Orthodoxy is an indispensable condition for becoming a Jew. Bass and his colleagues who sit on the special conversion courts run by the Conversion Authority demand that all converts accept "the yoke of commandments." Even among the most liberal religious Zionist rabbis who sit on the courts, accepting the commandments as interpreted by Orthodoxy is absolutely essential to the conversion process. These rabbis reject more lenient opinions within Orthodoxy that do not see the acceptance of an Orthodox lifestyle as integral to becoming a Jew, though this minority opinion does exist. Most notable is former chief Sephardi rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who wrote that "adherence to all the commandments is not a condition for accepting converts even from the start... even if we know that the convert is not interested in adhering to the commandments, in the end he will come around to keeping them. Therefore, we are obligated to accept him… and if he does not adhere to the commandments he will be punished." For Uziel, "accepting the yoke of the commandments" does not necessarily entail an honest intention at the time of the conversion to keep all the commandments. Rather it means that the potential convert is aware and faithfully believes that conversion involves a fundamental change in one's spiritual status. As a result, after the conversion he or she will be obligated, like all Jews, to keep all the commandments and any laxity in adherence will be subject to heavenly punishment. Less well-known is Rabbi Moshe Cohen, a former rabbinical judge in Tiberias who immigrated from Gerba, Tunisia. Cohen ruled in favor of accepting a convert who declared before the conversion that he intended to continue to earn his living as a professional soccer player - including playing games on Shabbat. But the vast majority of rabbis insist that the prospective convert to Judaism have an honest intention to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle at least at the time of the actual conversion. One of the sources for the requirement to accept the entire Torah and its commandments is derived from the Biblical account of the revelations on Mount Sinai where the entire Jewish people proclaimed "we will do and we will listen," which is remembered on Shavuot. NEVERTHELESS, THERE are nuances to the understanding of what it means to accept the yoke of commandments. Even on Mount Sinai, with all the prophetic revelations and spiritual pyrotechnics described in Exodus, the "thunders and lightnings," the "sound of a shofar exceedingly loud," the smoke and the fire - still, the Jewish people's acceptance of the yoke of commandments was limited, according to the rabbis. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, America's most important halachic authority of the previous generation, pointed this out, saying "the acceptance of the commandments by the Jewish people on Mount Sinai was done in accordance with their spiritual level. None were on the level of the Patriarch Abraham who could withstand life's many trials. Even so, their acceptance was sufficient." Built into the conversion process, said Feinstein, is the understanding that the convert will inevitably fail to keep some of the commandments at some point in his or her life. The most important thing is that the convert be honest in his or her willingness to adopt a religious lifestyle. Still, a myriad of questions arise that reflect the complexitites of life: Should a rabbi accept a convert who plans to marry a secular Jew? Should he accept one who does not belong to a large, supportive Orthodox community? How about one who cannot send his or her children to an Orthodox school? Religious Zionist rabbis, in their willingness to make the conversion process as "user-friendly" as possible, will tend to accept a convert even if they know that some of the commandments will present a difficult challenge for them. They will do this because they believe that conversions foster national unity - itself a religious value. In contrast, haredim who do not buy into the "national interest" argument are reluctant to admit newcomers. They want to be 100 percent sure that the candidate for conversion is really serious. Making the conversion process hard is one way of weeding out the less resolute. Both haredim and religious Zionists think they are performing God's will, which makes it unlikely that the two sides will reach a compromise in the near future. In the meantime, the Jewish world should expect more rabbinic controversy and dissent. Where does Amar stand in this argument? Does he believe there is an inherent value in helping to convert as many non-Jews as possible for the sake of national unity? He has not said. His latest statement did not shed any light on his position. Rather it restated what most Orthodox rabbis would tell you: Accepting the yoke of commandments is central to the conversion process. By reiterating the obvious, Amar calmed his haredi critics without discrediting the Conversion Authority. Maybe this attempt at reconciliation was Amar's real message for Shavuot. q