'Covenant': Creating a Jewish conversion spectrum - review

Turning some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ideas toward resolving the Jewish identity crisis

 REFORM JEWS hold up broken hearts as they demonstrate outside the Knesset in 1997 against pending legislation by ultra-religious parties to tighten their grip on conversion issues.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
REFORM JEWS hold up broken hearts as they demonstrate outside the Knesset in 1997 against pending legislation by ultra-religious parties to tighten their grip on conversion issues.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The question of “Who is a Jew,” sits at the nexus of nationality, state, religion and identity – the components that constitute the State of Israel and influence the character of the Jewish people.

This question has serious implications for Israel and the Jewish people, which are intensifying with the identity and demographic changes taking place in the Jewish world. Outside Israel, the greatest challenge is felt most deeply by those whose conception of the Jewish people is based on Halacha (Jewish Law). The intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox US Jews is around 70%. Israel’s challenge, too, is of immense significance. Some 500,000 Israelis are not considered Jewish according to Halacha. Bringing those Israelis into the Jewish fold is, in the eyes of many Israelis, a national challenge of the first order.

The question of identity and its boundaries, and especially the question of valid conversion, has been at the heart of turbulent halachic debate for many years. Due to its complexity in the face of 21st century reality, its implications for the character of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and the various halachic approaches to it – some of them radical – it has garnered considerable attention in academic and halachic literature. 

Despite this, Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy’s most recent book, Covenant and the Jewish Conversion Question: Extending the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, manages to offer an original and important perspective on the issue. More importantly, the book lays out intellectual-halachic ideas that if adopted, could help alleviate current halachic and political tensions surrounding conversion and Jewish identity.

Rabbi yeshiva seminar (black and white) 521 (credit: Courtesy)Rabbi yeshiva seminar (black and white) 521 (credit: Courtesy)

The heart of the book

THE HEART of the book reexamines and offers a groundbreaking look at the issue of conversion through the prism of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophical thought. 

The 20th century leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States, he was a halachic scholar and preeminent thinker. His teachings offered his contemporaries, and continue to offer 21st century seekers, a theological reckoning with modern reality and a means for integrating within it while remaining fully committed to Halacha and the Orthodox way of life. The uniqueness and intellectual force of his body of work make it an important and meaningful source regarding the discourse of Jewish identity.

In this new book, Levy looks at conversion based on fundamental distinctions explored by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Levy draws our attention to one of his best-known dialectics regarding the Jewish people – its character and identity – namely, the distinction between the “covenant of fate” and “covenant of destiny.” 

In his essay Kol Dodi Dofek (“Listen – My Beloved Knocks”), Soloveitchik defines “covenant of fate” as a life of Jewish existence rooted in an involuntary belonging to the Jewish people and its fate – for better or worse. In contrast, the “covenant of destiny” is, in his eyes, Jewish life based on a sense of choice and on the realization of Jewish destiny while constantly and diligently advancing the vision and will of God in the world.

At the same time, Levy brings forward other writings of the rabbi on conversion, based on Maimonides, where he proffers a distinction between two kinds of converts. On the one hand, there is the convert who undergoes an essentially “technical” conversion that maintains the requirements of circumcision, ritual immersion and acceptance of the yoke of commandments in a minimalist manner and brings him or her to the level of an “ordinary” convert. 

On the other hand, the convert has the option of turning his or her joining the Jewish people into an ongoing sacred journey of devotion to learning and spiritual advancement. This type achieves the status of a “righteous” convert.

THE CURRENT halachic debate regarding valid conversion revolves around the question of “acceptance of the yoke of commandments,” that is, the level of halachic commitment prospective converts must accept in order to be a Jew. Many halachic arbitrators maintain that without a full and ongoing commitment to full observance, one cannot join the Jewish people. 

This binary conception of conversion creates a high wall to scale for most who seek to convert today. For these prospective converts who generally live secular lives – in Israel or abroad – many feel this requirement is too radical, and therefore not a viable option.

Based on Soloveitchik’s teachings, Levy proposes that conversion not be seen as a binary decision, but rather as an array of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, the person can become a “righteous” convert and embark on a journey of discovery and dedication to the fullness of Jewish existence as a partner in the Jewish people’s covenant of destiny. 

But there is another step along the way: conversion based on choosing the yoke of the commandments, but in a minimalist form, while accepting the covenant of fate that the Jewish people shoulders. This path, the less demanding one, is a halachically valid option, even if it brings the convert “only” to the status of an “ordinary” convert.

Throughout the chapters of the book, while developing its central idea, Levy reviews the history of halachic jurisprudence on the subject of conversion. He also offers a timely perspective on questions of contemporary concern in Israel and the Jewish world with regard to Jewish identity and conversion. In so doing, he provides the reader with a fascinating exploration not just of Soloveitchik’s thought and what it suggests for contemporary Jewish identity, but also of the current halachic and scholarly literature on this important issue.

On Shavuot, we read about Ruth and how she joined the Jewish people in a way that seems natural and self-evident: “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” Since then, things have grown more complicated, and the challenge facing those who have a stake in the fate of the Jewish people has intensified as well. 

Covenant and the Jewish Conversion Question offers a new way, one with significant potential for tackling the challenge. Intellectuals will read it carefully, but it is to be hoped that influential rabbis, decision makers and anyone for whom the Jewish future is critically important, will do the same, embracing the proposals contained in its pages. 

The writer is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law at the Peres Academic Center.

Covenant and the Jewish Conversion QuestionBy Rabbi Dr. Benji LevyPalgrave Macmillan303 pages; $139.99