ASK THE RABBI: Converting minors to solve Israel’s conversion crisis

Israeli society is rapidly growing two types of ‘Jewish Israeli’ populations.

NAOMI ENTREATING [famous convert] Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab, by William Blake, 1795 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NAOMI ENTREATING [famous convert] Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab, by William Blake, 1795
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There are currently 6.6 million Israelis who identify as Jewish. Within that group, somewhere between 375,000 to 400,000 are not recognized as Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law because they were not born to a Jewish mother (according to Orthodox standards) or did not undergo conversion through an Orthodox rabbinic court. This means that roughly 1/20th of the country’s “Jewish” citizens may not marry a bona fide Jew through the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, even though these citizens are fully integrated culturally into the school system, army and workforce.
This group of “culturally Jewish Israelis,” if you will, comes from a variety of backgrounds. They include children of Israeli men who met non-Jewish women abroad; babies born to Israelis through surrogacy in foreign countries; and some Ethiopian immigrants, whose individual status as Jews may be unclear for a variety of reasons. Most prominently, this includes immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, who arrived under the Law of Return, which only requires one Jewish grandparent.
While many succeed in proving their Jewish lineage through projects like Tzohar’s Shorashim institute, others cannot. Moreover, many immigrants arrive as spouses or relatives of these citizens with no pretenses of being Jewish. Roughly 6,000 new immigrants arrive each year with this doubtful status (or as unquestionable gentiles with Israeli relatives), while another 4,000 are born each year.
In contrast, Israel’s conversion authority converts approximately 1,500 citizens each year. Accordingly, Israeli society is rapidly growing two types of “Jewish Israeli” populations. Either these groups will cohabit or marry outside the rabbinate, leading to significant intermarriage, or they will not, leading to greater fissures within Israel’s sensitive social fabric.
To provide a solution, Israel founded a Conversion Authority in 1995 to increase the number of conversions. The problem, however, is that many of these Israelis have no interest in meeting the standards of observance required for conversion according to the majority of Orthodox rabbis, which includes kabbalat mitzvot, sincere acceptance to abide by Jewish law.
To prevent intermarriage in the early 20th century, some figures like rabbis Chaim Grodzinsky, David Tzvi Hoffman and Benzion Uziel leniently ruled that we may convert those who generally intend to observe the basic facets of Jewish law, even if their performance will be lackluster in certain areas. Yet most decisors, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, have argued that Jewish law requires sincere intent to completely observe Jewish law, which is the position of the current Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Kabbalat mitzvot raises a problem with converting children who are presumed not to have the intellect necessary to take upon this responsibility. The Talmud asserts that the judicial court serves as their guardian and can accept for them this categorical benefit. Once reaching the age of majority, the child can theoretically repudiate their Jewishness, but is presumed to consent unless otherwise stated. This paternalistic approach has been challenged regarding children of intermarried couples where the child would be raised in a non-observant home, thereby setting him or her up to sin and become liable for punishment.
When addressing cases in the Diaspora, figures like rabbis Yehiel Weinberg and Abraham Kook asserted that conversions in these cases should not be done and would not be accepted even post facto. They contended that courts who perform such conversions will only create chaos regarding personal status while further removing the most significant social sanction of intermarriage, the threat of one’s children not being accepted in the community.
Yet others like rabbis Yitzhak Shmelkes and Moshe Feinstein allowed such conversions because it remains meritorious for the child to enjoy the sanctity of the Jewish people while her sins will be exculpated because she acts out of ignorance. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer also added that we should seek to convert those of Jewish lineage (zera yisrael) and prevent assimilated Jews from being lost forever.
IN ISRAEL, this lenient approach regarding children with Jewish ancestry was advocated in the 1970s by Ashkenazi chief rabbis Yehuda Unterman and Shlomo Goren to address problems arising from the arrival of the first Soviet immigrants in the 1970s, when only 20% of them had questionable lineage. More stringently, Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef asserted that these conversions shouldn’t be done but would be accepted post facto. Yet he further argued that the rabbinate should convert minors from non-observant families if their parents would agree to send them to a religious public school since they would plausibly get positive influences from such education. This approach was also advocated by Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, the first head of Israel’s Conversion Authority.
In practice, however, most children in these circumstances attend non-religious schools. Today, very few children are converted by the rabbinate since more recent chief rabbis, along with figures like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, have argued that minors should not be converted if it is unlikely they will grow up religious. What’s their solution to the sociological rift and growing intermarriage? That’s not clear.
Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, one of the most senior religious Zionist decisors of this generation, has therefore advocated converting any minors when requested by their Israeli parents. He asserts that in contrast to the stringent positions taken in the Diaspora, leniency today will prevent the scourge of intermarriage in the State of Israel. Moreover, Jewish Israelis, especially if committed to a basic modicum of religiosity (“masorti”), live by default with kosher food from the supermarkets, a national Jewish calendar and a blossoming religious culture. His approach has been supported by other senior figures like rabbis Re’em Hacohen, David Stav, Shlomo Riskin and Haim Amsallem, who have formed a national initiative called Giyur Ka’Halakha.
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The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.