Open the gates of conversion

This commentary is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Green, a beloved mentor and friend, a man of great compassion, wisdom and modesty who taught me the lessons of life.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan, 
‘You shall not pervert the judgment of a convert orphan…. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there…. therefore I command you to do this thing’ (Deut. 24: 17,18)
This commentary is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Green, a beloved mentor and friend, a man of great compassion, wisdom and modesty who taught me the lessons of life.
It is no secret that I, together with a goodly number of much respected rabbis and yeshiva heads under the halachic direction of the Ari Shebahavurah, Harav Nahum Rabinovitch, am heaven-bent to open the gates of conversion, especially for the former residents of the Soviet Union who are now living amongst us in Israel under the Law of Return.
To this end, we have already established a number of religious conversion courts which are beginning to process hundreds of would-be converts, adults as well as children. Unfortunately, our courts are not yet under the over-arching rubric of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, although we would very much like to be. Our conversions are completely within Halacha – indeed the name of our organization is Giyur KeHalakhah.
None of us would be involved in a conversion if it took place without complete acceptance of the mitzvot, and without being in accordance with decisions of previous chief rabbis of Israel. (In this regard, it is the stringencies of the current Chief Rabbinate that have departed from what was accepted by previous chief rabbis, to whose policies we remain consistent) or if it lacked the imprimatur of Rav Rabinovitch in terms of its halachic policies.
We also believe that we have every legal right to establish such independent courts. Indeed, the last government had actually passed a special conversion edict which empowered any city rabbi to establish his own conversion court, an edict which was repealed almost before it was put into practice by the large haredi (ultra-Orthodox) infusion into the new coalition government. But the principle of the permissibility of such courts was established by the original initiative of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Moreover, until approximately the year 2000 there were functioning individual conversion courts established by city rabbis, precisely because the chief rabbinate was never given exclusive control over conversion.
The fact is that throughout Jewish history there were always more stringent conversion courts which followed Beit Shammai and more lenient conversion courts which followed Beit Hillel, and nevertheless “Beit Shammai were not prevented from marrying women from Beit Hillel and Beit Hillel were not prevented from marrying women from Beit Shammai” (Mishna Eduyot 4, 5).
Why are we now so concerned about the issue of conversion? Firstly, for the sake of the Israeli citizens under the Law of Return who are living among us.
Please note again the introductory verse to this commentary: “You shall not pervert the judgment of a convert orphan [Hebrew, ger yatom].” The Hebrew word ger is usually and correctly translated as convert, but it also means stranger and its root meaning comes from the verb to dwell. Hence, since ger yatom in our context seems to be a compound noun. We agree with the Ba’al Haturim that every convert is ipso facto an orphan, since he/she is separated from his biological parents and is truly a child only of his/her metaphysical parents, Abraham and Sarah.
Now let us cite a few startling verses from the Book of Exodus, right after the Revelation at Mount Sinai: “You shall not taunt [verbally] or oppress [economically] the convert, because you were like ‘converts’ in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Rashi explains: “The word ger refers to an individual who was not born in the place he lives, but came from a foreign place to live there.”
And further (Exodus 23:9), “Do not oppress the convert [ger, stranger] for you know the feelings of a stranger; you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The word ger in the contexts we have just cited certainly could refer to the Israeli citizens who suffered in the former Soviet Union. The great majority arrived here after perestroika breached the Iron Curtain in the late 20th century. They are not native Israelis; and some 300,000 of them are not even halachic Jews, since they have Jewish ancestry only from their fathers’ side. Yes, according to great authorities like Rav Moshe Isserles, Rav David Zvi Hoffman and the Mishpatei Uziel, they are considered zera yisrael; they have Jewish (paternal) ancestry so they require formal conversion. We have brought them to Israel under the Law of Return so we must convert them completely kedat moshe v’yisrael (according to the laws of Moses and Israel). They must not remain strangers, forbidden to marry the “real” Jews! We must reach out to them in love, inspire them with familial warmth and the ethical values of halachic Judaism, and convert them or at least their children, as soon as possible. We dare not pervert the judgment (a conversion court renders judgment, mishpat) of stranger- convert-orphan. We must redeem them under God just as He redeemed our ancestors from Egypt.
And secondly we are establishing our courts for the sake of the Jewish community in Israel, for the sake of the future State of Israel. The division of our society into two distinct groupings, a significant minority of Israelis who cannot intermarry with their neighboring halachic Jews, would be social suicide for our “Jewish State.” At the very least it would lead to institutionalizing secular marriage, but even more likely would be the total separation of an obsolete religion from a state which will have become increasingly secular and decreasingly Jewish. Reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of zera yisrael ought to be the No. 1 priority of the Jewish State.
■ Shabbat shalom Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.