An open letter to Israel’s chief rabbis

If we do not act quickly, growing assimilation will not only overwhelm the Jewish character of the State of Israel, but actually undermine its very existence and security.

A Jewish worshipper blows a Shofar,  at the Western Wall ahead of Rosh Hashana (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
A Jewish worshipper blows a Shofar, at the Western Wall ahead of Rosh Hashana
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Renowned British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), a proud secular Jew, warns us that our need for ideal solutions is often beyond our reach and in fact dangerous.
“I believe... that some of the ultimate values by which men live cannot be reconciled or combined, not just for practical reasons, but in principle, conceptually... You cannot combine full liberty with full equality – full liberty for the wolves cannot be combined with full liberty for the sheep. Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness can collide... the idea of a perfect solution of human problems – of how to live – cannot be coherently conceived . . . there is no avoiding compromises; they are bound to be made: the very worst can be averted by trade-offs. So much for this, so much for that... How much justice, how much mercy? How much kindness, how much truth? The idea of some ultimate solution of all our problems is incoherent...
All fanatical belief in the possibility of a final solution, reached no matter how, cannot but lead to suffering, misery, blood, terrible oppression” ( R. Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin).
Anybody who deals with the crisis of conversion in the State of Israel had better take these words to heart.
If we do not act quickly, growing assimilation will not only overwhelm the Jewish character of the State of Israel, but actually undermine its very existence and security.
Nearly 400,000 Russian legal residents of Jewish descent, but who are according to Halacha not Jewish, could unwittingly bring an end to the Jewish state within the next 50 to 100 years, once their non-Jewish children marry into Jewish families. While it is true that if their sons marry Jewish women their children will be Jewish, this is far from a healthy option. The conversion issue is not just a halachic problem, but also a sociological one.
It is highly undesirable for so many people of Jewish descent to ultimately remain non- Jews, especially in Israel. It will create serious social difficulties, including discrimination and feelings of rejection, which can easily undermine a society that is already dealing with enough problems.
Unresolved issues accumulate and inevitably create catastrophes. Many people see them coming, but like sleepers in the midst of a nightmare, they do nothing because the nightmare paralyzes them.
While much more must be done to inspire people to become Jewish and observe Halacha – through a welcoming atmosphere, exciting and convincing seminars, invitations to our homes, and other means, demanding of people to observe all of the commandments is too much for many of them.
Here is where we need to take notice of Berlin’s warning. There are no perfect solutions.
A far-reaching compromise and an ideological trade-off will be necessary. We must choose between a priori halachic standards – only converting people who are prepared to live according to Halacha, consequently causing a flood of assimilation in the State of Israel and endangering its existence as well as the security of millions of Jews – or using every lenient halachic view, expressed by major halachic authorities of the past and present, to prevent that (See my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, chapters 41 and 46).
It will be necessary to establish a halachic ruling and to admit that the survival of the State of Israel overrules the need for such a halachic commitment on an individual level.
However painful, we are not permitted to apply the conventional strict standards of conversion without using many lenient rabbinical opinions as stated in our traditional sources. The strict opinions never imagined a modern Jewish state that would absorb nearly 400,000 non-Jews of Jewish descent.
It would be a colossal mistake to apply the strict halachic ruling, constituting a transgression of the very Halacha to which we are committed.
The halachic need to convert these people, no matter what, is not the lenient ruling, but in fact the stricter one.
Instead of waiting until the candidates are ready to take on Jewish Law and only then converting them, we should first convert them, make them feel comfortable, invite them to our homes and synagogues, and slowly introduce them to Jewish religious values and Halacha. This should be done by way of gentle persuasion and love, with no coercion whatsoever. We must give them the option of making their own choices, introducing them to a “ladder of observance” that they can climb at their own pace and within their own abilities. This will be much more effective than making all sorts of preconditions, which for the most part are counterproductive.
Let’s tell them that it would be great if they would start observing some biblical laws and that there’s no need (yet) for them to observe all rabbinical laws. Let it be optional. We can inform them about the many minority opinions in the Talmud that may be more applicable to them and will speak more to their hearts. When they are ready for it, they may introduce alternative laws and practices and decide how to observe Shabbat while making use of tradition. Let us suggest that saying “Shema Yisrael” in the morning and evening is a major accomplishment; putting on tefillin once in a while is a most meaningful undertaking; and wearing a kippa all the time is not even Halacha, but can be a beautiful and pious act (See: Biur Ha-Gra, Orach Chaim 8:2). Let them make their own berachot if they want, or just say “wow” before they eat and “thanks” after they are satisfied (See: Berachot 40b). Let them use their creative imagination and feel that they are gradually building their own Judaism and seeing its wonders. Slowly, some of them will discern the wisdom of the sages and introduce more of rabbinical law into their lives. They will do it willingly, out of a sincere desire to be part of this great tradition.
It is high time the rabbis realize that the very standing of Halacha is at stake. If it cannot find a realistic solution to the conversion problem, it will become less and less significant in the eyes of Jews the world over. In fact, it will prove that contemporary Halacha has run its course. Ultimately, it will lose its influence on our young people. It is not only the survival of Jews that is at stake, but also the survival of Halacha itself.
Most important to remember is that kabbalat mitzvot (accepting the commandments) is not the only issue as far as conversion is concerned. Judaism is much more than just Halacha. The first convert, Abraham, was only asked to observe a few of the commandments, such as circumcision. An incubation period was required to allow for an embryonic form of Judaism, which was to develop slowly and be solidified at Sinai with the giving of the Torah. In this time frame, the great moral-religious foundations of Judaism and the conditions for creating the Jewish nation were shaped. Only afterward was it possible to introduce the world of mitzvot and Halacha.
We should allow potential converts this option to slowly work their way up to Sinai.
And if they will not arrive at this destination, we should be pleased that they have cast their fate with our people. Every mitzva the convert does is done as a Jew, and that in itself is a great accomplishment (See: R. Ben Zion Uziel, Mishpatei Uziel Yore De’eah: 2:58). We can then hope that the convert’s child will observe many more commandments.
At the same time, we should not forget that strict adherence to the law only can actually do great harm. Every legal system works in categories of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful. But life itself is much more than any law can ever sustain or cover – even divine law. There is a narrative that slips through the net of the law and rises above it. A nation with a mission must be constantly aware that sometimes it has to break the strict law so as to allow the spirit of the law and its ultimate goal to have the upper hand.
While far from ideal from a religious or conventional halachic point of view, it may be necessary to introduce mass conversion as the only option to overcome the impending danger of countless mixed marriages in Israel, which will otherwise break the backbone of the Jewish state. Inclusiveness is now the order of the day (See: R. Yoel ben Nun, Eretz Acheret, 17).
We must remind ourselves that since the State of Israel was established, our future is in our own hands. Never have we had such freedom to do whatever we wanted when it comes to our own destiny. No one can stop us from doing what needs to be done. This is unprecedented in the last two thousand years of Jewish history. All that is required is courage.
This is true about Halacha as well. It is up to the leading Orthodox rabbis to realize this and show us the way. Whether they like it or not, ultimately they will be forced to take drastic steps and change their attitude toward the issue of conversion in the State of Israel.
The only question is how many casualties will there be before they come around. They should be most careful not to extend their imprimatur after the fact.
“The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it,” said English author G.K. Chesterton (The Methuselahite).
The writer is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. To receive his Thoughts to Ponder for free: