“But Ruth replied, ‘Do not ask me to leave you or turn back from following you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.’”
“But Ruth replied, ‘Do not ask me to leave you or turn back from following you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.’”The Book of Ruth
It is perhaps the most moving verse in the Book of Ruth, and one of the most moving in the Bible, capturing the moment Ruth – a young Moabite woman widowed by the death of her Israelite husband – implores her mother-in-law, Naomi, to allow her to accompany her return to Judea, proclaiming her identification with Naomi’s people and with her God.
Ruth’s declaration – and her decision to bind her fate to that of Naomi and her people – has been viewed by rabbis throughout the ages as an act of conversion, and she is considered the archetypal convert to Judaism.
Traditionally, Judaism has held converts in extraordinarily high regard, lauding their dedication to the Jewish people and its faith. The Torah conveys the commandment to love in only three instances: “Love your neighbor like yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), “Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “Love the convert” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The imperative to be sensitive to and love converts appears no fewer than 36 times throughout the Torah, making it one of the most oft-repeated commandments. The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides explains that although converts are included in the general commandment to “love your neighbor,” their decision to take the laws of the Torah upon themselves causes God to love them even more and dedicate a separate commandment to loving them.
But as Jews in Israel and around the world read the Book of Ruth during the holiday of Shavuot, which starts Thursday evening, it is worth asking how beloved – and welcome – converts truly are today.
The controversy of conversions to Judaism in Israel
Israel’s Law of Return, passed in 1950, states that “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh (immigrant).” A 1970 amendment to the law clarifies that any individual who converts to Judaism is eligible to make aliyah, alongside those born as Jews. Over the years, the High Court of Justice has ruled that conversions of all major Jewish denominations are to be recognized for purposes of aliyah – including as recently as March 2021, when the court ruled that even Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel make converts eligible to become citizens under the law (previously, only non-Orthodox conversions conducted outside Israel were recognized for this purpose).
In that ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote that Reform and Conservative communities “are part of the primary Jewish denominations around the world” and thus there is “no reason not to recognize as Jews, for the purposes of the Law of Return, those who converted in those communities in Israel.” Hayut did note, however, that the ruling does not prevent the Knesset from changing the definition of “conversion” under the Law of Return “as it sees fit.”
Weeks later, newly minted Member of Knesset Itamar Ben-Gvir rose to Hayut’s challenge and proposed an amendment to the Law of Return that would add the words “according to Halacha” – that is, Jewish law – after the word “converted.” In explaining his proposed amendment, Ben-Gvir explicitly referenced the court’s rulings on non-Orthodox conversions, writing that the goal of his legislation was to nullify those decisions and establish Orthodox conversions as the only acceptable mode of acquiring Israeli citizenship. His proposal did not go very far. At the time, Ben-Gvir was an opposition MK representing a small faction, and his proposed amendment went no further than an initial reading in the Knesset plenum.
The Ben-Gvir of 2021, however, is not the Ben-Gvir of today. As part of the coalition negotiations for the current government in November, a newly emboldened Ben-Gvir demanded that the state withdraw recognition from non-Orthodox conversions and that those converted under non-Orthodox auspices no longer be considered Jewish for purposes of aliyah. At the time, Ben-Gvir was reportedly working with the haredi parties to present a united front and ensure that Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t reject their demand. Ultimately, none of the coalition agreements included this clause; instead, they refer to strengthening the state conversion system. The fact that he raised the demand, however, suggests that he isn’t done with the subject and one wonders whether his demand will reemerge once current legislative crises subside.
But not only non-Orthodox conversions have come under assault in recent years. In July 2016, I accompanied my then-boss, Natan Sharansky, to a protest outside the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem after a Petah Tikva rabbinical court rejected the Jewishness of a woman who had converted under the auspices of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in New York. Rabbi Lookstein is one of America’s preeminent Modern Orthodox rabbis; he oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion in 2009. It turned out that Rabbi Lookstein’s name did not appear on a secret list of approved rabbis maintained by the Chief Rabbinate; in a court hearing, the rabbinate later claimed that no such list exists but that it was in the process of creating one. Since then, several additional cases have emerged of conversions conducted by Orthodox rabbis abroad that have been invalidated by the Israeli rabbinate.
Given the challenges to non-Orthodox conversions and to Orthodox conversions conducted outside Israel, one might expect that the official Orthodox conversion process overseen by the state would be fully optimized to fulfill its purpose and convert as many individuals genuinely interested in joining the Jewish people as possible.
Alas, this is not the case.
As my colleague Zvika Klein wrote in this paper earlier in the week, a damning new report by ITIM – an Israeli nonprofit that works to make Israel’s religious establishment more responsive to Israelis’ religious needs – and the Menomadin Center for Jewish and Democratic Law at Bar-Ilan University has found that Orthodox conversion in Israel, even under official auspices, is exceedingly difficult. More than half a million Israelis are defined as “nonreligious” – that is, not belonging to any faith group – but fewer than 1% of them started the conversion process in 2022. Of those who did start the long and cumbersome process, fewer than half were able to complete it, and even those who are accepted for conversion by the Chief Rabbinate often wait months for their conversion certificate to arrive.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The overwhelming majority of “nonreligious” Israelis are immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish ancestry made them eligible for aliyah. They live in Israel, serve in the army, pay taxes and celebrate Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, but they cannot be married, divorced or buried under official Jewish auspices because they are not Jewish according to Jewish religious law. Their Jewish heritage puts them in a category known as Zera Yisrael (“seed of Israel”) and many prominent rabbis have called for a concerted effort to ease their conversion process.
“The conversion system continues to make it difficult for converts and thus distances those considered Zera Yisrael from the people of Israel,” according to the ITIM report.
“For two decades, the conversion system has not been successful in its mission,” said Rabbi Dr. Shaul Farber, ITIM’s founder. “It is time for the state to adopt independent Orthodox courts and accept their conversions as full halachic conversions, thus bringing people closer to Judaism instead of alienating them. We do not want to wake up after it’s too late.”
As we read the story of Ruth this Shavuot, let us think of those who are saying “your people will be my people, and your God, my God” today. The Torah could not be clearer: converts are to be embraced. It is in our collective interest to create avenues for conversion that are open, streamlined and welcoming and to push back against efforts to close the gates of conversion before those who wish to walk through them. Let us create a reality in which those who wish to bind their fates with that of the Jewish people feel wanted, respected and – yes – loved.
Chag same’ach. Happy Shavuot.