Think Again: Why army conversions are lacking

If one were to conceive of an environment to inspire commitment to mitzva observance, the IDF would be the last place.

Israeli reserve soldiers 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli reserve soldiers 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Both proponents and opponents of the proposal to remove army track conversions entirely from the purview of the Chief Rabbinate, or at least to turn the chief rabbi into a rubber stamp, agree about one thing: The goal of the proposal is to make conversions much easier and therefore more numerous.
According to proponents, a way must be found to solve the problem of more than 300,000 people from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha, who arrived since the early 1990s.
First, we must acknowledge that the problem (the official estimate of 300,000 is conservative) largely resulted from deliberate government and Jewish Agency policy. Former absorption minister Yuli Edelstein once described the Jewish Agency’s approach as “turning over every stone in Vilna in search of a drop of Jewish blood.”
The results were predictable. By the end of the previous decade, nearly two-thirds of the immigrants were non-Jewish. And the Jews tended to be the elderly and infirm among them.
When prime minister Ehud Barak went to Ben-Gurion Airport to greet the millionth new immigrant from the FSU, there were almost no Jews on the flight.
Returning from a 2001 trip to Moscow and Kiev, minister for Diaspora affairs Michael Melchior reported, “We could not find Jews,” among those waiting to immigrate. Instead he found “people with no connection to the Jewish people.”
Typical was a family of eight, of which the long-deceased grandfather was onequarter Jewish.
Among the new immigrants were many who not only felt no connection to the Jewish people, but harbored extremely negative feelings. “We are seeing an influx of those same anti-Semitic types who made life miserable for Jews in Russia,” former Prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevich complained to prime minister Ariel Sharon. A secular teacher in Karmiel described her Russian-speaking students, “They are simply another people. I see in them contempt for Jews and Judaism that has no parallel among Israelis.”
For some policy-makers, the large influx of non-Jews constituted a counterbalance to the growing Sephardi and Orthodox influence, as well as a means of de-Judaizing the state. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, they realized, would be the battering ram to bring about civil marriage and to end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion.
THE PROPOSAL to greatly expand the army conversion track and remove it from Chief Rabbinate supervision rests on an implicit assumption: Halacha is infinitely malleable and rabbis can be impressed into the service of the state to manipulate it to serve its interests. In the process, an inherently individual decision – to convert to Judaism – becomes subject to numerical quotas and goals.
Proponents of the proposal rarely address halachic standards for conversion, other than to say that they should be “more lenient.” At most, they view conversion as a formal ceremony: circumcision (in the case of males) and immersion in a mikve, in the presence of three Orthodox rabbis. The historical standard for joining the Jewish people – commitment to observance of the mitzvot given at Sinai – is replaced by a short course and perhaps a minimal Jewish literacy test.
The result can only be a trivialization of Halacha and a slap to any rabbi who views himself as its guardian. Imagine the Knesset passing a law to recognize completion of a short IDF medic’s course as sufficient to practice medicine, which required the health minister and all government bodies to recognize such graduates as full-fledged doctors. Would we hear about the urgency of such recognition to address the problem of a growing doctor shortage? Would those who insisted on formal academic training be pilloried for their lack of support for our soldiers or new olim? Of course not. We understand that inadequately trained doctors constitute a hazard. But with respect to conversion, many take the attitude, “Who does it hurt if a non-Jewish soldier wants to call himself a ‘Jew’ just like his army buddies? If it makes him feel good, why not?” THE PAINFUL truth is that any effort to maintain halachic standards for conversion cannot produce the numbers of converts the state establishment demands. And any proposal that can produce the numbers will only be at the expense of trampling Halacha. Conversions cannot be mass produced. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on various efforts to bring those who are already Jews to full mitzva observance.
Yet despite the efforts of the most impassioned teachers, I would be surprised if the total number of ba’alei teshuva in a given year reaches 2,000, and is likely far fewer. How much more difficult will that be with respect to non-Jews, many of whom have no real Jewish connection other than living here.
And if one were to conceive of an environment to inspire commitment to mitzva observance, the IDF would be the last place. Even many soldiers from national religious homes, who have attended religious schools all their lives, leave observance in the army. Responsible conversion courts invariably require that the potential convert already be attached to an Orthodox community.
Without that, the commitment to mitzva observance cannot be believed.
But the community of army buddies to which a converted soldier returns is largely nonobservant, and often overwhelmingly so. All the societal messages he receives tell him that mitzva observance is irrelevant to being a Jew. Indeed it is that message to which olim are subject from the moment they arrive and that largely explains why such a small percentage have shown any interest in converting, in any framework.
All proposals for increasing the number of converts through creative new approaches “within Halacha” inevitably involve subterfuge. At a recent session of the Jewish People Planning Institute, the Israeli Reform representative admitted honestly that any conversion in which Reform participates will not be an Orthodox conversion. Yet such participation was built into the very fabric of the Joint Conversion Institutes proposed by the Neeman Commission, which have produced so little on $20 million a year budgets.
IF THE state wants to confer benefits on soldiers, no one would object. The means of doing so, however, should not be to equate army service with being Jewish. The state does not have a “moral obligation” to convert every new immigrant, as Seth Farber insists (“We need an answer,” January 3). At most it owes those who were denied the ability to practice as Jews for 80 years a Jewish education – something it has largely failed to provide.
But treating Israeliness – aliya, speaking Hebrew, army service – even when accompanied by some sort of religious ceremony, as sufficient to be considered a Jew is a dangerous path. It will further weaken whatever societal bonds still exist between citizens in the “Jewish state” based on a shared Jewish identity by creating a situation in which large numbers of those who self-identify as Jews will not be recognized as such by millions of their fellow Jews. And equating being Israeli with being Jewish will further diminish ties between Jews of the Diaspora and of those of Israel.
Further, employing minimal standards for entry into the Jewish people conveys the message that being Jewish is something trivial, and makes our ancestors’ willingness to give their lives for their religion something bizarre and inexplicable.
That is not a message we wish to send when trying to explain to our young why there is any reason to remain here in the face of threats all around.
Finally, Farber claims that the “audacious” solutions needed must begin with removing the issue of “conversion” from the realm of politics. He fails to recognize that for the state to enlist rabbis to solve social problems, especially in violation of their own halachic conscience, is the ultimate politicization of religion.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.