Conversion in crisis

The Orthodox rabbinate has failed to meet the challenge presented by the Soviet immigration.

1167467812740 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish olim have flooded Israel's shores over the last decade and a half, under the provisions of the Law of Return. Unfortunately, at great cost to the Jewish People, almost a generation after the beginning of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, the Orthodox rabbinate has failed to meet the challenge presented by this immigration. Many of these non-Jews came with their Jewish families - the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Others, with a more tenuous connection via a Jewish grandparent, came to escape the chaos and economic collapse in the post-communist FSU. In Israel, most have become acclimated to an astonishing degree. Their children, born here and who have grown up as proud participants in its Hebrew-speaking cultural landscape, are even more a part of the Israeli national fabric than their parents. They are present in all walks of life - as pioneers of hi-tech industries and academics in the universities, or risking life and limb as key members of the IDF and other security services. They occupy a place of honor among the war dead and victims of terror. Were we to examine their values and cultural preferences, we would find that most of them are indistinguishable from their halachically-Jewish friends and neighbors. Yet they are not Jews. And often, in order to marry - even among themselves - they have been forced to travel to a foreign state to obtain a civil marriage. Beyond the question of the denial of a human right, this is bad policy. In the end, they do marry, and they are - in their eyes and in the eyes of most of their neighbors - members of the Jewish people. Yet the rabbinate has shown no sense of urgency in dealing with the growing gap between the halachic requirements of Jewish identity and the Israeli reality, a gap that should concern, above all, those who place their trust for the future of the Jewish people in that Halacha. Instead, the religious officials who insist on retaining a monopoly on personal-status law for the Jews of this country - for reasons of halachic fealty and also for the sake of controlling the lucrative state jobs that come with the supervision of marriage, divorce, kashrut and burial - have scandalously provided no adequate answers for the people whose welfare has been placed in their hands. Last month, in despair over the crisis, the Institute for Jewish Studies, the official body charged with educating aspiring converts ahead of their conversion in the state rabbinic conversion courts, suspended its cooperation with the courts and demanded the appointment of new conversion judges who will "support rather than hinder" the conversion process. This unprecedented and shocking move was the culmination of years of complaints that many conversion judges are impeding the conversions of thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of immigrants by placing unnecessary and non-halachic demands on their post-conversion behavior, such as requiring that they dress according to the Orthodox (or even haredi) dress code, or that the convert's partner, often merely a boyfriend or girlfriend, become more observant for the conversion to be ratified. It should be noted that such demands often run contrary to the provisions for treating aspiring converts as set out in the Shulchan Aruch and by the 12th-century philosopher and codifier Maimonides. Indeed, for Maimonides, once aspiring converts have been taught Jewish thought and practice and agreed to bind their fate with that of the Jewish people, "we do not examine them or check after them" regarding their observance. The failures of judgment, empathy and policy regarding would-be converts are shared across the spectrum - from non-Zionist haredim, who increasingly dominate the Chief Rabbinate and its bureaucracy, to the religious Zionists who have historically provided the ideological rationale for the rabbinate's existence. The recent call for reform - and for a new non-state rabbinic court system - by religious-Zionist Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat is the voice of a worried minority. Many would argue that it was always a bad idea to entrust so vital a matter to a politicized state-religious bureaucracy. Now it is time to demand of the state rabbinical leadership that it either provide solutions at once halachic and viable, or surrender its monopoly over private status law and the lucrative sinecures that come with it.