Expedite conversion

New Conversion Authority gives rabbinate opportunity to fix what most Israelis consider inherent flaws.

amar 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amar 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On Wednesday, a cabinet committee approved the establishment of a new State Conversion Authority meant to streamline the conversion process of up to 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants. This step is long overdue, but we are not through the woods yet in correcting an ongoing failure of the Jewish state. The challenge and opportunity arose with the immigration of non-Jews, mainly from the former Soviet Union, under the Law of Return - which guarantees Israeli citizenship to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. This somewhat strange stipulation, which differs greatly from the halachic definition of Jewishness as being born of a Jewish mother or becoming Jewish through conversion, resulted in many non-Jews becoming Israeli citizens. The idea behind the Law of Return's definition, that someone who is Jewish enough to have been murdered by the Nazis should be taken in by the Jewish state, is correct, noble, and even visionary. No other country has been more generous in the granting of near-automatic citizenship to such a broad group of people, from anywhere in the world and regardless of age and economic circumstances. Indeed, it is hard to think of a gesture or policy that better encapsulates the state's Jewishness, ironically, than its willingness to define Jewishness so broadly. But then came the failure, and it has been colossal and difficult to comprehend. It should be obvious that the same spirit that led Israel to take in non-Jews as automatic citizens should have led the state to encourage these new immigrants to formally convert to Judaism. These immigrants, after all, serve in the army, live by the Jewish calendar in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew, and send their children to what elsewhere might be called "Jewish day schools." They are no less Israeli than any other Israelis and, in the main, desire, like most immigrants, to integrate themselves into their new home. As part of this integration process, and often for religious reasons as well, many would like to convert. Indeed, of those who are not interested in conversion, for many it is not because they are hostile to the majority culture, but the opposite: they already feel such a part of it that they see no reason to go through a formal conversion process. But instead of facilitating the conversion of non-Jewish immigrants, the rabbinate has placed every possible hurdle before them: from bureaucratic foot dragging, to unwelcoming attitudes, to creating impossible and unnecessary requirements, and even to "revoking" conversions that have already been issued. It is very difficult to understand rabbis who are responsible for this behavior. While they obviously would prefer that every convert be a model of halachic observance, to require this breaks with centuries of Jewish tradition and practice, not to mention the basic goal of bringing people toward Jewish observance. Throughout most of Jewish history, converts were not required to know, let alone observe, every Jewish law before being welcomed into the Jewish people. Maimonides wrote that "A convert who... was circumcised and immersed in the presence of three laymen is a convert. Even if it is known that he converted for some ulterior motive... he is considered a Jewish apostate.... Having immersed, he is a Jew." Though opposite attitudes can also be found among Jewish authorities throughout history, a strong and even dominant current held that non-Jews can and should be brought into the Jewish people even under less than ideal circumstances, thereby joining the vast majority of halachically imperfect Jews. In practical terms, the cabinet has decided to throw the ball into the court of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who must now appoint some 50 rabbis to conversion courts, in addition to the 22 rabbis on existing courts and 10 more that were added by this week's cabinet decision. If Amar appoints more rabbis who interpret the law like those on existing courts, the numbers of conversions performed will remain extremely low, and an entire population will remain alienated from Judaism, the Jewish people, and their new homeland, the State of Israel. It is hard to believe that this is the outcome that the rabbinate prefers. We certainly hope that Rabbi Amar has the courage to stand for what he knows is right for the rabbinate, Israel and the Jewish people. If he instead perpetuates the current failed approach, he will have proven once again that the rabbinate, as often as not, does more harm than good to the cause of Jewish advancement.