How far can we bend tradition?

What’s at stake with the Supreme Court decision to recognize all Orthodox conversions.

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate – once the majority of Israeli citizens no longer connect to the Jewish nature of Israel, we will be left with a soulless country that is constantly fighting for its very existence. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate – once the majority of Israeli citizens no longer connect to the Jewish nature of Israel, we will be left with a soulless country that is constantly fighting for its very existence.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi Orthodoxy is grounded upon Jewish law, as well as a studied counter-cultural parochialism that finds religious virtue in being extra strict and socially “other.” Its religious narrative valorizes the traditions, memories, and good old days and folkways of Eastern Europe.
While fervently believing in the Torah’s sanctity, haredi Orthodoxy also maintains that since the Torah is so spiritually complex, it cannot and may not be understood or applied according to a rational reading, commonsense understanding of its holy documents, or for that matter, by normal, human, intellectual reflection. Its narrative posits that the Orthodoxy lived by its own community’s culture, as approved by its holy great sages, is alone Jewishly authentic. Hence, converts must conform to haredi definitions and discipline in order to be “accepted” to be authentically Jewish.
While this particular policy had become standard in the State of Israel due to the political power of haredi parties and their electorate, the March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allows all bona fide Israeli Orthodox rabbis to supervise conversions challenges this arrangement.
Alternatively, modern Orthodoxy’s competing narrative – while committed to accepting Orthodox Jewish law – embraces modernity, with its moral challenges as well as its technological goodies. For modern Orthodoxy, God gave a Torah at Sinai, not a lifestyle. Since the Torah does not condemn modernity, modern Orthodoxy has chosen to embrace it. Consequently, modern Orthodoxy’s approach to conversion is also more flexible and open. Its agenda is determined by the plain sense understanding of Judaism’s sacred library. Is this flexibility a breach or an application of tradition? Which of these two Orthodoxies is more authentic, based upon the Oral Torah benchmark tradition? Consider the following: 1. According to Jewish law, the convert must accept the Torah as her/his life code. This commitment is not a promise to observe the law completely, because such a commitment is neither realistic nor doable {see Ecclesiastes 7:20).
2. Historically, Jewish law assigned discretion regarding conversion standards to the local Orthodox rabbi (Rosh to Bava Kama 1:5).
Different rabbis serving different communities will necessarily adopt situationally appropriate standards. Haredi Judaism has every right to set its bar for its own community after its own lights. But Jewish law determines Judaism’s minimum conversion requirements; no subgroup in Jewry is authorized or empowered to deny the discretionary rights enshrined in Jewish law.
3. According to canonized, and currently unchangeable, Jewish law, a conversion supervised by a “‘rabbinical court” of three observant adult laymen is valid after the fact, even if the procedure is improper. And by failing to accept kosher converts, hard-line Orthodox rabbis actually lead Jews by choice to sin. Since the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is not a Great Sanhedrin, it does not enjoy the halachic power to invalidate a kosher conversion supervised by three Orthodox rabbis – or laymen, unless fraud can be demonstrated. By usurping this exceptional authority, Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbis are actually reformulating Jewish law.
4. The current Chief Rabbinate does not speak to or for modern Orthodoxy. This Chief Rabbinate never challenges any haredi policy, but haredi society does not consider itself bound by the Chief Rabbinate that it nonetheless effectively controls. It has become that franchised institution by which non-Zionist Orthodoxy imposes its will and its leadership’s ideological agenda on the Zionist Orthodox and secular Israeli sectors.
5. On one hand, haredi Orthodoxy demands that the religious “status quo” in Israeli life be maintained. But haredi leaders and its Chief Rabbinate agents have very effectively changed the religious status quo by imposing its gender segregation policy at the Western Wall, its rejection of those dissenting Orthodox voices who, according to haredi great rabbis, do not have a right to an opinion, however sourced, logical, or convincing it might be.
6. By invalidating technically kosher conversions, haredi Orthodoxy is not conforming to Orthodox Jewish law. By opposing the military conscription of haredi men and women, haredi Orthodoxy ignores the Oral Torah rule that in a defensive war, both bride and groom are drafted. Learning Torah does not justify military deferment during an Israeli defensive war (Sota 44b). The chief rabbis have not upheld this documented, oral law.
JUST AS the haredi Orthodox elite is a self-perpetuating elite, so too is the secular Supreme Court. They share a commitment to consider Jewish legal precedents, albeit with different social agendas. If haredi policy conflicts with the plain sense of Orthodox Jewish law, its policies cannot be imposed upon those whose communities’ theological narratives, called hashkafot, or “worldviews,” are not haredi.
Jewish law is not based on narratives, it is based on legal rules. The Supreme Court has, as a protector of individual citizen’s rights, ironically checked and balanced haredi imperialism by privileging statutory Jewish law over the haredi social narrative. After all, there are Orthodox halachic experts on the Supreme Court who, while committed to Jewish law, do not share the haredi anti-modernity culture narrative.
The Supreme Court has addressed a real need in our society. By allowing any Orthodox rabbinic court to perform conversions, the Supreme Court correctly ensures that a humane Jewish law remains the rule in Israel.
And just as respect must be given to haredi rabbinic courts to supervise conversions for their community, other rabbinical courts who read Jewish law differently merit the same courtesy.
Maimonides (Pe’er Hador n. 132) allows for very lenient standards in order to avoid or to correct intermarriages. This view is also part of the halachic record, rabbinic arsenal and Jewish tradition.
AT STAKE in this debate is: What kind of Jew does Jewry want to create? Haredi Orthodoxy requires converts to accept its own ideological narrative, which stresses obedience to God, whose will is necessarily and sufficiently revealed in its own rabbis’ apodictic decrees and sensibilities. In this Judaism, critical thinking is forbidden, holding rabbinic leaders to account is disrespectful, and the legitimating Jewish benchmark is not found in the plain-sense content of Israel’s sacred texts, it is about the preservation of nostalgic culture and the veneration of its ruling rabbinic elite.
In contrast, modern Orthodoxy embraces modernity when the rules revealed in Israel’s sacred texts are not violated. While modern Orthodox converts do accept the commandments as their personal code, they are not obliged to reinvent their personal identity or social world. Because critical thinking is not forbidden in modern Orthodoxy, its adherents are, just like the biblical prophets, empowered to judge their judges and to rate its rabbis. Modern Orthodox rabbis teach, preach and persuade, based on their learned reading of the holy “Book”; they do not coerce or control their laity because modern Orthodoxy is guided by holy books, not by holy people. Because modern Orthodox rabbis do not pressure their laity with political authority, they are able to exercise moral authority.
Abraham was the first convert to what over time evolved into Judaism. He questioned God, “will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). He obeyed God’s agenda by using his own critical thinking and moral compass to question God.
Jews by choice as well as Jews from birth are supposed to be moral agents, not mindless robots. Haredi Judaism regards modernity as stigmatic because modern communities deny the authority claims of traditional elites. Haredi Judaism finds individualism to be impious and narcissistic; only great haredi rabbis have the power, kingdom and the glorious right to read God’s mind with apostolic certainty.
Modern Orthodoxy confronts modernity as a challenge, affirms individualism as a matter of human dignity, and the right to express a textually informed opinion is legally protected by Torah law. Simply put, any act that is not explicitly forbidden by law is not forbidden by law (Deut. 13:1-6).
If God had expressed a preference in the current debate, what would it be? 
The author is rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel of Baltimore, faculty at Torat Reva Jerusalem and lecturer, CJCUC, Ohr Torah Stone. He resides in Jerusalem.