We need to embrace ‘zera Yisrael’

Just conversion policies are not only possible, they are necessary

israel flag draped 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
israel flag draped 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The recent news that members of the Chueta community of Mallorca have been recognized as Jews by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak is certainly historic. Thanks to the hard work of Michael Freund and Shavei Israel, this will open the door to over 15,000 people whose Jewish ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism 500 years ago, helping them return to the Jewish people.
Yet there is far more that we can and must do to welcome non-Jews of Jewish ancestry back into our nation.
At least 300,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants of Jewish descent currently reside in Israel. They serve in our army, study in our schools, speak our language and socialize with our children. A high percentage seek to convert to Judaism but have met resistance from the Israeli Rabbinate, which questions their level of commitment to religious observance, a prerequisite for conversion.
Let me state in the clearest of terms that according to traditional Jewish law, not only can we convert these immigrants, we must convert them.
JEWISH TRADITION demands that we not relate to the descendants of Spanish “Anusim” and the Russian immigrants of Jewish descent as gentiles. While they are not Jewish and, of course, require the three steps demanded of all converts – circumcision, immersion in a mikve (ritual bath), and acceptance of commandments – they actually fall into a unique category called “zera Yisrael” (seed of Israel). According to some of the most prominent medieval sages, this designation means that while they are not Jewish, they do embody “the holiness of Israel.”
Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen Rabinowitz of 19th-century Lublin, Poland, explains that Isaiah referred to zera Yisrael when he described the “lost ones” who would rejoin the Jewish people through conversion upon our return to our homeland. Since these Russian immigrants have “the holiness of Israel” and it has been foretold that they will return to Judaism, we must do everything we can to help them convert.
“But what about the rule that a gentile must ‘accept the commandments’ as a prerequisite to conversion?” one might ask. “While the immigrants in question will surely fulfill circumcision and ritual immersion, they are not committed to performing all the commandments! Doesn’t Orthodox law require a verbal commitment to fulfill all the commandments prior to conversion?” The simple and straightforward answer is “no.” The greatest of rabbis never demanded this. The Talmud clearly requires only that we teach conversion candidates “some lenient and some strict commandments.”
None of the great sages ever demanded that the conversion candidate fulfill all the commandments; this is a modern development.
The candidates in question agree to fast on Yom Kippur, to refrain from eating leavened bread on Pessah, to recite the Kiddush prayer and light the candles on Shabbat night, and for those in the IDF, to risk their lives to protect the Jewish state (what greater mitzva can there be?). The classic texts are replete with sources permitting the conversions of these zera Yisrael immigrants based on their intention to observe these basic commandments, especially in light of the fact that we should be proactively seeking them out for conversion.
ONE ADDITIONAL issue demands that we convert these immigrants immediately. If we don’t allow them to convert, these immigrants are going to marry our children anyway. They grow up together, go to grade school together, serve in the army together, study in university together, and thousands will inevitably choose to spend their lives together. And then, in the coming decades, Israel will be ripped apart with disputes regarding which citizens are Jews and which are not. Non-Jewish children will be raised as Jews, but will not be recognized as Jews by the rabbinate or the state.
This will polarize Israel in ways it has never been polarized before.
True leadership demands that a problem be solved before it even arises, and in our current circumstance, that means relying on those valid and lenient opinions to convert these hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
The Israeli version of the Arab Spring has erupted in the summer of 2011. As the nation begins to address its internal problems, with the Facebook protest over the price of cottage cheese and the erection of tent cities to demand lower rental fees, I hope this internal reflection expands to include the plight of our fellow citizens who so badly want to be Jews. I will not rest until we solve their problem, and I hope all fellow Israelis join me in this quest.
The writer is founder and chairman of the Am Shalem political movement.