There can be no privatization of conversion in the Jewish state

There must be no blurring of Judaic principles and norms, no giving in to the modern and post-modern pressure that tries to change the definition of the Jewish state.

Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
There are two ways to approach the concept of a state and the society made up of its citizens.
One is to see the state as a kind of insurance policy, responsible for the safety and well being of its citizens. The main element of the state in this case is the individual, the citizen, his comfort, his morals, his viewpoint, all with a minimum of government intervention. This is the modern, democratic world’s perception of the state.
The state itself is not a value, it is a tool meant to serve those living in it, allowing each person to choose his lifestyle in accordance with his beliefs.
The second view sees the state as the source of the ethos guiding its citizens’ lives, and in our case that translates into understanding that the great ideals upon which the Jewish state was founded are the main elements justifying its existence. To a certain extent, citizens’ individual rights are tempered by these ideals. For example, because the State of Israel is Jewish, there is no public transportation on Shabbat. The individual’s civil rights are certainly affected by this ruling, but in this instance, the overriding ideal that the state represents is considered more important.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote that most nations are of the first type, where each individual is expected to be a man of integrity and the government is simply a system that keeps things on an even keel and protects the citizens. This is as it should be, he wrote, because if the system encompasses an ideology, leaders’ personal interests will surface and lead to corruption.
States based on ideologies also tend to turn into tyrannical dictatorships, using suppressive means to insure that all citizens comply with the chosen ideology, two recent examples being Communism and Nazism. Sanctifying the system of government itself, as the West does today, he wrote, is also an error.
In contrast, the nation of Israel was commanded by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” not merely a group of holy individuals. The State of Israel has intrinsic value because its mission, rooted in the very definition of a Jewish state, is to be a holy society. The Jewish state is not a tool but a value, not a source of physical security, but an expression of God’s will.
The source of our nationalism is the Torah, which is why our ideology does not lead to dictatorship or corruption, but to serving as a light unto the nations.
Today’s State of Israel has taken steps toward building this ideal society. It is clearly a Jewish state, whose laws mandate that Shabbat is kept in the public domain, which enacts Jewish laws in various spheres and has a unique Jewish character in addition to the granting of individual liberties. It is a Jewish state with its own army defending the Jewish people, a state in which a significant part of the population engages in volunteer activity to benefit society as a whole.
The symbol of the Jewish state’s being more than an ordinary statutory entity is the existence of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate is the mezuza on the door leading into our national homeland, the difference between establishing a state for Jews and a Jewish state.
Headed by acclaimed and experienced Torah sages, it is the way the Jewish state can speak in God’s Name, can make decisions on halachic dilemmas and issues affecting the entire nation.
Conversion is one such national, even international, issue and must be regarded in that way. When a person wishes to join the Jewish people, he must change his entire private and public world, he must accept that he is not simply joining a group of people with a specific and normative way of life, but joining a nation whose existence is mandated in the Torah.
That is the reason there are two criteria for conversion in the State of Israel.
First, all conversion must be with the approval of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the axis around which the unity of the State of Israel as a Jewish land revolves.
Private conversion courts in Israel, each with its own standards, would take away from the institution that is the symbol of Judaism in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate.
Private courts would also create a split into two kinds of converts: those recognized by all Jews and those whom most observant Jews do not accept. The entire Jewish world accepts the conversions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, but privatization of conversion would, tragically, change that.
Second, a convert must accept Judaism according to the halachic procedures and decisions mandated by the great Torah luminaries of recent generations. The Jewish people have always turned to Torah luminaries for binding decisions. If a rabbi wishes to convert people without demanding the acceptance of Torah and its commandments, he is going against the decisions of the overwhelming majority of Torah sages and, as a result, the converts will not be recognized as Jews by most Orthodox rabbis.
The present problem of tens of thousands of youngsters who are not halachically Jewish born to immigrants to Israel must be addressed by the Chief Rabbinate and its Rabbinic Council, not by individual rabbis. This is a critical national problem affecting the entire nation’s future and dealing with it in that forum is an example of what it means to have a Jewish state, to have come home at last.
When there are attempts to change the criteria for conversion and other halachic related issues, those attempting to do so are putting the individual, not God, at the nucleus of the state. The individual’s feelings, ethics, understanding become the primary factors in decision making, in differentiating between Torah concepts of right and wrong. The Torah almost seems like a “problem” that has to be solved and made to conform with reality so that it doesn’t interfere with modern life and thought. This approach, described by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as essentially Judeo-Christian, is one that he fought with all his might, opposing the modification of Torah to meet man’s desires and needs.
There must be no blurring of Judaic principles and norms, no giving in to the modern and post-modern pressure that tries to change the definition of the Jewish state.
First appeared in The Jewish Word.
The author is a rabbi and head of the “Derech Emunah” (Way of Torah) movement of Israeli Orthodox rabbis.