A bad idea that won’t go away

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Recent years have witnessed repeated pleas for liberalization of the standards of conversion to Judaism. Most often those demands center on the State of Israel where the Chief Rabbinate still maintains authority over conversions performed in Israel. (Liberalized standards are less of an issue in the rest of the world, where it is always possible to find some “rabbi” to perform the conversion for the right price.)

Proponents of liberalized standards range all the way from those who ostensibly want nothing more than a more welcoming attitude towards converts and fewer bureaucratic hassles to those, like Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, architects of the Oslo process, who have urged the oxymoronic “secular conversion.”

In support of liberalized standards, proponents rely on two principle arguments. The first is the necessity of integrating a half a million non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU into the fabric of Israeli life. The second argument centers on the dwindling number of Jews worldwide, and the necessity of encouraging conversion as a means of preventing the disappearance of the Jewish people.

In general, those calling for liberalized standards are not overly concerned with the halachic issues involved. At most, they content themselves with a rhetorical argument: It is unfair to require converts to undertake full halachic observance as a condition of entrance into the Jewish people when the vast majority of halachic Jews themselves do not adhere to halacha.

Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, head of the London Beis Din, incidentally, made short shrift of that argument in a British court more than half a century ago. He pointed out to the judge that the citizenry of England certainly included many common criminals. Nevertheless British authorities would be unlikely to look favorably upon a request for citizenship from someone who listed his profession as swindling or smuggling.

As far as the Torah community is concerned, it is sufficient to note the halachic requirement of kabolas ol mitzvos (acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos) to end all discussion of liberalized standards. As Rabbi Mendel Weinbach noted, at the Eternal Jewish Family conference held in Jerusalem in June, all proposals to change standards of conversion are at root attempts to redefine what it means to be a Jew and to move away from Rav Saadia Gaon’s famous formulation that we are a nation by virtue of the Torah.

That is most obvious in the case of the proposals for secular conversion, which are nothing more than an attempt to equate being Israeli with being Jewish. Proponents of secular conversion invariably offer speaking Hebrew and serving in the Israeli army as examples of qualification for secular conversion.

QUITE APART from the halachic objections, however, the arguments of the proponents fail on their own terms. And it is important to keep pointing that fact out because those arguments will continue to be made and to appeal to many well-intentioned Jews, for they address real issues. The rapidly declining Jewish population is a tragedy – not because numbers have ever been a desideratum for us but because of the potential kedushah lost to the world. And the presence of half a million or more non-Jewish Russian-speakers in Israel is a real problem for a country in which national cohesion is so crucial to its survival.

The solution, however, does not lie in pretending that there is some kind of magical fairy dust that can be sprinkled on 500,000 non-Jewish Russian speakers in order to make them Jewish. The loss to national cohesion resulting from such a fiction would be far greater than any apparent gain.

As long as the rules for determining who is entitled to take part in the discussion are preserved, members of a family or tribe can argue about anything. But if one eccentric aunt adopts her chauffeur and hairdresser, it is unlikely that other family members will recognize any common bond, and further discussion becomes pointless.

For all their vast differences, the Jews of Israel have always recognized some basis of kinship based on common descent from those who stood at Sinai or a commitment to the Torah given at Sinai. But once every group in the Jewish world is permitted to redefine the standards for entry into the Jewish people as they see fit, that binding element is lost, and “Jew” ceases to be a term signifying any connection whatsoever. Open standards for conversion lack both the religious element – a shared commitment to Torah – and the national element – a common history – that have traditionally bound Jews to one another.

Nor can further denuding the term “Jew” of any shared meaning stanch the rapid decline of the world Jewish population. Accounting tricks — like the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent — can never work because they do not address the central reason for Jewish demographic decline: Judaism has become something trivial in the eyes of most of those born into the faith. Easy terms of entry only add to that trivialization.

The mainstream Jewish community desperately runs after young Jews, no matter how far they stray and whom they marry, to assure them that they and their children can never escape the fold and are still considered Jews in good standing. But by doing so we just confirm the impression that made marrying another Jew irrelevant to them in the first place – i.e., Judaism is meaningless and not worthy of any sacrifice.

Numerous is not a Jewish standard of evaluation. And the obsession with numbers hides the real issue – the declining quality of Judaism in the lives of most Jews. From quality the numbers will come. But the attempt to artificially increase quantity inevitably dilutes quality and only leads to a further loss of numbers.

Such a religion, by the way, will also exercise little appeal for converts. The heterodox branches of Judaism could hardly make “conversion” easier, and yet the rate of conversion among gentile spouses of Jews continues to drop…

Originally published in Yated Ne’eman USA, October 18, 2006.

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19 Responses

  1. hp says:

    “It seems conversion these days has more to do with the self-aggrandizement of few powerful rabbis”

    “rabbis pushing people to the breaking point without mercy”
    “conversion process ends up looking more like a fraternity hazing”

    “of gerim being forced to work as servants in the Rabbis house to “learn Judiasm” then denied the ger because they weren’t “committed enough” when they refused to do the free housework any more.”

    Baruch, these were words that needed to be refuted strongly. We should feel unafraid to stand up for Kovod HaTorah, of which Rabbis are representative. Kavod Habriyot does not translate into open-mindedness in regard to the quotes above.

  2. Baruch II says:

    hp –

    As you said the issue is “highly charged”. You made your point – but calling professor’s views – “libelous” or “hate filled” is over the top. An intellectual discussion can be had without quips re: LWMO which exposes a bit of one’s own bias and objectivity, or lack thereof.

  3. hp says:

    Actually, the attack was authored by “Professor”. The path to intellectual discussion (even argument) is not paved with tabloid stories of Rabbi’s servants, or Rabbis pushing chumrot down people’s throats. I’m familiar with right wing orthodox communities such as in Flatbush, Williamsburgh, Boro Park, Monsey, Lakewood, Baltimore, Passaic, and people choose communities/neighborhoods and Rabbis based on their own worldview; not for the pleasure of chumrot being “forced” on them.Their are plenty of communities, types of schools, and Rabbis to go around, to suit all types, and everyone chooses that which suits them best. Perhaps you’re talking about kids, who are indeed expected to follow some norms while they are in their parents’ homes. Just like in most gentile home across America. It’s OK if your’e LWMO, but your stories are straight out of some non-researched and factually challenged articles/books that I have had the misfortune of being aquainted with, and it’s not necessary in intellectual discussion to refute these canards. Are you really intersted in Jewish Law, or was this a fun topic to jump on and use as a platform for your hate-filled views? Please present an argument- a real one, and your words might be treated with some respect. Otherwise, unfortunately you’re going to have to keep on thinking that you’re the only one who has a “serious understanding of what is needed to be a committed Jew.”

  4. Professor says:

    It appears it is easier to attack me than it is to attack my argument.

  5. Kimberly says:

    Professor, your delusions make your case weak. It’s obvious you don’t like Rabbis, but you make your case look juvenile by pushing false and absurd ideas that are getting dog eared as they are passed around circles who feel like you. This is an issue involving Jewish Law, not disgruntled feelings of those who love to hate. Try again, this time using truth and reason, please.

  6. hp says:

    Sorry about your potential convert turned servant- sounds heartbreaking. I would continue the discussion if the arguments were coming from a sincere, non-agenda driven perspective, albeit one that I disagree with. Unfortunately, your post contains nausiating and obviously very agenda driven tabloid drivel. Sorry I can’t put it in a nicer way. Someone else will have to pick up the thread of the discussion, if they so desire. Shabbat Shalom.

  7. Professor says:

    “Emotions should not supersede basic Derech Eretz.”

    This is true, it shouldn’t supercede, but it also must not be discounted. The reason this is a “highly charged issue” is that it is a human issue, an issue that involves not only the lives of the people involved, but the lives of every person who comes after them, and the community at large.
    Emotion should not supercede the law, but it must be an integral part of it. A rabbi’s responsibility to the law includes the person, and their situation–a P’sk is the use of laws in context with other laws and in context with the life of the person who is asking for the P’sk. What is kosher for one, is not necessarily kosher for another–and visa versa (insert the old example of the chicken and the two people, rich and poor here). This is precisely why we turn to a rabbi or a group of rabbis with knowledge, experience, and WISDOM as their guide. Emotion has a lot to do with the law, and this should never be denied.

    As for whether what I said was libel–one needs only to know one ger with a bad experience, too little money, or who doesn’t “look Jewish” to know this is not libel. Unfortunately the religious equivalent of “anything you can do, I can do better” is happening in a lot of the religious world in the form of rabbis pushing people to the breaking point without mercy, or pushing people learn more chumrot than halacha without specifying the difference. Sadly, a lot of the conversion process ends up looking more like a fraternity hazing than it does a serious understanding of what is needed to be a committed Jew. (I have personal knowledge of gerim being forced to work as servants in the Rabbis house to “learn Judiasm” then denied the ger because they weren’t “committed enough” when they refused to do the free housework any more.)

    The law is essential. Humanity is essential. Rabbis are human, and falable, and subject to pride–just as much as anyone else. It is about time we recognized all of these elements and learned that this fragile process should not be devoid of human understanding and, yes, emotion.

  8. hp says:

    “has more to do with the self-aggrandizement of few powerful rabbis than it has to do with halacha!”

    It might be helpful to the cause to tone down this rhetoric. Such language does not evidence a thorough research into the issues, but is rather an emotional and perhaps libelous knee jerk response to a highly charged issue. Emotions should not supersede basic Derech Eretz.

  9. Professor says:

    The idea that one must keep the yoke of Mitzvot has gotten mixed up with the idea that one must follow a particular set of chumrot or a particular minhag! The problem with conversion right now is that too many rabbis think their form of Judiasm is the only “halachic” form, and deny the legitimacy of perfectly halachic orthodox conversions from orthodox rabbis who do not hold by the same specific chumrot/minhag that they do. It seems conversion these days has more to do with the self-aggrandizement of few powerful rabbis than it has to do with halacha!

    We need to recognize a Sanhedrin now!

  10. Baruch II says:

    “But once every group in the Jewish world is permitted to redefine the standards for entry into the Jewish people as they see fit, that binding element is lost, and “Jew” ceases to be a term signifying any connection whatsoever.”

    Is Rabbi Rosenblum prepared to acknowledge that the problem with a redefinition of standards by “every group” is in some measure foisted upon potential converts by the very Orthodox rabbanim that he would like to see have exclusive control of giyur. The most recent issue of the Jerusalem Post hilighted the opposition Rav Druckman and his organization for giyur received from the chareidi sector. This is not simply a matter of legitimizing conservative or reform conversions.

  11. SephardiLady says:

    Secular giyur is a bad solution, but the problem it attempts to address in Israel is real. Can you think of a solution that would not violate Halacha?

    Ori,
    You might be interested in some of the writing of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Chachama Benzion Uziel. While his solutions to giyur are not accepted particularily, the perspective is an interesting one.

    Wish I could point you to the writings, but I’ve only heard others speak about them.

  12. Caliban Darklock says:

    If we lower the standards of becoming, don’t we also lower the standards of being?

  13. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Ori,there is no problem for someone who wants to be a secular Jew in Israel and live together with a non-Jewish spouse. A little trip to Cyprus will solve that. There are other solutions that the courts will slip by little by little. But it is a lot of fuss from the point of view of the bottom-line benefit to the state for the small number of children that such unions produce. The benefit to the Jewish people is negative. The Law of the Return and its current secular judicial exegesis is producing a community of people including anti-Semitic Russian Orthodox Christians or atheists with the kosher certification of Rabbi Adolf Hitler. You don’t want those people as citizens any more than I do. Those chiloni Jews who don’t serve in the army aren’t going to serve in the army until they identify more with the state that wants to draft them. The state will not inspire loyalty any more than a heterodox religion does until it believes in something clearly. The secular Israeli, even more the secular Russian immigrant, will continue to be marginalized from generation to generation. This is the same sort of thing that is happening in Europe. Without believing in something it is kind of hard to bring a new generation into the world and raise it to make sacrifices for the ideals of the country. In Europe that vacuum is being filled by Muslims. In the Jewish world and in Israel it is the Jews who care who have children and determine what the next generation will look like.

  14. Larry Lennhoff says:

    Ori

    Wouldn’t civil marriage and divorce be a superior solution to secular giyiur for chilonim in Israel? Certainly I would think that would be the case if the secular giyur was not accepted by the datim anyway. That just leaves burial as a problem requiring a seperate solution.

  15. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum: Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, head of the London Beis Din, incidentally, made short shrift of that argument in a British court more than half a century ago. He pointed out to the judge that the citizenry of England certainly included many common criminals. Nevertheless British authorities would be unlikely to look favorably upon a request for citizenship from someone who listed his profession as swindling or smuggling.

    Ori: If the majority of British citizens were smugglers and saw nothing wrong with smuggling, would the British authorities still deny citizenship requests from smugglers?

    Imagine a chiloni (= non religious Jew) in Israel who wants to marry a non-Jewish immigrant from the former USSR, may it rest in pieces. Since they are both non-religious, we can assume that as many Israeli chilonim do they have been living together for a number of years, and now they want to have children together – so they decided to formalize their existing relationship.

    When they go to get registered for marriage, the government denies them. Halachically, there can be no marriage between a Jew and a Gentile. They now have the following options:

    1. Leave each other, in the name of a religion that neither follows.

    2. Both accept Torah uMitzvot and become observant Jews.

    3. Stay together in Israel, have children, and resent the fact that the religious establishment doesn’t let them have the rights of married couples under Israeli law.

    4. Decide to find a more accomodating place to live than Israel.

    Do you think #1 or #2 is likely at this point in their lives? Are #3 or #4 conducive to Israel’s survival and increased observance among its chilonim? If they stay in Israel, and do not grow to resent Judaism as something that restricts them, they or their children may at some point become observant (or convert and then become observant – I did not state if the chiloni parent is mother or father).

    I grew up chiloni in Israel, and when I was in the army I decided that living in Israel was not worth the cost. The state of Israel lost the taxes I would have paid and the ability to draft my children. If enough chilonim would do that, Israel would not survive.

    Secular giyur is a bad solution, but the problem it attempts to address in Israel is real. Can you think of a solution that would not violate Halacha?

  16. Larry Lennhoff says:

    As long as we consider conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis as invalid we will continue to bring closer the day that the movements split into completely different religions. The day is coming when being a life long non-Orthodox Jew will not be sufficient to prove one’s Jewishness for purposes of marriage – non-O Jews will have to demonstrate that their lineage does not contain a convert before a marriage will be performed by an O Rabbi. Further, we’ve seen that this demand for rigor in conversions does not limit itself to the non-Orthodox movements. The London Beit Din rejects Rabbanut conversions, the Israeli Rabbinate itself calls the majority of American conversions into question, and so it goes – the requirement ratchet ever tighter far beyond what Chazal call for.

    Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, head of the London Beis Din, incidentally, made short shrift of that argument in a British court more than half a century ago. He pointed out to the judge that the citizenry of England certainly included many common criminals. Nevertheless British authorities would be unlikely to look favorably upon a request for citizenship from someone who listed his profession as swindling or smuggling.

    This analogy would require that the majority of Englishmen be criminals in order for it to be valid, since the majorityt of Jews do not hold by halacha. Can I suggest a better analogy would be if England did not accept non-Anglicans as potential English citizens?

  17. Bob Miller says:

    This mock-conversion effort is today’s Trojan horse.

  18. YM says:

    Very well said.

  19. howard sitzer says:

    nicely written. as long as the majority of jews in the world think nothing of halacha and the true preservation of jewish standards, we will continue to see non-halachic conversions occuring and stepped up efforts to make the process easier. it will only serve to exacerbate an already tenuous situation between the “frummies” and the rest of the world. sad but true! best regards