‘Yom Kippur’s the obstacle’ – a look into the future

Item: ‘Government panel to alter conversion policy’ (Jerusalem Post, March 5); Item: ‘Since intermarriage is inevitable, humanist liberals say that conversions are unnecessary’ (Haaretz, March 28); ‘New calls for reform of rabbinic conversion courts’ (Jerusalem Post, March 29); Item: “Conversion in crisis” (Jerusalem Post editorial, April 5)

I have in my hands a copy of the eagerly awaited Inter-Ministerial Committee to Re-Examine Yom Kippur Practices report. The reexamination is in response to widespread demands, led by liberals and the secular media, to loosen the Yom Kippur restrictions, which have become a major stumbling block for non-Jewish immigrants who want to convert to Judaism.

Transcripts of interviews with these immigrants reveal that many abandoned the conversion process because of the adamant attitude of the rabbinic courts. The immigrants, most of whom are Russian, were willing to accept Judaism, but balked when told about Yom Kippur.

“These restrictions are 3,500 years old. Why should I have to deny myself food and drink for 24 hours?” asked one potential convert.

“This is the 21st century, not primitive times,” said another. “These uncaring rabbis force things upon us, refusing to compromise. If they cared, they would not prohibit food for a full day.”

OTHER IMMIGRANTS stated they were willing to go along with other unreasonable demands, such as forswearing bread and eating tasteless matza for the entire Pessah week, and even to suffer the resultant stomach problems.

“We were even willing to celebrate that other festival by eating cold soup in an unheated Succa during chilly autumn nights. But these harsh Yom Kippur demands are the last straw. The rabbis obviously do not welcome us.”

Others complained that though they love the benefits that Israel gives its immigrants, these religious demands are cruel and unusual. “Not only would we not be able to eat, but also not to drink. Have we left one Gulag to enter another? We pleaded with these medieval rabbis, but they would not budge. Do they not know that it is dangerous to go without water? One could become dehydrated.”

Other immigrants were shocked to discover that the Yom Kippur prayers take several hours at night, and then continue from sunrise to sunset the entire next day. “Even Russian Easter services take only a fraction of that time. And one may eat on Easter!”

BELOW ARE excerpts from the committee’s report:

a) We must not put unnecessary stumbling blocks before potential converts. If Israel wishes to have new blood, it has to change these draconian religious demands. A modern state cannot expect people to go without food and water for 24 hours and to remain virtual prisoners in synagogue for an entire day.

b) Rabbinic judges must not insist on primitive halachic norms that were made for the shtetl, where fasting was designed for a food-deprived economy. If the rabbis were more Zionistic, they would be more sensitive to people who want to build up our country. To bring new people into Israel is a social need. What does religion have to do with conversion to Judaism? The rabbis are aggrandizing this power to themselves.

c) It is unconscionable that the rabbinic court system should be dominated only by rabbis. We recommend the establishment of pluralistic courts, with input from all streams of Judaism – including secular modes of observance. It is time to liberalize laws and streamline procedures.

d) It is immoral to deny food and drink on the holiest day of the year to 300,000 Russian immigrants who have made the arduous trek from Russia. In the very portion we read on Yom Kippur, Isaiah 47 says: “Is this the fast I have chosen?… Better to divide your bread with the hungry…”

In ignoring this prophetic dictum, rabbinic judges are imposing their own hidebound standards on innocent people.

e) After careful deliberation, the committee strongly urges the implementation of the following guidelines, which are based on Maimonides. In this spirit we present here a pluralistic approach to the problem of Yom Kippur:

1) Limited eating and drinking will be permitted after returning from the long Kol Nidre service. Out of deference to the occasion, this should be only a light snack, with alcoholic beverages to be avoided wherever possible. In case of great need, vodka in limited amounts will be permitted.

2) Out of respect to ancient Jewish practice, breakfast on Yom Kippur morning will be skipped entirely. In case of great need, coffee will be permitted. So that congregants can have a full night’s sleep in preparation for next day’s prayers, morning Yom Kippur services will begin at 10 a.m.

3) At 12 noon there will be a one-hour recess for tea/coffee, light refreshments and social
interaction.

4) A similar recess will take place at 2 p.m. Since this is Yom Kippur, full meals will not be served, and snacks will be limited to soft drinks, tea/coffee/milk, fruit, cake and cookies. Such breaks will prevent the physical weakness that presently settles over congregants during the afternoon, and that disturbs full prayer concentration. Our research shows that there is no greater aid to spirituality than food.

In order to guard against any discomfort that might disturb one’s prayers, services will end at 4 p.m., immediately followed by a break-the-fast meal.

This revised Yom Kippur protocol will bring Judaism into the 21st century, and will send a message that Judaism is not unbending, but is a flexible way of life consonant with current standards of personal well-being. This in turn will encourage people to make aliya, which will strengthen the Jewish state.

THE MEDIA was ecstatic about the report. Wrote Haaretz: “Loosening the religious stranglehold of the haredim is a historic breakthrough. These unfeeling rabbis want only to preserve their religious monopoly.

The Post editorialized: “It is time to end haredi control over religion and the lucrative sinecures that come with it. These innovations show pluralism at its creative best.

Yediot intoned: “Benighted regulations from obstructionist rabbis are a violation of human rights. The refreshment breaks during services are a model of halachic originality.”

Declared Maariv: The ultra-Orthodox have taken away our bread on Pessah, our comfort on Succot, and deprived us of our food and drink on Yom Kippur. These inventive recommendations will pull Jewish law out of the deep freeze.

ON THE following Yom Kippur, the new procedures were implemented, to great public acclaim. All haredi judges were banned from rabbinic courts; the newly appointed judges swiftly converted 200,000 additional new immigrants.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, the government appointed a new committee to reexamine all religious practices that could potentially cause discomfort and inconvenience, specifically targeting kashrut, Shabbat, mikve practices, and all the fast days.

This piece also appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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11 comments to ‘Yom Kippur’s the obstacle’ – a look into the future

  • Will Choose

    Was the dateline April 1st or Purim?

  • Loberstein

    “What does religion have to do with conversion to Judaism?”

    I would never disagree with Rabbi Feldman. For one reason, he knows the realities of the diaspora, unlike the political appointees as religious judges whose main qualilficaton is a relationship to another rabbi of note.l Rabbi Feldman also knows many converts in Atlanta who are today much more observant than they were when they first were admitted to the tribe. How ccan one expect more from the Russians, after all they have gone through? Maybe, much of the fault is in how the religion is presented to them and by whom. As the Gemara makes clear, once an adult has tasted sin, he doesn’t see Judaism as a benefit. If we started with the assumption that this is part of the ingathering of the exiles and that Israel needs these people,we could find a way to bring them closer without scaring them away. The secularists in Israel are guilty of not appreciating the Jewish Religion, but if you only saw the corruption of the Israeli religious establishment, you wouldn’t be religious either. It is despite the rabbis, not because of them. I sat with them at a conference in Jerusalem this past summer and they impressed me as political hacks, not men of G-d. Some seemed totally disinterested in the real life situation of converts, only in their sinecures. Rabbi Feldman has written of s himself in the past.

  • DMZ

    You really need to label your spoofs better. Not all of us are as witty as R’ Feldman.

  • Bob Miller

    We always ought to distinguish between Russian-born residents of Israel who are of Jewish descent by the halachic definition and those who are not. How can we have any religious obligation toward the latter that goes beyond our obligation to people in general?

  • Charles

    This is the problem that comes from fusing religion and the state.

    The Orthodox rabbinate quite correctly insists on certain standards and requirements for those who wish to convert. As a Conservative rabbi I too have my own standards and have on occasion come under pressure to bend them or “be flexible” when a congregant’s child wishes to marry someone, but I have resisted that pressure.

    The problem in Israel comes from the fact that having an identity card which says “Jewish” is the key to all kinds of benefits and employment opportunities, and the keeper of that key is the government rabbinate. A government department has the obligation to serve the needs of the state and its citizens. You can’t have it both ways.

    The secular establishment is also at fault, though, for its willingness to leave control over the term “Jewish” to the state rabbis. Over twenty years ago I gave a number of lectures in secular kibbutzim where I argued that if they were serious about their identity as secular Jews they ought to have a process of “giyur chiloni” and demand the state recognize it. It was easier for them to simply encourage would-be converts to go through the motions and pretend to be observant.

    Would I recognize the graduate of a “giyur chiloni” program as Jewish in my shul? Probably not, but then again, my recognition or lack thereof does not control access to government benefits or employment.

    Yeshayahu Liebowitz was right.

  • hp

    Charles,

    The problem related to “the fact that having an identity card which says “Jewish” is the key to all kinds of benefits and employment opportunities” is real.

    However, why promote falsehood to rectify a problematic situation?

    Being “Jewish” is not a political entity, in which one need follow protocol to easily register in a new party. Easing criteria to broaden admission eligibility to a sports club might be reasonable.

    However, Judaism is a religion- aside from the citizen benefits associated with the word “Jew”, how can it be conceived as reasonable to allow those who REJECT the Jewish religion to ADOPT the Jewish religion”?

    To put it simplistically, is a speech therapist ever permitted to join the American Physical Therapy Association? Only as an affiliate member, not as a therapist. If you are not a PT, why pretend? How can one “be a PT” without actually becoming one? How can one “convert” to being Jewish without accepting the basics of what that means? What is the point of such a conversion, aside from the monetary benefits?

    “Giyur chiloni” is inherently illogical. Does it make sense for a Christian who both rejects the tenets of Christianity and lives a life devoid of any Christian ritual or ideology to decide to “convert” like-minded secularists to “Christianity”? This is an absurd scenario.

    What does conversion to a religion mean if the potential “converter” and “convertee” have no interest in the religion? Logical if the participants are in preschool, involved in dress-up and pretend play. Except in these colorful imaginations, in which children believe they can be ANYTHING they fancy despite logical constraints (Sally can play daddy easily), a “conversion” to a religion which doesn’t involve religion is reminiscent of Alice’s Never Never Land.

  • Charles

    HP:

    Briefly, as the holy Sabbath approacheth.

    I’m not arguing that the government rabbis, or any other rabbis, should sponsor converts who don’t meet their standards. A rabbi is honor-bound to uphold the standards he or she believes in.

    I am arguing that there should not be government rabbis at all and that some other modality be used for entering into the category of people who are entitled to carry an Israeli identity card that says “Jew.”

    It is not necessary that “the category of people who are entitled to carry an Israeli identity card that says Jew” be the same as the category of Jews under halacha. It just puts a little bit extra burden on each rabbi or community to do the necessary checking before granting membership, officiating at a wedding, giving an aliyah, whatever.

    I disagree that “giyur chiloni” is an absurd scenario while also calling your attention to my statement that I would not personally accept such a person as a Jew for purposes of my shul. Jews are both a nation and a religion and it is not absurd to want to be a part of the Jewish nation without necessarily subscribing to the Jewish religion. That describes a significant percentage of Israelis and the overwhelming majority of those who established the state.

  • hp

    Charles,

    You wrote: “I am arguing that there should not be government rabbis at all and that some other modality be used for entering into the category of people who are entitled to carry an Israeli identity card that says “Jew.””

    I agree with you, up until the last word. “Jew” means something very specific. You sound like a proud and caring Jew. Therefore, I’m surprised that you think less of the Jewish religion that that of Christianity or Islam. You know full well that in Christianity and Islam (among other religions), one who converts does so to change their religion, (shouldn’t this be obvious?) with all that this entails.

    Why have such a watered down view of Judaism? Only in Judaism is it OK to convert to the religion without even a pretense of interest in the religion? Let’s be frank- individuals in Israel desire to convert for the financial benefits, not for spiritual reasons. If Israel invites and allows so many gentiles to reside in the Land, they should determine a reasonable plan to for them to meet the criteria for benefits. If the criteria include a particular religion, these criteria might need to change.

    You wrote: “It is not necessary that “the category of people who are entitled to carry an Israeli identity card that says Jew” be the same as the category of Jews under halacha.”

    Then why use the term “Jew”? “Israeli”, or any other term, would have the same utilitarian effect, without the subsequent problems you mention.

    You wrote: “I disagree that “giyur chiloni” is an absurd scenario while also calling your attention to my statement that I would not personally accept such a person as a Jew for purposes of my shul. Jews are both a nation and a religion and it is not absurd to want to be a part of the Jewish nation without necessarily subscribing to the Jewish religion.”

    Charles, how are the Jews a nation? Our nationhood began at Sinai, where we accepted the Torah. Our nation is not a political entity dependent on being organized under an independent government of a sovereign state (which would call into question the status of all current Jews in the Diaspora), or even a people who share common customs, history and language (who are the real Jews? Those from Persia? From Eastern Europe?)

    Our “Jewishness” indicates our religion. “Jew” and “Judaism” are inextricably bound; they are one and the same. You are correct that many Jews have not had the opportunity to invite our beautiful guidebook for life, the Torah, into their lives. In our religion, one who is born a Jew remains so forevermore, regardless of his current practice. Torah and the Jewish heritage are the birthright of every Jew, and every Jew is entitled to access this spiritual life-enhancing powerhouse the moment he/she wishes it.

    Those who wish to join the religion of Judaism do not have the option of joining the nation without religious practice. A Jew cannot give up his religion, but a gentile has no such heritage. Unlike an unalterable status such as ethnicity, however, one may recognize the truth of Judaism and wish to convert.

    If a Ahmed, a Muslim from an Islamic nation chooses to cast off the practices of his religion, he might still identify as “Muslim”. How about Ahmed’s friend, Tim? Tim met Ahmed in college, and thinks his religion is “cool”. He wishes to convert, but states he has no interest in the practices, beliefs, ideology or rituals of the Muslim religion. He wishes to convert because it will somehow benefit him (money, perhaps? A benefits package? Ah…). If he is refused conversion, would you call foul? Discrimination? Same scenario with Christianity.

    Wherein do you see the logic in advocating for the term “Jew” to be divested of its Judaism?

    I think you need to reflect on how exactly you define “nation” in Judaism. If it’s through blood or shared origins, conversion would be a logical impossibility. If it’s through current political entity, that leaves Diaspora Jews out of the picture. Shared culture? Perhaps through matza balls?

    Prior to Sinai, we were not a nation. Our forefather Abraham influenced many people to the ways of G-d. But they could not formally join a nation which did not yet exist. At Sinai, the Jews became more than a family bloodline; they achieved religious nationhood. Thus, the door opened for outsiders to join the family of Jews, and acquire an equal share in this spiritual heritage.

    If Israel’s residents require financial benefits, their needs should be given consideration. In the process, we need not distort the term “Jew”, and the wonderful Judaism it represents.

  • Bob Miller

    HaShem’s commands are not to be treated as a Chinese menu.

  • Charles

    HP:

    We are probably never going to agree on this issue but I appreciate the respectful tone which is, unfortunately, not so common in these debates.

    In my opinion there is a sociological reality that the word “Jew” has at least two meanings. One can be a Jew by religion or by nationality/ethnicity. In English we have two words, “Judaism” and “Jewishness” which are clearly not identical. In Hebrew you have only “yahadut” though one of my professors coined the term “yehudi-ut” but to my knowledge it has not caught on.

    I do not know if you are a Zionist though your postings in this thread represent the classic Agudist non-Zionist perspective. The major streams of Zionism — Labor in its many variants as well as Revisionism and General Zionism — posit that there is a Jewish people which is distinct from the Jewish religion. I have to acknowledge that the corollaries of this position are not always logical because the State of Israel, according to the Law of Return as amended, says you can be a Jew who follows Judaism or a Jew who follows no religion but not a Jew who follows a religion other than Judaism. So that even if you are a Jew by halacha the state will not give you a Jewish identity card if you are a Christian — the Brother Daniel case and the Beresford case bear this out.

    I appreciate the fact that you have a sincere desire to solve the problem of halachically Gentile immigrants who are descendants of Jews. So do I. I’m not sure how I feel about dropping the term “Jew” altogether vis-a-vis status and benefits. It would be a pragmatic solution but not, in my opinion, a Zionist one.

    One last thing. It isn’t always about money and benefits. People were persecuted in Europe as “Jews” and get to Israel to find that they are halachically, in fact, not Jews. They identify as Jews and want to be a part of the Jewish people but do not subscribe to Orthodox Judaism. They want to be recognized by the Jewish state as belonging to the Jewish people. I do not view this as illogical.

    Kol tuv,
    Charles Arian

  • hp

    Charles,

    We have a fundamentally different understanding on a major issue, but I’m sure we both look forward to the time when all doubts will be clarified with the arrival of Mashiach.

    All the best,
    HP