Conversions of Convenience, or Conversions of Commitment?

The invective swirling around the proposed Israeli conversion legislation runs amok. It “spits in the face of Diaspora Jewry,” says an American non-Orthodox rabbi in The New York Times. Not to be outdone, the president of Hebrew Union College pillories “retrograde rabbis hijacking Jewish law.” Another rabbi tells his congregants that “Judaism does not belong to the most reactionary elements among us.”

In letters and sermons these past weeks, the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate – and by intimation all of Orthodoxy – was derided as power-hungry politicians who are about to disenfranchise all Reform and Conservative Jews, and are splitting apart the Jewish people.

Duly incited, non-Orthodox Jews blitzed Israel with an avalanche of protests, and now the legislation has been postponed in order to “preserve the unity of the Jewish people.”

Lost in all the incendiary rhetoric are some basic facts about the actual conversion procedures of most American Reform and Conservative rabbis – procedures which they would like to export to Israel. It is useful to look at these facts – as witnessed by an Orthodox rabbi who served in an American pulpit for over 40 years.

During these years, many non-Jews asked me to convert them to Judaism. Unfortunately, I had to refuse most of them, because it was obvious that their desire to become a Jew stemmed not from a love of the God of the Jews, but from the love of a daughter or son of the Jews. That is, in order to avoid the appearance of an intermarriage, many Jewish parents would try to arrange a conversion for their child’s non-Jewish intended, so that a “Jewish marriage” could take place.

One wealthy but desperate congregant once tearfully offered to make a $25,000 contribution to our hardpressed Shul – plus a nice fat fee for me personally – if I would officiate at the conversion and the wedding.

It was also quite apparent that many conversion candidates had not the slightest idea of what Judaism is.

Some were stunned to learn that as Jews they would not celebrate Christmas or Easter. Although as an individual I was sympathetic to distraught parents, as a rabbi I was constrained by the halacha which explicitly cautions against converting people who have motives other than love of Judaism.

To affiliate with the eternal Jewish people is not a frivolous move. The convert must be aware of what he or she is getting into – literally. To enter Judaism is a serious undertaking. It cannot be done in six easy lessons, nor even in 12.

It requires discipline, self-sacrifice – plus the willingness to suffer the fate of all Jews, whatever that fate might be. To become part of Am Yisrael is not like changing a dress or a suit of clothing: off with one, on with the other. It requires more than liking blintzes or Jewish deli.

In order to demonstrate seriousness, candidates for conversion must make certain minimal but basic commitments: acceptance of the one God; no dual allegiance to any other religion; familiarization with essential Jewish beliefs and practices; a sincere pledge to live as a practicing Jew. The process of study – which can take a year or more – is then culminated by immersion in the mikveh – plus, in the case of males, ritual circumcision.

This immersion is the final step in creating a new Jew, and is a sine qua non of the conversion procedure.

Following this, the genuine convert is fully welcomed into our fold – although we are not out to save souls from damnation, and do not go about seeking converts.

All this transcends being stringent or lenient or flexible.

Rather, it is a matter of viewing conversion as a fateful, life-changing step. As a result, during 40 years in the rabbinate, I converted less than ten people. Total.

During that same time, my Reform and Conservative colleagues were converting numerous non-Jews each year. Though I had good personal relations with them, I must say that these rabbis were more than lax in their requirements. Influenced by liberal zeitgeist buzzwords like pluralism, personal autonomy and religious diversity, they did not insist even on the minimal conditions prescribed by Jewish law.

The course of study was quick, easy and user-friendly.

Commitment to Judaism as a new way of life, and a willingness to observe Jewish practices were – with some rare exceptions – largely missing. Rarely did their new-found Judaism effect a change in lifestyle. In addition, in some Reform conversions, circumcision and mikveh immersion were not required. In many instances, these conversions were meaningless wrappings for a papered-over intermarriage – for obviously there were not numerous non-Jews in our city who annually fell hopelessly in love with Judaism. Instead of conversions of commitment, these were conversions of convenience.

And so I could not recognize these converts as Jews.

This was painful, because for the innocent converts this was an untenable situation: their rabbis claimed they were Jews, but halachically loyal rabbis could not recognize them as such. Did this make me a reactionary, a “retrograde rabbi hijacking” Jewish law? Was I the one splitting the Jewish people in two, or “spitting in the face of non-Orthodox Jews” and delegitimizing them? Of course not, and my non-Orthodox colleagues understood this fully, and treated my stance respectfully.

They knew that my non-recognition applied only to non-Jews who entered Judaism under non-halachic guidelines, but that obviously all non-Orthodox Jews remain Jews in the eyes of halacha.

In this light, the pious cries we now hear of a schism ring very hollow. Where at one time there was a clear standard of how to become Jewish, today that standard has been breached – and when the Orthodox protest that people converted by such diluted standards cannot be recognized as Jews, the result is invective and political pressure. Who is causing the schism? Surely this Diaspora conversion chaos should not be exported to an Israel which is chaotic enough. Methinks the namecalling rabbis protest too much. Their gross overreaction suggests that something deeper is troubling them.

Are they hyper-sensitive about their own lax conversion procedures? The saddest aspect of this entire imbroglio is that a sacred aspect of halacha – how to join our holy people – one that is discussed in the Talmud and the Codes, has been demeaned and reduced to an enactment in a secular legislature, morphing into a political football to be debated, amended, negotiated and kicked around by self-serving demagogues who have no connection to halacha, and subjected to strong-arm pressure from non-Israeli institutions who somehow feel threatened by it. This truly is a hijacking of sacred Jewish law.

The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, was rabbi in Atlanta, GA for 40 years. The former editor of Tradition Magazine, he is the author of nine books, most recently Tales Out of Jerusalem.

This article also appeared as an Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post.

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6 comments to Conversions of Convenience, or Conversions of Commitment?

  • Jacob T

    I couldn’t agree more–the Israeli government and, by extension, the rabbanut should stay out of conversion entirely. Regarding the Law of Return, the status quo should be preserved. Once the Jew is a citizen, the state should recognize marriages performed by all rabbis, heterodox and Orthodox alike. At the end of life, the state should deny no one who has cast their lot with the Jewish people a Jewish burial–if a more stringent rabbi won’t perform a ceremony for the convert in question, surely a more lenient one can be found. Problem solved, right?

  • Ori

    In most Heterodox communities there is no stigma attached to intermarriage, it is the rule rather than the exception. Children of intermarriage are either considered Jewish (Jewish mother or Reform patrilineal descent) or can be easily converted without the gentile mother converting. So the children can go to the religious school, have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, etc. This being the case, what is exactly the convenience of converting for the gentile spouse in a Heterodox synagogue?

    You can make the case that anybody who is not Orthodox lacks the commitment to be a good Jew. But it doesn’t make sense to consider Heterodox conversions a convenience, at least in the US where religion is a personal matter with no legal consequences.

  • mycroft

    “Rather, it is a matter of viewing conversion as a fateful, life-changing step. As a result, during 40 years in the rabbinate, I converted less than ten people. Total.”

    I believe Rabbi Feldman-but perhaps I am misunderstanding what he means. If he means that he was involved in less than 10 geirus of adults with no prior connection to Judaism I find that in accord with my understanding of rough frequency of geirus. But if the 10 includes baalei Tshuva who the realize that halachikally they aren’t Jewish and giyurei katan I find it strange-that the man who was probably the leading Rabbi in the South for decades and was involved in kiruv would not have had more cases. Certainly, in the beginninjg of his career before Roe v Wade and more succesful fertility treatments adoptions were relatively frequent-and the leading Rav of the South wasn’t involved in those geirus.

  • YM

    Ori, until the 1980s the heterodox communties were still troubled by intermarriage; there was still a “stigma” and so there was pressure for conversions. You are correct that today there is little stigma.

  • Miriam

    They knew that my non-recognition applied only to non-Jews who entered Judaism under non-halachic guidelines, but that obviously all non-Orthodox Jews remain Jews in the eyes of halacha.

    But as Ori describes, and as I’ve also seen, many of those who nowadays affiliate as Reform Jews aren’t halachically Jewish – let’s call them “cultural” rather than “convenient” conversions, but either way they didn’t go the whole 9 halachic yards. And that’s been going on for years, so the adult leadership in Reform likely has many such “non-Jews who entered Judaism under non-halachic guidelines.”

    To tell them they can still become Israeli under the Law of Return doesn’t answer the schism they live in.

  • Ori

    Miriam: To tell them they can still become Israeli under the Law of Return doesn’t answer the schism they live in.

    Ori: They don’t like in a schism, anymore than somebody like me, who is culturally Jewish, Halachically Jewish, and does not follow Halacha lives in a schism. The issue is whether they should care about the state of Israel, but arguably that has already been answered by the Reform Movement in the past.