November 10, 2007

Slamming the Door on Converts

When extremism becomes elitism. From The Forward:

Every year, thousands of non-Jews make the fateful decision to convert to Judaism. Some are seeking spiritual fulfillment. Many are married to or planning to marry a Jewish spouse. Others have a Jewish father or grandparent and desire a full sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and wish to reconnect with their roots. Many are living in Israel and want acceptance as Jews in the Jewish state. Whatever their original motives, they are a remarkable — and growing — part of the Jewish people.

The conversion phenomenon should be a source of celebration for Jews. Each convert gives eloquent testimony to the ongoing attractiveness of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

At a time when thousands of people are considering conversion to Judaism, however, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic establishment is raising ever-higher barriers to them. While Israel’s chief rabbinate accepts many candidates who are willing to become fully committed Orthodox Jews, it will not readily accept those who are not ready for total commitment. Thus, a would-be convert must usually spend years studying Torah and halacha, or Jewish law, and adopt an entirely Orthodox lifestyle in order to be considered for conversion.

Now, Israel’s increasingly ultra-Orthodox- dominated chief rabbinate is attempting to impose its views on the Jewish Diaspora. Here in the United States, it has already forced the Rabbinical Council of America — the Diaspora’s largest Orthodox rabbinical association — into line.

In the spring of 2006, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, proclaimed that the chief rabbinate would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, except for those specifically approved by the chief rabbinate. The RCA had to decide how to respond to this affront to the integrity of its members. After all, the chief rabbi was basically saying that RCA members can’t be trusted to do proper halachic conversions.

This is a tragedy — and an unnecessary one at that, since there is no halachic reason why the chief rabbinate’s view should carry the day. The Talmud and classic codes of Jewish law actually grant considerable leeway in the halachic acceptance of converts. While converts must “accept the mitzvot,” or commandments, there is wide latitude in understanding what this phrase means. The Talmud itself says that we must instruct the candidate for conversion in “some of the major and some of the minor commandments.” There is no requirement or expectation that the candidate must learn all the mitzvot in advance of conversion, nor that he or she will promise to keep all the mitzvot in every detail after conversion.