Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate has been under siege of late, over the issue – once again – of conversion. And once again as well, the media abound with misinformation. This time, though, some of it is being supplied by Orthodox rabbis.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, the retiring rabbi of an historic New York Orthodox synagogue assailed Israel’s Rabbinate for “raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold.” He accuses the religious authorities of having “adopted a haredi position that conversion is available only to those agreeing to observe Torah and mitzvot in full,” asserting that the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative codification of halacha, or Jewish religious law) say otherwise.
In the same periodical, a second Orthodox rabbinic commentator, the director of an educational institute in Israel, vented similar displeasure with Israel’s Rabbinate. The fact that Israel has become home to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants, he argues, “demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion.” That such has not happened, the rabbi went on, is proof that the Jewish State’s rabbinic authorities “are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process.”
Or, perhaps, more concerned with halachic integrity than with pleasing a populace.
The image of masses of sincere neophytes yearning to join the Jewish people — but being rebuffed by small-minded religious functionaries — plays well in the press. As does the notion that commitment to Jewish religious observance is not a requirement for conversion. Both, though, are at odds with reality.
There are certainly non-Jews in Israel who sincerely wish to convert to Judaism, not merely to cement their status as citizens of Israel but to wholeheartedly join the Jewish People and its mission.
But there are many more non-Jews in Israel, among them many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who may wish to be considered Jews but who have no interest in undertaking Jewish observance.
Sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah’s laws — or “kabbalat hamitzvot” — is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.
When a non-Jew seeks to convert solely for the purpose of marrying a Jew, pleasing a spouse or just feeling more Israeli, Jewish law is clear that the request should not be entertained. If a legitimate Jewish court is convinced that the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage is in fact willing to shoulder kabbalat hamitzvot, respected Orthodox authorities have not considered the marriage factor to be a bar to conversion.
But should a non-Jew without any such willingness somehow manage to be accepted by a rabbinical court and go through the motions of conversion — a formal declaration of kabbalat hamitzvot, immersion in a mikva (ritual pool) and, in the case of a male, actual or symbolic circumcision — halacha is equally clear: the conversion is entirely invalid.
One of the rabbis quoted above has tried to insinuate otherwise, citing codified halachic sources to the effect that once a conversion is performed, no amount of backsliding can change the convert’s status as a Jew.
That is indeed true. But only, the sources are clear, when the conversion was valid in the first place — i.e. there was an acceptance at the time, sincere and unmitigated, of the Torah’s commandments. Should it become clear — and certainly in a case where it was always clear — that the professed embrace of the Torah’s commandments was a sham, so was the conversion. The “convert” never was one.
Proponents of the “relaxation” of conversion standards in Israel often cite poignant, agonizing cases of non-Jews who were not accepted for conversion or whose conversions were not recognized by rabbinical authorities. There can be no denying that human pain can result from the application of Jewish law, no less than it can from the laws of physics, or from life itself.
But ignoring Jewish law is not an Orthodox option. And doing so can take its own human toll. Were Israel to “relax” its conversion standards, children of the beneficiaries of that change who might one day become observant would discover that they need to convert to be Jewish by the yardstick of their own beliefs. Young women engaged to cohanim would discover that they, as converts, cannot halachically marry their fiancés. What is more, the Jewishness of every convert and convert’s child would become questionable to all halacha-respecting Jews. Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should, and prevent the Jewish People from becoming, G-d forbid, a multitude of “Jewish peoples.”
One of the rabbis mentioned above chided Israel’s Rabbinate by reminding it that human beings are not “chess pieces.” He is right. What is more, the Jewish People is not a club, and halacha is not a game.