Cause and Effect?

A Letter to the Editor in the Baltimore Jewish Times, December 5, restates a common theme in modern Jewish thought: whereas assimilation and low birth rates are lowering the Jewish population, we should be as welcoming as possible to prospective converts. Now, they argue, is the time to lower the barriers to entry for anyone wishing to identify with the Jewish people.

Jews make up less than two percent of the American population and less than one quarter of one percent of the world’s people. Each year, assimilation and low birth rates lower the Jewish population, both in relative and absolute terms. We are becoming fewer and fewer and yet there are some among us who would reject the handful of brave souls who wish to identify as Jews.

One can only wonder how the above writer would disparage the attitude towards conversion of Rabbi Tzion Levi, zt”l, who led the Jewish community of Panama for fifty-seven years. A short news item in Mishpacha, December 3, remarked on his petirah (passing), and included the following:

Rabbi Levi laid down the law on conversions. He decreed that no conversions were to be performed in Panama; whoever wanted to convert would have to go to an Orthodox beis din (religious court) outside the country. Afterward, the person would be required to demonstrate for two years that he/she lives a Torah life, before being accepted as a Jew by the community.

Far from lowering the barriers, Rabbi Levi made conversion far more difficult than the Halacha requires. Any prospective convert would presumably have to spend a considerable amount of time in a foreign country, as no beis din will conduct a conversion before they themselves are convinced as to the individual’s sincerity. Then, upon returning to Panama, the newly-minted convert had to live a Torah life for two years before being recognized as a Jew.

Rav Eliyahu Raful, Rosh Yeshivas Neve Ha’aretz, told Mishpacha that Rabbi Levi created a religious community “out of nothing.” With that sort of “intransigent” and “unreasonable” attitude, should it have flourished? The record speaks for itself:

Today the community has 6,000 Torah-observant members, and is known internationally for its chesed (kindness) and tzedakah (charity). But the community takes special pride in the fact that, unlike other western cities, there is essentially no intermarriage.

There is no study, projection or even armchair guess claiming that the Jewish community can sustain its numbers through conversions. The number of conversions is, regardless of the standard used, insufficient to make up for assimilation and the low birth rate. It might be argued, though, that making Jewish identity such a trivial thing to acquire sends precisely the wrong message to Jewish youth.

“Dumbing Judaism Down” is not the answer.

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29 Responses

  1. Doughboy says:

    What you are describing is correlation, not causation. Furthermore, There are so many counter-examples to this phenomenon. For example, every single major US city which all have high rates of intermarriage and very strict conversion rules in the Orthodox community.

    Also, why do you refer to helping sincere converts more easily become Jews “dumbing Judaism dumb.” That is insulting to every Jew who has converted and had their motives questioned at every turn. It is also insulting to us Jews who respect and appreciate people who are willing to make that commitment.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:


    We all observe, pragmatically, that the harder it is to gain membership in a club, the less likely a person is to let his or her membership expire. I believe “that making Jewish identity such a trivial thing to acquire sends precisely the wrong message to Jewish youth,” and that, for this reason, the “dumbing down” of conversion standards has a relationship of causation with assimilation. I put a question mark in the title because this thesis, although both logical and born out by observation, would be very difficult to prove conclusively without two communities in which everything but the standard of conversion was precisely the same.

    We can only observe correlation — and statistics in US cities, far from being a counter-example, confirm that it exists. The high rates of intermarriage are not found in the Orthodox communities with “their very strict conversion rules.” There is a reasonably well-defined inverse relationship between the conversion standards of a community and its intermarriage rate.

    It is a misreading to claim that my comment about “dumbing Judaism down” had anything to do with sincere converts and valid conversions. I was referring to those who favor “lowering the barriers” beyond the level of Halacha — at which point, regardless of the sincerity of the convert, there is no conversion. Far from appreciating that, sincere converts feel duped when they learn that the Rabbi neglected to inform them that their “conversion” failed to meet standards used — at the very, very least — since the time of the Mishna.

  3. Avigdor M"Bawlmawr says:

    Perhaps R. Menken might have said “watered down” Judaism and gotten his point across better, or “Judaism lite”. Asking less of Jews, not keeping kosher or Shabbos, weakens their attachment to Judaism, making it just another lifestyle choice.

    What is a sincere convert? In Orthodox eyes it means someone who wants to change his or her relationship with G-d by accepting the yoke of His Torah and mitzvos, no small thing. It does not just mean forsaking the object for Christian adoration, or just being a thoroughgoing monotheist. Doughboy, does your idea of “sincere convert” differ from this?

    I suppose the Rav in Panama must have felt desperate times called for desperate measures, that any Beis Din in-country might have been compromised. He was, apparently, successful. And, Doughboy, American communities cannot serve as counterexamples for many reasons. To mention what might be the central one, it would appear there is, or was, no competitor to traditional Judaism in Panama. The family couldn’t take the nice gentile boyfriend or girlfriend to the heterodox rabbi to wave the conversion wand over his or her head. Any potential convert had to be very motivated. Seems to have worked for them.

  4. Mike S. says:

    If you are referring to the Reform and Conservative movements when you talk of the relation between lowered standards of conversion and intermarriage, than we know how the causation works. These movements lowered their standards of conversion (indeed, not even reqiring it in many cases) as a response to their intermarriage rates. The history is unambiguous, and you seem to have it backwards.

    If, however, you mean those among the Orthodox who wish to welcome converts who accept the commandments and undergo mila and t’vilah, without demanding either that they adopt a Chareidi outlook or mode of dress, or a variety of extra procedures to insure sincerity, such as a waiting period, or travel to Yerushalaim for conversion (as R. Kook suggested for Argentina) I find your tone objectionable. There are certainly many Posekim who are strict in the matter and believe that, in a society with relatively free social intercourse between Jew and Gentile we must impose additional barriers. However, there are many Posekim who rule for a more welcoming stance; the earliest I am aware of is R. Shlomo Kluger who ruled that a woman seeking to convert to the Judaism of her husband (by civil marriage) is converting L’shem Shamayim, since they can live together (this was in early 19th century France) without her conversion. And of course, in a very different social context, you ave the actions of Hillel in the Gemarra in Bameh Madlikin (daf 30 or 31 as I recall).

    You are free to prefer the opinion of the machmirim, but the stature of those Chachamim who adopted the more welcoming stand demands respect and careful consideration, not a sneering dismissal. The subject of how accepting to be of converts in the modern world has been a the subject of hundreds of Tshuvot from Gedolei Yisroel, with a wide variety of viewpoints, since the governments of Europe began permitting Christians to convert to Judaism after the French Revolution. To attempt to address the issue with a few snide remarks in a blog post seems entirely inappropriate.

  5. Shunamit says:

    There is a vast difference between lowering standards and lowering barriers. It is a common error to assume that the newly-minted ger should be a “finished product”. It should be a license and a blessing to continue to grow. In my experience, there comes a point when not finalizing the conversion is far more painful than not doing so, and if prolongued too much, this creates a sense of alienation.

    Having been Jewish for well over half my life now, my “ger-dar” is pretty keen, and I will tell you that some of the most impressive converts don’t stand the test of time, while many of the more unassuming remain as firmly woven into the fabric of Am Yisrael as Ruth. It’s harder to predict than you might think.

    Also, in this age of “fear of commitment”, geirut marks the character as decisively as, say, Marine training. For the rest of your life, most of the Jews you meet remind you of margarine. It’s less a matter of great piety than tenacious commitment.

  6. Ori says:

    It might be argued, though, that making Jewish identity such a trivial thing to acquire sends precisely the wrong message to Jewish youth.

    But for those Jewish youth their Jewish identity was a trivial thing to acquire. They got it without any effort. They keep it regardless of what they do. Does Rabbi Levi’s community observe the same stringency with Ba’aley Teshuva?

  7. Doughboy says:

    Thank you Mike S. I could not have said it better.

    One last point, why are we calling the actions of Rabbi Levi a chumrah? Isn’t he being extremely lenient on the 207th Mitzvah as listed by the Ramban to love the convert? How does treating a legitimate convert as an outcast for two years fulfill that Mitzvah? I may be misunderstanding this statement: “Afterward, the person would be required to demonstrate for two years that he/she lives a Torah life, before being accepted as a Jew by the community.” Can someone clarify this for me? It seems that requiring a two year demonstration AFTER being converted to Judaism is violating a Torah commandment, or at least not in the spirit of that commandment. Or maybe I don’t understand the Mizvah itself?

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    Mike, I think my reference to lowering barriers beyond the level of Halacha makes clear that I am not talking about Orthodox conversions. Nor do I think the Panamanian model is one to be duplicated worldwide. It merely serves as a clear counter-proof to the idea that accepting conversions is a necessary component of staunching the decline of the Jewish community.

    As for Reform and Conservative conversions, you are correct that their laxity towards conversion comes at least partially in response to assimilation — a point which I considered before posting. It is, however, a vicious cycle.

    First of all, the Reform movement drastically lowered the standards for conversion immediately. A group proclaiming its rejection of “Mosaic Law” could hardly place upon a prospective convert the burden of new obligations required by that same Torah.

    Further reductions in standards, though they came in response to assimilation, also accelerated the process. You mention correctly that the Reform movement dropped the requirement for conversion, accepting as Jewish the child of a Jewish father who goes to their Hebrew school and “identifies as Jewish.” But you didn’t note the precipitous decline in conversions that immediately followed this change. The change caused an immediate and substantial increase in the number of intermarriages, once David knew he didn’t need Christine to convert in order to have Jewish kids (or satisfy his mother).

    Shunamit, there’s a great difference between barriers to entry and barriers after entry, and I think we’re just looking at the semantics differently. After conversion, a Jew is a Jew (though the Panamanian model does wait to see the test of time more than Halacha requires). A genuine geirus is even much more transformational than Marine training… your reference to margarine, all too accurate.

    Ori, even if you are born into an exclusive club membership through your parents, it’s still something you are less likely to permit to lapse as an adult. Rabbi Levi’s community excelled in helping each Jew to recognize that he was born into the great privilege of being part of the Jewish nation, and to adopt the responsibilities that come with that.

  9. Chaim Fisher says:

    Our Shulchan Orech is quite clear about it: instead of encouraging conversion, in fact, every potential convert should be warned three times.

    The Jewish people have weathered a lot worse threats than being less than 2% of the US over the last thousands of years. We’ll be fine. Thank you Rabbi Menken.

  10. Shunamit says:

    “A genuine geirus is even much more transformational than Marine training”
    –And I wasn’t even really talking about the spiritual transformation, which isn’t something that can be fully understood or articulated. What I meant was that, in this soft age, hardly anyone understands the meaning of commitment, sacrifice, and pushing beyond boundaries. Emotionally, sociologically and intellectually, the experience makes you different from most other people, Jews as well as non-Jews.

    It’s a shame that most born Jews, including ba’alei teshuva, will never experience what it means to fully value their own Jewishness. The first people I met, besides other sincere gerim, to understand what I meant by this were a group of Russian ba’alei teshuva who had become religious under the Soviet regime.

    There is a line beyond which “I made this choice” becomes “This choice is me”, which is why the idea of “invalidating” a true conversion is simply ridiculous.

  11. L Oberstein says:

    Conversion standards are one of my favorite topics. It is also a never ending discussion because the problem is so immense that it just won’t “go away”. No matter what we do, we are facing a major issue that belies simplistic solutions.If we water down entry to allow anyone who wants to identify with the Jewish People, we won’t have much of a people any more.The bonds of kinship and history as well as ingrained values will be dissolved. On the other hand, if we circle the wagons and impose the highest, almost impossible to achieve conversion standards, we will succeed only to extent that orthodoxy removes itself from the rest of the Jewish People. Both solutions will leave us a smaller nation.I don’t have a “middle path” to suggest, I don’t know what would actually be effective and stop the dissolution of our ancient tribe.It bothers me more than most other issues discussed on this blog.

  12. YM says:

    demanding either that they adopt a Chareidi outlook or mode of dress, or a variety of extra procedures to insure sincerity, such as a waiting period, or travel to Yerushalaim for conversion

    I have never heard of anything like this.

    Certainly the issue with woman who was told at the time of her divorce that her conversion was invalid did not involve any of this; I believe that she flat out admitted to the beis din that she had never been fully observant.

    Traveling to Jerusalem would only be in a situation where there is not an frum community with a qualified beis din in the country; I have no idea whether Argentina has this.

    I believe that the issue with Rav Druckman involved signing conversion documents without having been present at the beis din, not his standard for determining whether someone has sincerly accepted the yoke of the commandments.

  13. M.D. says:

    Yaakov Menken writes: “After conversion, a Jew is a Jew (though the Panamanian model does wait to see the test of time more than Halacha requires)”

    To reiterate: As Doughboy pointed out, it would appear that this policy is not more than the Halacha REQUIRES, but rather more than the Halacha PERMITS.

  14. Ori says:

    L Oberstein: Both solutions will leave us a smaller nation. I don’t have a “middle path” to suggest, I don’t know what would actually be effective and stop the dissolution of our ancient tribe.

    Ori: I don’t think there is one, at least not one that would be acceptable to enough Jews. Heterodox Jews are not going to accept Halachic restrictions. Orthodox Jews are not going to accept as Jews anybody who isn’t Jewish Halachically, meaning that at some point you will no longer be able to treat Heterodox Jews as Jewish without additional evidence. The percent of Jews in Heterodox synagogues who have a Heterodox convert for a female-line ancestor(1) will only increase with time.

    We aren’t in a process of dissolution. We split into separate tribes that share history. It’s possible that one of these tribes (mine) isn’t viable, just as Philo’s Hellenistic Judaism was not viable.

    (1) Mother, maternal grandmother, mother of maternal grandmother, etc.

  15. Mike S. says:

    YM: I am not familiar with the social circumstances in Argentina at the time, but that is from a published T’shuvah of Rav Kook. The chareidi dress was not from a news story but from the personal experience of a friend of mine who had been living as a frum woman (ba’alat t’shuva) for 20 years when she found out that her maternal grandmother had not been born Jewish but had undergone a Reform conversion (in prewar Germany, no less.)

  16. Nathan Elberg says:

    Do not add, do not subtract…

    Stringency & piety are not necessarily co-related. Is the strictness demanded in orthodox conversion the halachic requirement, or is it just circling the wagons? I’ve seen opinions that the current strictness, of accepting and observing all the mitzvot was a 19th c. opinion from a source that is not influential in other matters. Prior to this opinion becoming popular, apparently orthodox conversion was much simpler (of course, there was no such thing as “orthodox”, there was simply “Jew” in earlier days)

  17. lacosta says:

    vchamushim allu bnei yisrael meeretz mitrayim… which we take to mean that 20% [some say 2%] emerged from the first galus. if we define bnei yisrael as frum jews , we could say the world % is possibly in the 10% range of jews—- maybe more when we delete those who no longer consider themselves jews;or those not halachically so. maybe pre-final geula that’s all we can expect…

  18. Noam says:

    An examination of the ‘record’ put forth by Rabbi Menken.

    “Today the community has 6,000 Torah-observant members, and is known internationally for its chesed (kindness) and tzedakah (charity). But the community takes special pride in the fact that, unlike other western cities, there is essentially no intermarriage.”

    6,000 Torah observant members. How many non-Torah observant members? Is the absence of intermarriage only apply to the Torah observant, or also to the unmentioned non-Torah observant? What statistics are the basis of Rabbi Raful’s statement? Are there statistics, or is this just an anecdotal report? Are the sources and publication those that can usually be relied upon to be accurate and unbiased?
    I would suggest that unless there is more supporting evidence, this ‘report’ be regarded as what it actually is, an opinion with no documented factual basis, published in a magazine that has a stated agenda, and therefore may not always an objective reporter of fact.

  19. Yaakov Menken says:

    Well, the JTA’s article on Rabbi Levi’s passing says that his congregation had 7000 practicing members, so apparently Mishpacha wasn’t exaggerating.

    It’s almost funny, but really rather sad, how Noam will try to nitpick with even the most straightforward, factual report without any grounds upon which to question it… based solely upon such things as a comment about Mishpacha‘s “stated agenda.” When it comes to bias, the only difference between the charedi press and the secular press is that the former is honest about it.

  20. mb says:

    One shul with 7000 shomer mitzvah members?

  21. YM says:

    Mike S: The chareidi dress was not from a news story but from the personal experience of a friend of mine…

    My understanding is that within each individual’s conversion process, the beis din has always been able to advise or require individuals to do or not do certain things. The pertinent issue here is the common denominator for all conversions that will be recognized in the State of Israel for personal status issues like marriage, divorce, education, etc. I think that Mike’s friend could have found another acceptible beis din that would not have encouraged or required “charedi dress”. Again, the issue with Rav Druckman’s batei dinim, I believe, was conversions where the witnesses (or members of the beis din) were not actually present at the the conversion but still signed the shtaar.

  22. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Perhaps it is Noam who has an agenda. The tone of his comment, if not its content, would seem to suggest as much.

    If Mr. Letter Writer is truly concerned for Jewish continuity, I would suggest that he focus on Jewish education, the one tried and true method for preventing assimilation and intermarriage. [And no, that’s not anecdotal; its axiomatic.] But furthering Jewish education takes more than words; it requires a major commitment of time and money. I spend 25% of my net income of my children’s education (that’s on top of the 5% I pay in the form of property taxes to support public education, but that, at least, is tax deductible). I know others who spend even more. I don’t know if Mr. Letter Writer has made, or is prepared to make, a similar type of commitment. But if he isn’t, he hasn’t earned the right to pontificate on the future of the Jewish Nation.

  23. Noam says:

    Its almost funny, but really rather sad, how Rabbi Menken once again misses the point. He tries to contrast one set of conversion standards with another, bringing ‘proof’ from a fragment of a magazine report. However, it is clear that Rabbi Menken is describing a fragment of an Orthodox community, and he is comparing that to a community as a whole. We all know the intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox is higher than among Orthodox. There is nothing new or innovative about this claim. But Rabbi Menken wants to link a lower intermarriage rate to Rabbi Levi’s strict conversion criteria. And the quote he brings really doesn’t prove anything at all, because the comparison groups are so dissimilar, there are too many other variables.

    He also sets up an artificial straw man: “With that sort of “intransigent” and “unreasonable” attitude, should it have flourished?” There are many communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, orthodox and non-Orthodox, that flourish despite unreasonable and intransigent attitudes on the part of its leaders.

    Instead of spending his time trying to belittle my comments, I think Rabbi Menken would be better served trying to explain why adopting suprahalachic stringencies in conversion, and thus violating the commandment of not oppressing the convert, is an appropriate path for a God-fearing Jew.

  24. Noam says:

    To Chaim: Yes, I have an agenda, it is truth. It seems to me that truth should be the agenda of any God-fearing Jew.

    The funny reality is that Rabbi Menken and I probably agree on most, if not nearly all things. We both support halachic conversion standards, oppose the ‘dumbing down of Judaism’, and, like every committed Jew, are very concerned about the future of Jews and Judaism. On the other hand, similar to the conversion issue in Israel, there is a wide gulf in our definition of bottom line conversion standards, and whether supra-halachic standards should be employed. Rabbi Menken tried to bring support for his position by using the situation in Panama. Putting aside the comparison of apples and oranges, the paragraph quoted is, as I noted, one person’s view of the situation in a small segment of the population. The relevent piece of data was the claim that “community takes special pride in the fact that, unlike other western cities, there is essentially no intermarriage.” The size of the community really is of no import. But Rabbi Menken supports the veracity of the entire paragraph by showing that the population wasn’t exaggerated. The population number being the piece of data that is least relevent to the conversation. The relevent piece of data is the intermarriage rate, and if a claim is going to be made based on this intermarriage rate, it would be very useful to know exactly what it is, whether it is lower or higher than in other ORTHODOX communities, or other chareidi communities, or Modern Orthodox communities. If this information is not known, I don’t know how Rabbi Menken can base his argument on this somewhat nebulous quote. And finally, yes, one only has to read Marc Shapiro’s work to realize that those with an agenda that includes not only truth but something else are not beyond shading or limiting facts in order to conform to that other agenda. The Modern Orthodox have been guilty of this, but by far the largest segment of offenders among Jews have been the Chareidim. In fact, Rav Shimon Schwab wrote specifically that all the details of the past do not have to be presented, and in some cases should not be presented, if it may affect the emunah of the reader.

  25. jr says:

    Rabbi Menken,
    How about we create a community on a deserted island, where people simply have no way to leave and are mandated to have 12 children under pain of death. Likely the community will flourish numerically in the short term and the intermarriage rate will be 0. Is this desirable in your view? Is this what Hashem wants?
    The Torah clearly states “love the convert”, “do not oppress the convert”. How do you think Rabbi Levi’s action to not accept someone who converted for 2 years, answers these commands? The Torah does NOT give a blanket permission to do anything necessary to avoid intermarriage. Do so at the cost of violating MULTIPLE mitzvot D’Oraita is in my humble opinion illegitimate and cruel. Imagine yourself living in a country trying desperately to keep halacha following a conversion, and not being accepted. Do you think this is in-line with Hillel’s “Do unto others as you would have them unto you?”

  26. Ken Bloom says:

    Was Rabbi Levi zt”l Syrian? His standard would be a real kullah compared to the American Syrian community who don’t accept conversions at all, and who don’t marry converts. The American Syrian community also boasts a very low intermarriage rate, and from what I’ve heard that’s really because of how prohibiting conversions at all feeds into the tight-knit community that the Syrians have in Brooklyn. With this, the Syrians can remain Torah observant with an incredibly low intermarriage rate, and they don’t need to dress differently or impoverish themselves to maintain a community identity.

  27. YM says:

    I wish someone would state exactly what suprahalachic stringencies have been imposed? None of the people who are complaining about too high standards for conversion have brought any proof beyond anecdotal evidence that pertained only to individual cases.

  28. jr says:


    Waiting 2 years post-conversion before being accepted as a jew, is way supra-halachik. Actually it’s anti-halachik, as I explained above. If a reform rabbi introduced something like this… you can fill in the rest.

  29. J says:

    I don’t remember the references, but in my reading I have come across quite a few descriptions of entire Eastern European villages converting to Judaism, as late as the late 19th century and early 20th century, but also much earlier. I have seen similar accounts in Chassidic and non-Chassidic sources. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems that conversion has probably contributed significantly to the growth of Jewish communities in many times and places, including contemporary Orthodox communities. Certain Orthodox communities are known for having a number of converts, for example. And genetic studies demonstrate a large amount of affinity between Ashkenazic Jews and Eastern Europeans. For example, a large proportion of the Levites in one genetic study turned out to have the R1a Y-Chromosome, which is found mainly in Eastern Europe. Some of this could have come from rape or adoption, but most of it probably came from conversion.

    It’s also worth noting that there may have been no causal connection between the Panamanian rabbi’s stance on conversion to the growth of his community. Maybe the community would be even stronger if he had allowed conversions to occur according to the standard halachah. The Syrians are the only community today that doesn’t accept converts at all, and as far as I know they’re not known to be an extraordinarily intermarriage-proof community. (Though I may be wrong about that.)

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