Versions of Conversions

There are few things that are not politicized in Israel and none more so than the interface of religion and state. Add to that society’s tendency to see every disagreement as a tempest and every tempest as a conflagration, and the news cycle loudly trumpets every innovation or deviation, extracts from them what is necessary to further the media or various interest groups’ agendas – and then moves on.

That and more explains the controversial decision this week by a group of Religious-Zionist rabbis to initiate their own conversion program, largely aimed at averting what is perceived as the crisis of status of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to halacha – numbering at least 300,000 people and perhaps many more. The subtext is an attempt to bypass, weaken and perhaps even replace the Chief Rabbinate and all its constituents.

As there are already a small number of independent conversion courts, why then is this one – headed by Rav David Stav – so controversial? Why is the Chief Rabbinate against it? And why have many other Religious-Zionist rabbis – luminaries such as Rav Druckman, Rav Lior, Rav Levanon, Rav Baruch Efrati and others – come out vehemently in opposition to this new Bet Din?

Parenthetically, many of the main protagonists here are personally known to me, and I respect all of them. And, granted, it is never good when rabbis argue in public (or in private, for that matter). Of course, all rabbinic disputes are conducted for the sake of Heaven, except when they are not, and sometimes “for the sake of Heaven” has to be defined somewhat loosely. So what is going on?

There is a combustible mix of personalities, hashkafa, normative v. lenient interpretations of halacha, the perceived Haredization of the Rabbinate, bitterness over election defeats and genuine concern over the status of the olim from the FSU who are not construed as full Jews. Where to begin?

Proponents of the new Bet Din announced this week that they had converted a number of children, and child conversion has always been perceived as a way out of this morass. While adult conversion requires the full acceptance of mitzvot, the conversion of a minor who cannot formally accept mitzvot is done “al daat Bet Din,” upon the authority and with the approval and guidance of the Jewish court. It is as if the Bet Din stands in loco parentis and issues its guarantee that the child will be observant when he/she comes of age and has the right to renounce the conversion done on his/her behalf.

The operative principle is the Talmudic notion that we are allowed to confer a benefit on someone even if they are unaware it (as opposed to the assessment of a liability, which requires his knowledge and consent. The working assumption is that attaining the status of a Jew is a benefit – but (so holds the majority opinion) only if the child will be a practicing, observant Jew. To take a non-Jew, convert him, and serve him a ham sandwich renders him liable for actions that were permitted to him in his prior situation. That would be unfair to the convert.

Here’s the dilemma: if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, or is adopted from two non-Jewish parents, and is then raised in a home that is not observant of mitzvot, can the Bet Din credibly say that the child will live as an observant Jew? On what grounds could such a presumption be made? In a centralized conversion system with defined rules, such a child might be converted only if the parents embrace fundamental mitzvot such as Shabbat, Kashrut, membership in an Orthodox shul and a commitment to send the child to yeshiva. That gives confidence to the Bet Din that the child will not only be Jewish but live and behave like a Jew.

It is an open question whether such is possible in a decentralized, independent system in which no demands are made on the parents and the motivation to convert lies outside the system of halacha and is rooted in nationalist concerns.

Thus, the other day on the radio, one of the proponents of the new Bet Din was underscoring its importance to Israeli society by engaging, unbeknownst to him, in a series of non sequiturs. He explained that leniency is required in all these conversions because there are too many people living in Israel who are not Jews but speak Hebrew, serve in the army, interact with society and marry Jews. “The rate of intermarriage is escalating!” All that might be true but is not really relevant. Hebrew speech, army service, and participation in Israeli society may define someone as an Israeli but it does not make them a Jew according to halacha. There are thousands of Sudanese children who speak Hebrew; that doesn’t make them Jews. Even the fear of intermarriage cannot be allayed by mass conversion of those ineligible, as the American experience teaches us. Frivolous conversions designed to forestall intermarriages just lead the parties to discount the necessity of conversion altogether. Becoming a Jew should require something more than becoming a member of AAA.

Some want to rely on a minority view that people with Jewish fathers (“zera Yisrael”) should have an easier route to conversion. There is some logic to that, especially when those individuals always saw themselves as Jews. They do not feel the sense of displacement of their prior lives that converts who are complete outsiders have. But the classical sources recognize only the full acceptance of mitzvot – accompanied by the requisite ritual acts – as the tickets of entry into the Jewish people. Zera Yisrael, as a mitigator of Kabbalat Hamitzvot, is something new, as it tends to undermine the conventional standard of Jewishness determined by the mother’s status.

The ease with which the radio speaker conflated Israeli-hood with Jewishness belied the reality that those two designations intersect but are not identical. The proof is that there are over one million Israelis who are not Jews. Moreover, the speaker’s contention that the conversions planned for adults will entail full “Kabbalat Hamitzvot” is also not credible; if it were, the authorized Bet Din of the Rabbanut could do (and does) the same. Obviously, then, the standards have to be reduced in order to accommodate the purported masses who wish to convert but cannot do so (only a few thousand apply to convert now annually in Israel) because they cannot or will not embrace the mitzvot.

This is not to belittle the problem, which was caused by the mass immigration of Soviet citizens under a Law of Return that employed Hitler’s standard of Jewishness (one Jewish grandparent) rather than that of the Torah. But the problem is not solved by creating a second tier of converts whose status will be disputed from generation to generation. And, as noted here repeatedly, the Knesset or Supreme Court can determine who is an Israeli. It has no authority to alter the requirements for conversion to Judaism any more than it can change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Of course if the parents genuinely grow in their Torah commitment then the conversion of minors will be effective and resolve most of the problem within a generation or two.

But the solution to a Torah problem does not rest in abrogating Torah principles but in handling all cases individually and sensitively.

That is easier said than done. The Rabbanut has been plagued for quite some time by the presence of some petty bureaucrats who seem to delight in posing obstacles, fabricating demands and even challenging the acceptability of conversions from rabbis whose conversions were properly accepted – and for a long, long time. In truth, little of this is ever known by the Chief Rabbis, any more than the CEO of a manufacturing company will know whether or not the floor worker is tightening every screw. He won’t – but he will have to pick up the pieces when it is discovered that the screws were not tightened properly.

These indignities are too common. A venerable rabbi originally from North America just told me of his dismay in having a conversion of his rejected by a bureaucrat forty years younger than him who merely said “I don’t know who you are,” even if older rabbis there did know and accept him. That is disgraceful, but not as much as the rejection of the young woman who had converted as an infant, was raised fully observant and now told she had to re-convert in order to marry in Israel.

That type of “tormenting the convert,” a Torah prohibition, should invalidate any rabbinic bureaucrat from serving in that capacity, for he is less observant that the people on whom he is sitting in judgment. That too has to change, and competition in that sphere would be wonderful except for the chaos that it causes.

And chaos is would be. Rav Stav ran for Chief Rabbi, campaigning for the establishment of the very Bet Din that he has now established. But he lost, and post-election recriminations never look good. And changes are afoot even in the Rabbanut, but all bureaucracies grind slowly if they grind at all. The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but…and what if he were? If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.

The irony is that Rav Kook wrote that the galut was noted for its fragmentation of Jewish life whereas as we move closer to the Messianic era – including the re-establishment of the Jewish state – we would once again merit “rikuziyut,” centralization of religious function and national life. Centralization – the bane of modernists who seek the freedom to innovate and compromise without consequences – is actually an indicator of growing unity in the Jewish world that will render us amenable to the coming of Moshiach. Odd, indeed, that the so-called Haredim wish to preserve the Rabbanut (of course, I recognize that they use it largely for their own purposes and discount it when they wish…) while some of the followers of Rav Kook wish to dismantle it. Strange world!

Not every single problem can be resolved. Life is complicated, and the complicated is complicated for a reason. But individuals who genuinely want to be – or have been for decades – part of the Torah world should never be scorned, turned away or disparaged.

What cannot be gainsaid is the assault on rabbinic authority implicit in this new Bet Din (as well as others that have sprung up across the Jewish world because they have found “solutions” to intractable problems, those “solutions” simply being rejected past practices). As this Bet Din undermines the authority of the Rabbanut, so too some other group will reject the authority of the new Bet Din, as a fourth will then spurn the authority of the third. The result is anarchy and the complete collapse of any enduring sense of Jewish nationhood and the unity of Torah.

There is a better way, and it would be best if all parties stepped back from the precipice and found that better way through dialogue of the wise rather than the acts of the impatient.

29 responses to “Versions of Conversions

  1. improved version of quote:

    Cornelius Tacticus, the famous Jew-hating Roman historian who lived from year 56 CE (approximately) to year 120 CE said:

    “Much of Judea is thickly studded with villages,
    and the Jews have towns as well.

    Their capital is Jerusalem.

    Here stood their Temple with its boundless riches.”

    The Western World (page 141) by Pearson Custom Publishing, year 2009 CE

    The Histories by Tacitus, The Jews (Book 5), paragraph 8 of 13.

    {1} Muslims are LYING when they deny that Jews trace their historical origins to the Land of Israel.

    {2} Muslims are LYING when they deny that Jerusalem is the historical capital of the Jewish state.

    {3} Muslims are LYING when they deny that the Jewish Temple existed in Jerusalem.

    {4} Notice that Tacticus mentioned Judea, NOT Palestine.

    {5} Tacticus never mentioned the Palestinian people, even though he wrote much about Jews and their land, because there were no Palestinian people in his time.

  2. To see quick quotes about invalid and insincere converts to Judaism, go to this web address:

  3. Pingback: Daily Reyd - Torah Musings

  4. Can you explain me for me why centralization is viewed by R. Kook so positively? It seems to me the question of centralization v. local control is basically the same question the Founding Fathers of the United States faced. Sure, it has some benefits, as Hamilton argued. But it also causes lots of problems, as Jefferson argued back. Someone more knowledgeable in Tanach than me might say that this ambivalence is reflected in the classic ambiguity over whether or not appointing a king (centralized government) is a mizvah or to the contrary, something the Torah frowns upon.

    In my personal life, I am definitely a “small government”, “states-rights” type of guy. Is there any reason to distinguish my view of America from my view of how the Jewish state should look? I look to you for guidance.

    • You know, this is the second time I ask a question trying to learn something, and get no response. Meanwhile, the rabbi engages with those who attack him, Proverbs 26:4 notwithstanding. Its a little disheartening, but anyway.

    • One word: Sanhedrin. Now we may not have it today but that is the ideal for which we strive. That makes Torah mishpat echad, especially on something as basic as identity.

  5. You have made some interesting comments on a very serious issue, one that involves all Jews around the world. You do, however, have the uncanny ability to inject the most offensive and uncalled for language in your posts. I am referring specifically to your statement that the Law of Return uses the same standards of Jewishness as those employed by Hitler. I interpret that as a serious jab couched in the most offensive terms. You could have simply stated that the Law of Return is not predicated on the halachic definition of being Jewish or something similar to that effect. This is a very troubling pattern of yours and maybe you will issue yet another one of your numerous “clarifications” but probably not.

    • You are uninformed. That is precisely the standard that was adopted and the reason why it was adopted. To wit: any person who would have been murdered as a Jew in the death camps should be eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.
      If you find that offensive, take it up with those who drafted the law.
      – RSP

  6. To Avi: you find the truth to be offensive and therefore expect the rabbi to sugarcoat it. He won’t, and the reason for his wide appeal is his total honesty and fearlessness.

    • Sugarcoat? To suggest that the State of Israel is on the same level as HItler and his Nazis is outrageous and a disgrace. Their definition was established to murder Jews. The Israeli Law of Return was established to save Jews. The rabbi is not universally loved as he has loads of detractors. He is very accomplished with words and he knows when he is saying something incendiary and totally out of line. How many more “clarifications” does he have to issue. Rabbi, you are one of the most offensive people I have ever come across. I actually live in Israel and I have no problem with it. You can’t seem to get past your constant vilification of virtually everything that goes on here. Maybe that’s why and your dedicated followers don’t make aliyah. I didn’t say it wasn’t the reason for the definition. I only said that you shouldn’t have used it in that manner.

      • How is anyone suggesting the state of Israel and Nazi Germany are on the same level??

      • I don’t know what you’re talking about and I sense neither do you. Check your history. That is exactly how the standard was chosen.
        They weren’t paying tribute to Hitler, G-d forbid. They just thought that adopting his standard was appropriate vengeance or vindication. The problem is they rejected the Halacha in order to make their point.
        Please stop reading if you don’t like what you read. Spend your time on more fruitful pursuits.
        – RSP

      • I never said that the definition under the Law of Return was not based on the Nazis’ description. It is similar but not exactly the same. The point I was trying to make which leads me to believe that the problem with not understanding is yours and not mine is the way you interjected into your comments. You simply stated that the definitions are the same without any sort of explanation. A person not well versed in the subject could interpret it incorrectly. I don’t have to read everything I agree with. Unlike you, I am open minded and willing to listen to various opinions. In addition, while I agree with many of your positions, my objection is how you present them. If you want only people who agree with you to read your posts, then why bother. They agree with you already. If you want to change people’s minds to your way of thinking, you are going about it the wrong way.

  7. Usher: Fearless? It’s easy to constantly vilify everything that goes on in Israel while sitting in cushy Teaneck. Total honesty? While he was reaming the late Ariel Sharon he stated that Bush was against the withdrawal from Gaza when in reality Bush was quite in favor of it and apparently even promised that the withdrawal would be beneficial for israel.

    • “It’s easy to constantly vilify everything that goes on in Israel while sitting in cushy Teaneck.”

      By the same logic, no one outside of Gush Katif should have been allowed a say on the expulsion, and no one outside of Yesha should venture an opinion on their cities.

    • You don’t know what you’re talking about. I heard this while sitting in the White House. Bush was not in favor of the Gush Katif expulsion but he can’t be a bigger Zionist than Israelis. The last thing he wanted was to create another base of Arab terror. It served no U.S. interest.
      But U.S. foreign policy always supported land for peace, so he couldn’t object. But don’t be deceived – this from the NSC briefing I attended: the U.S. was taken by surprise, was not happy about it, but couldn’t stop Sharon and so it didn’t try.
      – RSP

    • Do you realize what a tired argument that is? And I write this while sitting in Israel. Truth is truth regardless of where you live. And morality is morality.
      Try to develop better arguments. And who’s vilifying anything?
      – RSP

      • It may be tired but it is true. ….

        RSP –
        I deleted your invective and urge you to find a better outlet for your anger. Suffice it to say, I guarantee that I have more children and grandchildren living in Israel today that you have. Regarding IDF service, your insults are especially repugnant as I come from a bereaved family.
        Shame on you.
        Please stop reading and stop writing.

      • Avi, I have come to the realization that you are a full fledged Az Panim and you know where that leads. The rabbi serves his congregation here, where he is needed, and does hundred-fold more good than you do there. I know that just from reading what you write and how you write. Unfortunately you are afflicted with gargantuan hubris, coupled with Liliputian intellect.

      • Keep on dreaming and drinking your kool aid. If you think his way of vilifying and ridiculing everything he doesn’t like and making outrageous comparisons like he does is leading, I hate to think of where you and the rest of his flock are being led. He has raised the ire of a lot of good people so obviously your views are not universally accepted. Let’s not forget about his numerous “clarifications.” You all seem to be consumed with hate. It is now Elul so i suggest you start cleansing yourselves.

  8. You write that one according to the majority, we cannot say זכין לאדם שלא בפנין where the parents are not religious. Yet R. N. Rabinowich, a super-heavyweight scholar, said the opposite in a response to an interview supporting the new battei din: אם ההלכה כל כך פשוטה, איך זה שרבנים רבים סבורים אחרת?

    “יש גם לא מעט אנשים שאומרים שמה שקורה היום זה שאנחנו בגלות עמוקה, האם זה נכון? תמיד היו כופרים בלבוש של צדיקים. הקדוש ברוך הוא עושה לנו נסים, קיבץ אותנו מכל העולם והחזיר אותו לביתנו. יש היום יותר יהודים מאי פעם, בפרט בארץ ישראל. הכול הטעיה? שקר? אני אומר לך בבירור: אין חשש הלכתי כלשהו בגיור קטינים.

    “הרבנים הללו ייתנו את הדין על כך, משמים ידונו אותם”, תוקף הרב רבינוביץ’ במילים חריפות. “מי שבאמת רוצה לקדש את שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא מבין שהילדים הללו הם אוצר נחמד שהשם רוצה בהם”.

  9. His is the minority opinion, which is not to say it has no validity at all. But maybe it’ll make the problem worse? What if this child convert in 15 years is not at all observant and marries his Russisn neighbor who also speaks Hebrew and served in the IDF but did not convert? That’s also an intermarriage. To expect a child growing up with a non-Jewish mother to grow in Torah and Yirat Shamayim is farfetched, although obviously it can happen and we hope and pray that it does.
    Just today, one of the rabbis involved said that observance of mitzvot will of course be required. If that’s the case, the objections will be fewer. But if that is the case, the Rabbanut could have done it as well. So what’s the issue? It could be the disparity between the “expectation” and the reality.

  10. Interesting. This is one of the few areas I find myself with no reflexive ideological viewpoint, so I can genuinely be objective. [Which, granted, is not always necessary or a good thing.] Having read the pros and cons as a regular man on the street, it looks like a significant part of the cons boils down to the personality of R. Stav. He is viewed as someone with just a little too much personal vainglory, and more interested in playing the heroic crusader role than in preserving Jewish tradition. I don’t know if that’s an accurate perception or not. [He spent a Shabbos in my shul, and spoke with us in intimate settings, and I did not actually get that impression.] But it does seem that he’s viewed this way. That is, indeed, a problem.

    The other big argument against it is essentially a variation of the timeless battle between conservatism vs innovation. Having seen the Pandora’s box that gets opened up – particularly in the last 50 years – whenever the latter is invoked, its a pretty good reason to adopt the conservative approach. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. [Here comes the “are you calling R. Stav a devil?” moron brigade. You’d think I was writing for Der Sturmer.]

  11. Yossi Schwartz


    “The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but…and what if he were?”

    He is Charedi. Not typical, because he prays on behalf of the state, or so he claimed. But then he was asked (in a public forum in LA, CA) what he is doing to get the Charedim to pray for the army or/and state, he said that he does nothing and neither does he intend to. Notwithstanding, the difficulty, if not near impossibility to positively change the behavior of the Charedim, on this issue, for the Chief Rabbi to publicly say he has no desire, now or in the future, to attempt to convince religious Jews to pray for the state, when he is the Chief Rabbi for that very (zionist) state is ridiculous. In light of the historical apathy if not outright hatred displayed by large segments of the Haredi population in Israel to our one and only Jewish state, it should be clearly incumbent on the Chief Rabbi, or anyone in a similar situation, to patriotically wave the flag forward and attempt to foster loyalty to the state.

    Indeed the next line is relevant,

    “If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.”

    These are the holdouts, the preservers, our heros that we “need”? People who are very religious and keep many of the ceremonial ritualistic parts of Jewish life, but simply put, don’t believe in a Jewish state or army. We need people who harbor within their ranks dozens of people who (would) go to Iran and kiss Achmidijahad, hundreds of people who waive the palestinian flag or attend their ‘death to Israel’ rallies and many hundreds (if not thousands) of people who participate in demonstrations and riots during which Israeli police and firemen are called Nazis and have stones thrown at them? Such people–large segments of the haredi population– who do little to condemn these fifth-columnists within their ranks, and when they do, it is almost never a full-throated condemnation, almost never without qualifications, and almost never before the media have already condemned them.

    Do we indeed need to extol a group of people, who as a general mass, do not accept the wondrous nature of the single most positive thing that has happened to the Jewish people for some twenty (if not twenty eight) centuries?

    For my part, I would like to distance myself from unrepentant traitors to the cause and those who are only traitor-lite in their behavior or simply in their ideology.

    • We should moderate our language, especially when it comes to the “traitor” allegations; each community has problems, strengths and weaknesses, and that is what I was acknowledging.
      Perhaps Rav Lau was suggesting that he lacks the ability to compel the recitation of tefilot on behalf of Tzahal and the State; that is true. He also lacks the ability to proscribe driving on Shabbat.
      What is also true is that Rav Lau served in the IDF and did miluim long past the age when he could have stopped. Sometimes, trying to fit human beings into neat categories distorts who they are.
      – RSP