The Conversion Controversy

    The Israeli High Court’s decision mandating the acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel as proof of Jewish status only for purposes of citizenship is not as momentous as it sounds. The original sin, so to speak, was the language in the amended Law of Return that severed “conversion” from “according to halacha.” That was followed by a capitulation to the non-Orthodox leadership in the United States that allowed their spurious conversions in the exile to be accepted here as well for the purposes of citizenship. Extending this concession to such conversions that occur in Israel is natural; failure of the political establishment to deal with this matter appropriately for over a decade is a sad commentary on the political establishment and its paralysis. But the decision affects so few people that it is no big deal per se.

     Why then is it misguided and dangerous? Because it reflects a complete lack of awareness of the nature of the heterodox movements and their deleterious effects on Jewish life in the exile. Aside from the  absurdity of lumping together all non-Orthodox conversions (in the United States, even the Conservative movement does not accept Reform conversions!), the decision further drives a stake into the concept of a Jewish state. While eliminating the Law of Return may be an ultimate goal of the religious and political left, the current dilution of the Jewishness of the state promoted by this decision has long term consequences. If Israel becomes a Jewish state in name only, but not in identity or in practice, social cohesion, already under siege, will deteriorate even further.

     No one has ever delegated to the Knesset or the High Court the right to determine “who is a Jew.” At most, they are authorized to determine “who is an Israeli,” and injudicious decisions like this one further divide people and inflame the Torah world against the State. The branches of government have no more right to opine on “who is a Jew” that they have to move Shabbat to Tuesday or Pesach to the winter. In truth, they can declare that any Mongolian, Zambian, Brazilian or American to be eligible for Israeli citizenship, but then at what cost to the concept, value and vision of Israel as the “Jewish State”?

     What makes this decision even more risible is that it exposes a profound lack of awareness about the insidious failures of the Reform movement in America. Look no further than a recent article in the Forward entitled “To truly welcome Jews of color, seminaries must ordain intermarried rabbis.” The article is mindboggling in a number of ways.

     Its main thesis is that Reform Judaism risks being accused of racism since it has so few black rabbis. The reason why it has so few black rabbis is that, apparently, most eligible Reform Jewish black men and women are in interfaith “relationships,” either married or living together without the formality of marriage. Since Reform presently does not accept those in interfaith relationships into their rabbinical school, the “unintended impact” of the anti-interfaith-rabbinical-students decree is that there are thus few black rabbinical candidates.

     Aside from the sheer insanity of seeing everything in terms of race – something that, literally, only racists do, and which today is an American obsession bordering on pathology – understand the various ways in which the argument is offensive to Jews, Jewish values, and Israeli life.

     Currently, only the Reconstructionists welcome intermarried clergy, which presumably means that their converts abroad and now in Israel must be accepted as Israeli citizens – even if they were “taught” their Judaism from their intermarried “rabbi.” Even Reform has not taken the step of welcoming intermarried clergy, as they still expect their “rabbis to be exemplars of a Jewish home.” Hence the chagrin of the writer.

     But he points out two facts that should shock Israelis and awaken them to the true catastrophe of the Reform movement in America and the sheer lunacy of importing it to Israel. According to this Reform Jew, “at least 72% of new Jewish homes are formed by interfaith couples.” Digest that – overwhelmingly, most marriages in America today involving a Jew are intermarriages, and factor out the Orthodox population, intermarriage in America is an uncontrolled avalanche destroying any semblance of real Jewish life.

      Additionally, he unwittingly notes the toll intermarriage has already taken on American Reform Jews. One reason why the hindrance to accepting the intermarried into Reform rabbinical school is upsetting to the writer is the astronomical rate of intermarriage means that “40 to 60% of [the] eligible pool of students isn’t eligible.” That means that so many Reform adults who might consider the rabbinate are already involved in interfaith relationships themselves. And this doesn’t even address the tragic reality that most Reform Jewish children are not Jews according to halacha.

     Reform converts in America  are rare in any event as Reform Judaism does not require conversion for the sake of marriage and most Reform rabbis will officiate at intermarriages. Presumably, most Reform conversions (obviously pro forma and not requiring Kabbalat Hamitzvot) are performed for the purpose of appeasing a traditional relative – or for Aliya. And that new oleh or olah might well have been trained by a rabbi who is either not Jewish or, if the current policy is changed, by a rabbi is in an interfaith relationship. Invariably, the policy will be changed, as liberal Jews in America cannot endure an accusation of racism. But what kind of Judaism is that? What could they be taught?

     The assault on Jewish identity, facilitated by the High Court and abetted by the pusillanimity of the political class, is staggering. The implications for the State of Israel are enormous if the organs of the State make a conscious decision to ignore true Jewish identity and commitment in its drive to be a state of all its citizens and perhaps of the world. Maybe the very idea of a “Jewish state” has become too parochial for the leftist internationalists who are in positions of power. That a tiny number of rabbis on the left fringe of Orthodoxy (or in the neo-Conservative camp) endorse this decision for the unity they think it will provide is fanciful, and they too ignore the calamity that non-Orthodoxy has wrought to American Jewish life.

     This problem has no vaccine but it has a known prognosis: total assimilation, renunciation of Judaism and Jewish life, anti-Israel activism, and then hatred. It should not be imported to Israel. Politicians should clearly express a commitment to passing in the next Knesset the “chok hahitgabrut” that will rein in the High Court’s jurisdictional and legislative excesses, and then pass a law confirming true Jewish identity as the foundation of the Law of Return. That will both bolster Israel’s Jewish identity and send a clear message to our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters – the relative few that are still Jews according to halacha – that the road to return is open to them, and they will be welcomed when they travel on it.


3 responses to “The Conversion Controversy

  1. Rabbi David Ben-Nissan said:

    “As someone who guides people through the conversion process, I receive such inquiries daily from foreign laborers who profess their great love for Judaism.

    When I explain to them that private conversion will not grant them citizenship, I never hear from them again.”

    SOURCE: Conversion Cannot Be Taken Lightly
    by Rabbi David Ben-Nissan, 2021 March 2

  2. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky said this on 2014 October 21:

    “Conversion is not a social courtesy designed to facilitate marriages to non-Jews, but a life-transforming act of commitment to the G-d of Israel and the Jewish people in all respects.”

  3. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman:

    What is a non-serious convert?

    Sadly, most of the conversions taking place today in America fall into this category, because they are by and large devoid of any serious commitment to Torah practice or belief. Most conversions being done today are of the quickie, convenient variety, usually motivated by the desire to paper over an intermarriage, and by and large they are presided over by rabbis who themselves do not believe in the Divine origin of the Torah and do not practice its mitzvoth.

    SOURCE: On Judaism (page 273) by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, year 1994 CE, Shaar Press, Brooklyn, NY ISBN 0-89906-034-X.

    MICROBIOGRAPHY: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman was leader of an Orthodox synagogue for over 35 years in Atlanta and is a former editor of Tradition, a scholarly Jewish publication.