I. Who is a Jew?
To someone aware of Jewish communal goings-on in the 1970s and 80s, the question “Who is a Jew?” raises issues that are more political than theological. The controversy that raged then over the state of Israel’s definition of personal status shook the foundation of the world Jewish community. Must Israel’s immigration clerks and marriage registrars conform to strict halakhic rules or use more liberal definitions of Jewishness? At issue is the fate of children of Jewish fathers or grandfathers and non-Orthodox converts to Judaism. Can they claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, register as Jews and marry Jews? The Orthodox lost this fight regarding immigration and registration but retain to this day halakhic control of marriage and cemeteries.
Perhaps more significantly, the Orthodox lost the debate in the public arena because they failed to answer certain basic questions. In the modern era, Jewish identity comes in multiple flavors that often omit mitzvah observance. How can a community function when its main cultural form of identification is confounded by religious technicalities advocated by a hostile minority? Can respect for tradition justify the human tragedies of religious separation in marriage and burial? Most importantly, the Orthodox paradigm seemed unprepared to handle the demographic steamroller of Russian aliyah, in which hundreds of thousands of halakhic gentiles immigrated to Israel as Jews. If such self-identified Jew who are halakhically gentile do not genuinely commit to observing the Torah’s commandments, they presumably cannot convert. If so, where do they fit into Israeli culture?
As the debate took shape, the journal Tradition published a number of articles addressing key points from the Orthodox perspective. These were published in a 1990 book, The Conversion Crisis: A Continuing Discussion (R. Emanuel Feldman and Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky, eds.), which was recently republished with additional material that update the discussion.
II. Conversion and Commandments
R. Aharon Lichtenstein opens the book with an exploration of the theological underpinnings of conversion. Building on the views of his father-in-law, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (in Kol Dodi Dofek), R. Lichtenstein sees two aspects to conversion — a rebirth into a new relationship with God and joining the people of Israel through a legal ceremony. Both elements are essential. “One need hardly stress, however, that integration into the nation, be it rooted in the most sublime self-dedication, is insufficient. Gerut means, first and foremost, a religious-spiritual turning” (p. 8) A convet’s acceptance of the Torah’s commandments is so fundamental that he must repeat it twice, before any ritual and immediately prior to the immersion in a mikvah. This “is solely in order to weave the acceptance of the mizvot into the act of tevilah, to supply the tevilah with the specific character of a tevilah of gerut, to integrate the spiritual intent with the formal act.”
R. J. David Bleich, with his characteristic thoroughness, explores the opportunities for accepting converts with questionable sincerity. His conclusion is that the overwhelming consensus of authorities, ranging from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski to R. Yitzchak Herzog, insist on sincere acceptance of commandments as a minimal requirement for conversion. Even a mental reservation to a verbal assent will undermine a conversion.
Despite R. Bleich’s encyclopedic breadth, he seems to omit one voice, which leads to an essay in response. R. Marc Angel argues, based on the view of R. Benzion Meir Chai Uziel, that while a conversion lacking acceptance of the commandments is less than ideal, it is not only valid but appropriate in exigent circumstances. “Recognizing the practical realities of our world, it is essential that Halakhic authorities courageously respond to the needs. Ours must not be a haughty and elite attitude towards would-be converts. We have a moral obligation to convert those who seek conversion…” (p. 44). Apparently, R. Angel believes that Rabbis Lichtenstein and Bleich lack his courage, perhaps due to their haughty and elite attitudes.
R. Shlomo Riskin is also evidently haughty and elite, because he directly rebuts R. Angel’s essay. “I must strongly disagree with [R. Uziel’s and R Angel’s] conclusion, and a more intensive study of the sources will demonstrate that acceptance of commandments is a far more integral part of conversion than might appear” (p. 49). “It is self-understood that no Jewish court can guarantee future actions of the convert. Nevertheless it is to be expected that the expressed acceptance of commandments implies the willingness on the part of the convert to live in accordance with the scrupulous observance of these commandments for the rest of his life” (p. 51).
III. Contemporary Debate
Decades later, Profs. Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar revived this debate in a book in which they claim that a fresh look at the sources yields an ancient talmudic debate whether conversion requires acceptance of commandments. In a thorough and harsh review, R. Michael Broyde and Shmuel Kadosh argue that the authors’ fundamental argument is incorrect because they misread texts and create debate where none exists.
The authors respond that not they but the reviewers misread texts. Due to a lack of imagination, they argue, the reviewers were unable to read the texts fresh without the burden of commentaries. The reviewers respond unapologetically, arguing that the authors fail to answer nearly all the objections raised and the few answers they provide are entirely incorrect. “[T]he success of such original readings truly depends on the ability of the proponents of such novel theories to show that their read is consistent with the binding Talmudic sources. Professors Sagi and Zohar have failed at that task” (p. 109).
IV. What to Do?
If converting unobservant Israelis who are not halakhicaly Jewish is not an option, what practical course remains? R. Moshe Yeres explores leniencies in the laws of burial, explaining that according to many authorities non-halakhic converts also have a place in a Jewish cemetery. Those who reject other religions and affiliate with Judaism may receive burial within a Jewish cemetery, albeit according to some in a separate row.
R. J. Simcha Cohen proposes a somewhat radical solution. While converts must generally accept the commandments, children are unable to do so. Therefore, parents of questionable Jewish status can convert their children who will become Jewish. R. Cohen presented this idea to R. Moshe Feinstein who approved it. R. Broyde and Shmuel Kadosh also adopt this proposal, noting that even the authorities who disagree with it would accept the conversions after the fact.
These solutions do not resolve all the problems and since the latter has not been implemented, it cannot. However, I believe that these proposals answer the wrong question. Israel faces social and political dilemmas because of the large number of non-halakhic Jews in the country. While a wide-scale halakhic change would eliminate the problems, it is certainly a round-about path to travel.
Why should social and political problems be solved with a halakhic answer? The proper resolutions lie in the social and political realm. Israeli society needs to acknowledge the correct identity of gentiles with Jewish ancestry and non-halakhic converts and create a proud role for such people. And the Israeli government must create space for them. Certainly, the rabbinate must shed its entrenched bureaucracy and embrace properly motivated converts but the true solution to this dilemma lies not with Jewish law but with Israeli society and government.
Halakhah is not a weapon to be wielded against every inconvenient problem. Doing so trivializes religion in the eyes of the non-observant and divides the religious community itself. We need to recognize the complex problems of Jewish identity as they are and widen our toolboxes to properly handle them.