Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who Isn't A Jew?

Unexpectedly—or at least unexpectedly to me—the whole “Who Is a Jew?” issue came forcefully to the fore again this week in Israel. It’s a subject I’ve always tried to avoid writing about, mostly because it is so filled with the kind of ultimately insoluble issues that I’ve always found it simpler and easier to skate around than to address directly. And yet the events of this last week were so unexpected that perhaps the time really has come to write about the topic and say clearly how I see the lay of that particular landscape these days.

The concept of who exactly can legitimately claim membership in the House of Israel is itself a confusing one. Those of us born to Jewish mothers, of course, have nothing to prove our Jewishness other than that single detail regarding our parentage, a detail which itself rests on the assumption that our mothers’ Jewishness is or was of unassailable legitimacy. Unfortunately, our mothers’ status—unless they were formally converted to Judaism and have the papers to prove it—rests on their own mothers’ Jewishness, a detail that itself rests in turn on the status of those mothers, unassailable or otherwise. You see where I’m going. Am I a Jew merely because my mother told me that she herself was born to a Jewish mother, my maternal grandmother? In my own case (and for better or for worse), that is precisely correct. And it is so for the vast majority of Jewish people. Indeed, those among us who are the children of mothers who formally converted to Judaism, or who are the children of mothers whose own mothers converted, are paradoxically the only ones in our communities who have any sort of documentation at all to prove their status. And how ironic is that! So going to war over issues of status when the overwhelming majority of our people have nothing other than hearsay evidence to support their personal claims to Jewishness is, to say the very least, a peculiar strategic concept. And yet the issue remains so permanently on the table that it feels as though it must be nailed to it.

This week brought an amazing development in this endless debate when an almost unbelievable article was published yesterday in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper I myself read daily. It concerned Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Rishon Letziyon (as the head of the Sephardic community in Israel is called) and, as he approaches age 90, one of Israel’s most respected halachic jurists. The article describes a newly published legal decision in which the author not only accepts conversions to Judaism undertaken under Conservative auspices as worthy and meaningful, but says unequivocally that he considers them to be as valid as conversions undertaken by the Orthodox establishment in Israel.

The decision, published in the Orthodox journal, Beit Hillel, had to do specifically with a young Israeli man who, because of his status as kohen, was barred from marrying a woman convert. (This prohibition has been largely relaxed within our Conservative world, but remains in full force among the Orthodox.) The point here however is that because the man’s fiancée is the daughter of a Conservative convert, his ability to marry her rests on the supposition that she is already Jewish, a supposition that in turn rests on the validity of her mother’s conversion, and it was this question to which the former Chief Rabbi addressed himself. The short version is that he accepted the conversion as valid, thus removing any impediment to the couple’s marriage in Israel. That much would have been amazing enough given the vituperation, lack of interdenominational respect, and general nastiness that generally surround the way the conversion issue is discussed both in Israel and abroad. But the former Rishon Letziyon went on to note that the Conservative rabbis who oversaw the mother’s conversions acted “with no less attention to every requisite detail than any other (i.e., Orthodox) beit-din would have displayed and perhaps even with more attention.” And that, more even than the decision itself, was what made the publication of Ovadiah Yosef’s decision newsworthy enough to publish in the daily press. (Hebrew-speaking readers can access the story at

The responses from within the Conservative/masorti world were what you would expect. When my friend, Rabbi Peretz Rodman, the chairman of the public affairs committee of the movement in Israel, qualified the rabbi’s decision as brave and said that we can all only hope that he does not withdraw his remarks now that they have been published, he was only expressing the same thought every one of my colleagues in Israel and abroad were having at exactly the same moment. But what made that article in yesterday’s Haaretz even more amazing was that it came out precisely as the Knesset is again debating a proposal specifically designed to delegitimize conversions taken by anyone at all outside the extreme Orthodox world that increasingly dominates the Chief Rabbinate.

There have been so many twists and turns in this apparently endless debate that it is hard to take seriously the notion that the Knesset could resolve the matter permanently merely by passing some specific bill, nor is it even remotely likely that the bill currently under debate—which, among other things, would bar any Gentile who came to Israel as a non-Jew and only subsequently pursued conversion from becoming an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return—could possibly do anything other than exacerbate a debate that already has the capacity not only to enrage the directly affected parties—the converts to Judaism themselves and their spouses and children—but also to alienate the Jews of Israel even more profoundly from their religion than they mostly already are.

The reason the debate is so contentious and so bitter is not because the problem has no solution—the simplest and best solution would simply be for Israel to grant full legitimacy to all rabbis who perform conversions in accordance with the strictures and standards of Jewish law—but because in many ways it goes to the very question of what it means to be a Jew. But what is worth noting, however, is not that this particular bill is mean-spirited or counterproductive, both of which things it surely is, but how unnecessary the whole debate truly is when considered in light of the law as it actually is codified in our most authoritative source books.

The actual laws that govern conversion to Judaism are neither harsh nor especially severe. Let me paraphrase the paragraphs from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in which he discusses the procedure for conversion. Rambam, whom no one would ever accuse of being a liberal in halachic matters, suggests that if a Gentile expresses interest in conversion, we ascertain as best we can that the candidate is sincere, then give him or her a stern lecture about the reality of anti-Semitism in our world to see what effect that has on his or her enthusiasm. If the response is that the candidate knows all about it and still wishes to proceed, we accept him or her as a potential candidate instantly. We then go on to teach the candidate the basic principles of Judaism, specifically stressing the unity of God and the prohibition of worshiping false gods, and then to teach about some of the commandments. We choose some simple ones and some more arduous ones, but without going on at length about any of them. Indeed, Rambam writes that we specifically do not go into all the particulars lest the law feel unduly onerous and burdensome and the potential convert thus be chased away before having been adequately drawn in.

We then move on to talk about the punishment for disobeying the commandments and the great reward observance brings the faithful. We tell a bit about the World to Come and about the doctrine of reward and punishment. If it is all too much and the prospective convert retracts and does not want to accept the obligation to perform the commandments, we simply let it go and forget the whole matter. But if the candidate accepts the basic principle of Jewish observance, we do not wait at all before moving forward. If the candidate is a man, we circumcise him immediately. If he was already circumcised, we draw a drop of blood from the site of circumcision. And then when he is entirely healed, we take him to the mikveh. The rabbis supervising the conversion then teach him about some of the simple and some of the more onerous commandments while the man is still in the mikveh. He then immerses himself a second time and that concludes the conversion procedure. If the candidate is a woman, she just goes to the mikveh where the same procedure is followed except that the woman’s initial immersion is witnessed by another woman instead of by the beit-din.

The whole concept has a friendly, welcoming feel to it. Indeed, by trying to balance the obligation to be frank about the onerous nature of at least some of the more burdensome commandments with the desire to present conversion to Judaism as an essentially positive decision for which the prospective convert should be commended, Rambam is suggesting that the way we ourselves conduct conversions within the context of our movement is far more in line with the tradition than the unbearably onerous procedures used by the rabbinate in Israel which feel as though their sole goal is to chase away as many potential converts as possible.

Over the years, I have participated in the conversion of many men and women. Some have gone on to be real leaders in the community, while others have taken their places in the back benches and simply become regular Jewish people who eventually are indistinguishable from members of the community born to the faith. Many, I’ve lost track of, but, in the end, I feel that I have done good bringing many people into our community and then helping them find their places in our midst. That our work was recognized as legitimate and praiseworthy by no less a personality than Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef himself is incredibly meaningful. Last week I wrote to you all about what it means to have the courage of your convictions. Even thought Rabbi Avi Weiss, about whom I wrote last week, has since backed down and agreed not to offer the women who graduate his rabbinic training program any title that sounds like “rabbi,” I still consider him to be out there fighting the good fight for values that I find myself able to identify with and support. But who would have thought that I would be writing about another Orthodox rabbi the very next week and lauding him too for having the courage of his convictions in a world that could not be less amenable to that kind of commitment to one’s own moral code? From this we can all learn, yet again, never to judge a book by its cover. Or a rabbi by his formal affiliation.

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