Rabbi Chuck Davidson on ‘The Challenge of Conversion in Israel’ by Dr. Netanel Fisher

ravchuckdavidsonI read with great interest RRFEI’s coverage (May 2, 2016) of Dr. Netanel Fisher’s paper on conversion in Israel.

As a conversion advocate and activist, and he who originally envisioned Giyur Ke-Halakha, Israel’s network of independent Orthodox conversion courts, I’d like to offer a few observations.

First and foremost, Dr. Fisher’s analysis of the challenges is quite accurate. His recommendations for addressing the challenges are also sound in theory. That said, the gap between theory and practice is wide, making many, if not most, of his recommendations of limited value given the realities of the situation, as I shall explain below.

Further, a number of important points relating to Israel’s conversion conundrum are not raised as they do not fall into the scope of the paper.

And with one point I sharply disagree. Perhaps with this point we shall begin.

Dr. Fisher refers to the approximately 400,000 members of the cohort he addresses as “non-Jews”. It is with this very point that the current conundrum begins. In fact, Israel’s rabbinic establishment views personal status as a clear dichotomy: Jew or non-Jew, with nothing in between. As such, the conversion process for a person born to a Jewish father, and who was, in fact, raised with no identity other than Jewish, faces a conversion process identical to that of a visitor from China who knows nothing of Judaism.

But in fact, a study published in 2014 revealed that at least the second generation of this group is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of their Israeli cohorts, from a cultural, sociological, and national perspective, and even in terms of their basic religious beliefs and practices. While Jews, as a result of nearly 2,000 years of exile, are accustomed to viewing assimilation as a threat to Jewish continuity since a minority generally assimilates into the majority, the reality in Israel, where Jews are the majority, is quite the opposite. As a result, the second generation has already fully assimilated into Jewish Israeli society, with no conversion whatsoever. It is therefore inaccurate, in my opinion, to refer to members of this group as non-Jews. They are, in fact, Jews from every perspective other than Halakha. A more accurate term might be “non-Halakhically Jewish Jews”.

The question might then be asked, why should Israeli society care whether or not these non-Halakhically-Jewish Jews convert?

The answer is, in my opinion, that those who do not see Halakhic status as an important element of Jewish identity should not care at all. And in fact, another study published in 2014 shows that a majority of Jewish Israelis already view the members of this group as Jewish to one degree or another, and are not staunchly opposed to marrying them with no conversion at all. Among self-defined secular Jews, that number is 75%. It is for this reason, in addition to more pressing existential and moral problems facing Israel, that neither the Israeli public nor its politicians is mobilized to address the conversion challenge. And it is for this reason that Dr. Fisher’s recommendations are largely irrelevant. From the perspective of most Israelis, we are not facing a problem at all, or at least not a serious problem justifying the time, energy, financial resources, and, most importantly, political will necessary to implement the solutions recommended by Dr. Fisher.

It is true that members of this group cannot get married in Israel. But for this problem, Israelis, who are generally characterized by creative thinking, have found multiple solutions, including any combination of civil marriage abroad, common law marriage, and traditional Jewish marriage through a conversion and wedding ceremony outside of the Chief Rabbinate, whether Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox.

For the minority of Israelis who view Halakhic status as a critical element of Jewish identity, the only solution that might prove effective on a large scale, given the relative unimportance of the issue to the majority of Israelis (including the potential converts), is to perform conversions for this group in a process that requires an hour or two, a process which is not acceptable to Giyur Ke-Halakha, nor to the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel. Yours truly may be the only rabbi of any denomination in Israel prepared to convert a member of this group by requiring nothing more than immersion in a mikveh for the purpose of becoming a convert and joining the Jewish religion, as well as hatfat dam brit for males, the vast majority of whom have been circumcised. The Halakhic basis for such an approach can be found in a draft article I hope to complete and publish in a leading Halakhic journal (though this particular question is not the focus of the article, the content points to the approach I suggest), as well as in an article written by Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, formerly of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, in 1991, and which proved to be truly prophetic.

In summary, Dr. Fisher’s article is insightful and accurate in a reality which views Halakhic status as a critical element of Jewish identity. In a reality which largely does not hold that view, the paper addresses a relatively unimportant issue which, from the perspective of the majority of Israeli society, does not justify the time, energy, financial resources, and, most importantly, political will necessary to implement Dr. Fisher’s recommended solutions.

The author is an Orthodox rabbi and member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. This article represents his views only. He can be reached at cpdtorah@gmail.com