I 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Many in Israel are working toward a return to halakhah as intended by our tradition, and not as a political gambit to secure power in the Jewish State.
We have heard in past weeks from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who is working for a rational and traditional standard of kashrut that does not coerce Israelis into paying exorbitant fees or discriminating against other religions: a kashrut that is about food and not about politics. [link]
We heard from Rabbi Michael Chernick about those groups working to reform the marriage laws in Israel, so that the hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Israelis excluded from marriage in Israel by the Chief Rabbinate will be able marry the person they love in the land of their citizenship and the land they serve. [link]
This week we are sending the booklet of halakhic statements [download here] collected by Rabbi Chuck Davidson of Jerusalem concerning historical positions important rabbis have taken on gerut. Hiddush staffer David Bogomolny has done us the favor of translating Rabbi Davidson’s introduction to his hoveret into English for ease of reading (see below). We know your time is precious, and thought an English translation might save a few moments. There follows over 170 statements of rabbinic opinions, some from rabbis you know and some less famous, who have defined conversion as a process of joining the Jewish people for those who sincerely seek membership in Am Yisrael.
You will see that Rabbi Yisrael Be’eri, who was the Chief Rabbi of Nes Tsiyona, contended that the intention to be a Jew who acknowledged that Judaism has mitzvot, even though the convert did not intend to keep those mitzvot, was sufficient for conversion. In other words, to convert to live a Jewish life as other contemporary Jews live as Jews in our time suffices.
As long as the convert accepts the authority of the Torah and the punishment for not observing the mitzvot, some would say l’hathila and some would say b’diavad, that person is accepted as a Jew. Historically conversion was not intended to build up and sustain a particular interpretation of Judaism. Rather, for many rabbis, it’s to build up the Jewish people in its entirety with true believers who accept the mitzvot as incumbent upon them, whether they perform the mitzvot or not.
From the writings of Shlomo Zalman Urbach we see that the issue, built on a p’sak from the 13th century, is that the ger accept becoming a Jew entirely of his own free will, without any coercion. The ger must desire to be Jewish. Rabbi Urbach wrote that the critical issue is to ask the potential ger if he wants to convert, and that acceptance constitutes acceptance of the commandments.
And see Rabbi Yehoshua ben Meir’s statement about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s opinion that joining the Jewish people is doing what others in the Jewish community do as normative in the community, in Israel including serving in the IDF as the other members of the community do, but not necessarily living according to the demands of halakha.
I hope you will peruse the piskei din. I found them surprising, and delightfully refreshing. Clearly there is much here that would unite the Jewish people in practice. Perhaps we could find a way for the different streams to come much closer in interpretation to what it means to live a Jewish life. Reading these opinions I became truly hopeful, and I’d love to hear from you what your opinion is.
I want to thank Rabbi Davidson for his superb work, and for sharing that work with us, his colleagues.
In this article by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo [click here] you’ll see the claim that halakha intends to make us a moral people. I need remind no one of Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule in Shabbat 31a, or the questions about entering heaven also found there, the first of which is whether the person conducted his affairs honestly. Halakha’s intention is clearly to refine the soul and bring us closer to God, regardless of the movement we happen to represent. Rabbi Cardozo’s warning, I feel certain, is near to all of our hearts, as we watch Israel seclude itself behind a wall of religious chauvinism. We see we have many allies in the Jewish world.
Please see our Facebook page for RRFEI here: [click here], and I’d love to get your feedback.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Israel has been privileged to receive more than one million Olim from the former USSR. This Aliya has continued for over two decades, blessing the State of Israel in many ways, including economically, academically, technologically, demographically and culturally. These Olim share a great desire to contribute to their new home, including serving in the IDF’s combat units in larger percentages than the general population. The second generation has been successfully absorbed into the country, and are no different from their Sabra peers who were born in Israel.
On the one hand, the successful absorption of these Olim has been a blessing to the whole country, and on the other hand it has presented significant challenges to Israeli society. This is a result of the approximately 300 thousand adult Olim who immigrated under the Law of Return, which grants the right of return to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent (provided they have not chosen another faith), who are not Jewish according to Halacha. Another 80 thousand children and adolescents who were born or raised in Israel are not Jews according to Jewish law. Of these 380,000, who are officially classified as “having no religion” according to the Ministry of the Interior, most consider themselves Jews in all respects.
Additionally, almost all of these Olim are considered “Zera Yisrael” (the seed of Israel), descendants of Jews, who themselves are not considered Jewish according to Halakha. Unlike the conversions of non-Jews, conversions of “Zera Yisrael” are considered a mitzvah of “bringing back the lost ones,” i.e., bringing back into the Jewish fold those that were lost to the Jewish people, which is especially true for Jews of Soviet ancestry who were cut off from all things Jewish by force of the communist regime for more than seventy years. And so, the Halakhic requirements for converting those who are “Zera Yisrael” are significantly less stringent than the requirements for converting those who have no Jewish roots.
This blessed Aliyah resulted in a number of challenges, including:
Today, the pathway to government recognized conversion through the Ministry of Religious Services and the Chief Rabbinate requires those who are converting to convince the rabbinic conversion courts that they intend to live a Halakhic lifestyle as do Orthodox Jews, which most of them do not plan to do. Even most of those who do manage to complete this conversion process don’t actually live out this commitment. Therefore, the government’s conversion program actually puts the majority of this population off from pursuing conversion at all.
This booklet I have compiled addresses the critical question of the above mentioned population’s future, as well as the continuation of Halakhic Jewish status for an increasing number of Israeli citizens who have Jewish identities, but are not considered Jewish according to Halakha.
The booklet introduces the reader to more than 170 rabbinic citations on the matter of Jewish conversion over the centuries and millennia. The quotes have been shortened in order to present the material in simple and accessible language. However, the exact references are noted on every page, and in any case, the selected quotes represent the rabbis’ final opinions on this matter, to the best of my understanding.
The opinions included in this booklet only represent lenient Halakhic rulings. Clearly, in the matter of conversion, as with every other Halakhic matter, legitimate disagreements arise. Since the more stringent rabbinic opinions are better known among the wider public, this booklet aims to include the lesser known rabbinic opinions. This booklet was written with the intention of raising interest in the subject of conversion in the hopes that its readers will become inclined to deeply study the sources. Further, the booklet does not intend to represent any particular position as practical Halakha (Halakha le-ma’aseh).
My many thanks go to the great Rav Haim Amsalem, SHLIT”A, author of the monumental book “Zera Yisrael,” from which most of the citations were drawn, with the addition of a few gems that I uncovered with my own efforts, representing the Halakhic rulings of the leading rabbis of their respective generations. I merited the immense privilege, which is impossible to describe, of getting to closely know the Rav, pouring water on his hands, and learning the Torah of conversion from his mouth.
Kalman Pesach (Chuck), son of Pinchas, Davidson