A Modest Proposal on Conversion

The recent flap over the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's refusal to recognize conversions to Judaism conducted by my esteemed colleague Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has left me feeling yet again that we are very far away—as far as we have ever been—from solving this problem, all statements to the contrary by Prime Minister Netanyahu notwithstanding.

To be clear… As a Conservative rabbi who has served as the President of our Rabbinical Assembly, I do not for a moment question the legitimacy of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's conversions. Quite the contrary; Rabbi Lookstein is an esteemed colleague whom I respect enormously, and I cannot for a minute imagine why, other than the arbitrary whims of the Chief Rabbis, his rabbinic bona fides would be called into question. It is, indeed, an outrage, deserving of the condemnation of Jews of all stripes.

And yet as I read of the demonstrations, urgent meetings, and other manifestations of communal distress at this assault on his rabbinic integrity, I couldn't help but wonder… With the notable exception of Natan Sharansky, who truly understands Diaspora Judaism and respects the non-Orthodox world, why do all those outraged folks not express that distress at the fact that every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, every year, the conversions of Conservative rabbis like myself are routinely challenged by Israel's entrenched rabbinic power structure? Is the implication intended to be that, well, "your" conversions we understand being rejected, because non-Orthodox Rabbi's have no standards, but Rabbi Lookstein is a modern Orthodox Rabbi's, not a Haredi, with "real" standards, and his converts should be accepted without question? Every time I read about Rabbi Lookstein's supporters rallying to his defense, it saddens me. As I said, not because I begrudge him his honor and dignity, but only because I care about mine as well. Why do so few defend the integrity of my colleagues and me?

You might be tempted to respond quickly that the standards among Conservative rabbis, as you've observed them, vary from colleague to colleague and community to community. I'm wondering… Who reading this column believes that all Orthodox rabbis have the same standards on conversion, or too much else? Who believes that all Orthodox rabbis hold the same opinions on any particular issue of Jewish law? I have always considered it to be true that if there were one way to apply Halacha and live the good Jewish life from an Orthodox perspective, there would be one Orthodox rabbi. And yet as I look around, I see an Orthodox community struggling to redefine just how big its tent is, what with JOFA, Avi Weiss, the struggle to reclaim so called "Modern Orthodoxy," etc. Is diversity of opinion only a characteristic of Conservative Judaism?

But even further to the point– In response to the actions of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Lookstein, after a "crisis" meeting with Natan Sharansky, declared that he was not looking for a revolution in the way the Chief Rabbinate operated, but rather an evolution into a more fair and equitable system. Towards that end, he proposed the introduction of "objective criteria" for conversion that might reduce the chances of arbitrary intrusion by the Chief Rabbinate into the process.

I agree!

For as long as we have been dancing this conversion dance in the Jewish world, I have longed for the introduction of truly objective criteria into the process of bringing a non-Jew into the community of the Jewish people. The irony is that the major code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, goes a long way towards doing just that. If, it says, a person wishes to join the Jewish people, we ascertain, to the best of our ability, what is motivating that desire. If we find the motivation to be pure and genuine, we teach him/her a few of the major laws, and a few of the minor ones. If a male, he must be circumcised and then taken to a Mikvah in the presence of a Beit Din. If already circumcised, symbolic blood must be drawn from the penis, and then the man is taken to the Mikvah. If a woman, she is similarly taken to a Mikvah in the presence of a Beit Din (with no physical procedure). And that's it!

What would happen if we were to return to the earliest iteration of "conversion requirements" in Jewish law, and "objectify" the process? For the record, absolutely every Conservative rabbi that I know goes far, far beyond the requirements laid out in the Shulchan Aruch. We all, by inviolable rule of our own Rabbinical Assembly, require milah u'tvilah (circumcision if necessary, appearance before a Beit Din and immersion in a Mikvah, not to mention a lengthy study process that encompasses far more than "a few" laws both easy and difficult, and addresses head on the obligatory nature of Shabbat, Kashrut, and much, much more.

Why must we complicate the process by introducing our own version of a catechism, requiring, as some do, that all converts accept that every word of the Torah is from Sinai, and God-given? Are we not infinitely better off as a community emphasizing practice and community as opposed to notoriously nuanced differences of how Jews understand the most basic elements of their faith? If, as Rabbi Lookstein proposes, the Chief Rabbinate would do well to establish objective criteria for conversion, why not, for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people, allow for a set of standards that is truly objective, and will allow for the real-time variations in nuance and degree that inform all instances of conversion?

Without a doubt, the men and women whom I convert will not necessarily look and act identically like those of some of my Orthodox colleagues, but they will be good Jews, and devoted members of the Jewish community. Their Sabbath observance, and even their Kashrut observance, might vary somewhat from some Orthodox Jews-by-choice. But Shabbat and Kashrut will be essential components of their Jewish lives, and Israel's well being will become a major focus of their attention.

What is more important? Having rabbis who never had the benefit of any broader, higher secular education (or, probably, even lower secular education) evaluate the worthiness of men and women they've never met, from a different culture, choosing to cast their lot with the Jewish people, or trusting the rabbis who oversee their process to bring them into the fold?

The sad truth is that the real issue is not about who is a convert, or even who is a Jew. It's about who is a rabbi. When the aforementioned rabbis in Israel question whether my esteemed colleague Rabbi Lookstein is a trustworthy rabbi whose conversions can be trusted, the Jewish world gets upset. For the sake of the greater Jewish people, I humbly suggest that it would be a far better Jewish world if they were to get upset when the rabbinic establishment in Israel regularly maligns my colleagues and me. We deserve support too.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.