Can a Convert become Prime Minister?

It takes a lot of guts to come out for being tough on converts in Judaism. It honestly goes against the principles of the religion. When it comes from people in positions of authority, it’s especially tormenting. Converts are equal in most ways to natural-born Jews but limited in a very small number of things in Jewish law. “One law shall there be for the native and the stranger” is mentioned several times in the Torah. “Do not abuse the stranger” comes up more than once, as well. When someone wants to be strict on policy, much more on the converts themselves, it proliferates an aggressive attitude toward new arrivals and endangers principles of the religion. As the effect of policies from an official government Rabbinate, the question turns into an existential one about the nature of authority in Judaism from the vantage point of running a bona fide nation-state.

I’m particularly concerned about converts’ as leaders: not their capability per se, but their opportunities. According to the Torah, converts aren’t allowed to be crowned kings in Israel. That ban extends to other offices, blocking converts from judging many cases in Jewish courts. Three years ago, the issue reached public light when Rabbi Avi Weiss challenged the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on its de facto disqualification of conversions whenever one of a tribunal’s judges would be a convert. A lot of overly cautious thinking has turned the idea into a ludicrous practice of discrimination. Some positions of communal leadership have been forbidden to converts, including presidencies in Young Israel synagogues. I assume that line of thinking would block converts from the highest offices in Israel, the real halls of power in the Jewish world.

But there is little written about government in a Jewish state – at all. Articles consider Judaism in light of democracy, the position of monarchy and the authority of a renewed Sanhedrin. There are commentaries on women as witnesses in court. I’ve never seen this sort of question. Converts were immigrants to the Jewish land of Israel – hence the term “ger,” someone who takes up residence somewhere. Their assumption of leadership would be akin to an Austrian becoming the President of the United States, something forbidden by the American Constitution. The U.S. isn’t the only country with such rules and Judaism keeps one of the few classical conditions of governing a state from Ancient Israel. Oddly enough, Israel doesn’t keep immigrants from becoming Prime Minister.

As the war of words between Rabbi Weiss and RCA leader Rabbi Barry Freundel got uncomfortably personal, commentaries analyzed the legal elements of the issue. Opinions vary on when this is relevant, but many times if the parties to a case accept his authority, a convert may judge the case.

But does this extend to elected leadership? Is judging certain cases a key to knowing if a convert can make financial policies and decide on issues of life and death as the head of state? Again, even for someone who wishes Israel didn’t exist or denies the Jewish nature of its institutions, would they have to address the issue? Will they say a major convert candidate for the high office absolutely cannot be put in charge of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel? Even if you are not a Zionist, you’re going to have to deal with this question eventually – politically active Jews exist everywhere. So many of them literally have the zeal of the convert, making them ambitious and creative leaders. Keeping them from the halls of power has huge ramifications. The possibility a convert might become the effective leader of the Jewish world should demand tremendous amounts of Halachic commentary.

It’s precisely due to abuses of power, like those of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel against converts, that representative government exists. The preclusion of converts of positions of authority, especially in a representative system, would counteract the entire point of democracy and endanger the ability of a Jewish state to project Jewish principles. If the people agree, then why not?

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.