In a strange coincidence, Israel is currently dealing with not one but two “conversion” issues. The first is less written about: prohibiting “conversion therapy” of homosexual-leaning individuals to “revert” to their “correct” gender role. The second constitutes one of the most important issues on the Israeli agenda – domestically and overseas: enabling hundreds of thousands of quasi/part/wannabee Jews to properly convert to the Jewish People.
The irony here is that each side wishes to prohibit one issue and enable the other – except from the opposite vantage point. Some Orthodox (certainly not all) – much like their overseas zealous counterparts of whatever religion – attempt to revert the sexual orientation of youth and young adults “back” to what the Orthodox consider “normal”. But when it comes to religious conversion from Gentile (or questionably Jewish) to “fully” Jewish, they make it as cumbersome as possible. Conversely, the Israeli government has recently banned conversion therapy for “sex reversion,” given that there is absolutely no proof that such treatment works – and there are numerous cases where such “therapy” has caused harm. However, regarding religious conversion the government is now attempting to make it easier, albeit within the general parameters of the halakha.
The issue of male homosexuality is a fraught one for many Orthodox Jews (interestingly, there is no halakhic proscription for lesbian relations; the Torah doesn’t even mention the phenomenon). It would be hard for them to allow such activity given the commandments in the book of Leviticus against homosexual relations – albeit not impossible with some creative Talmudic interpretations that have been devised for other “commandments”, such as the “pruzbul” that effectively enables loans to still be valid past the Jubilee year, and many other former “absolute prohibitions”. However, given that more and more Orthodox children are “coming out of the closet,” it is no longer an issue that can be swept under the rug and ignored. That leaves two options: passive acceptance and conversion therapy.
Many Orthodox have begun to take the former route. Several Orthodox Rabbis have even issued halakhic “edicts” that the Torah only prohibits homosexual relations and nothing beyond that, so that such men can be called up to the Torah, counted in the minyan and so on. For the more traditional ultra/Orthodox, however, homosexuality remains an abomination – ergo the attempts at “therapy”.
Religious conversion is a far more widespread issue. An estimated 400,000 Israelis (mostly) from the former Soviet Union have only a Jewish father or even merely one Jewish grandparent (on their father’s side), rendering them halakhically “unJewish”. They serve in the IDF, pay their taxes, and are basically indistinguishable from secular Israelis – but can’t officially marry a Jewish spouse in Israel through the Rabbinate, the only institution in Israel recognized by the State of Israel for that purpose. Not only is this patently unfair but sociologically it is also potentially disastrous, splitting Israeli society into Jewish haves and have-nots.
However, things have begun to change. Exactly one year ago (March 1, 2021) Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that non-Orthodox conversions (by Reform and Conservative rabbis) performed in Israel render those converts Jewish for the purpose of permanent residency i.e., to be registered in the Ministry of the Interior as eligible for citizenship through Israel’s Law of Return. Yet, given that Orthodox Jews – and many other traditional-minded Jews in Israel – do not recognize the halakhic validity of such conversions, the problem of “non-marriageability” remains.
The present “change” government has now started taking the next step. This past week the governing coalition agreed to try and pass a law that will enable all municipal (Orthodox) rabbis to perform conversions, in place of the present situation where only specific (very strict) courts are allowed to do so. Why is this significant? Because it injects a certain amount of pluralistic flexibility (and competition) into the system – something that can enable Jewish conversions to be undertaken more simply, quickly, and with fewer demands. Ironically, the same Orthodox whose hyper-strict approach has already caused a split in Israeli society are now crying that such “flexibility” will divide Israel between “real Jews” and “pseudo-converted ones”.
Which leads to the question: can rabbis who adhere to the halakha really take a more lenient approach? The answer is a definite “yes”, as conversion to Judaism has historically been a very flexible affair. Indeed, Ruth (no less than King David’s great-grandmother!) “converted” to the Jewish People with her simple statement to Naomi that “your people are mine”. In fact, “who belongs to whom” has always been fluid through Jewish history. For instance, the whole question of “who is a Jew” underwent a 180-degree change over time: for the entire Biblical period a child was considered Jewish based on its father’s religion – not its mother’s, the latter only becoming commonplace (halakhically) after the Second Temple’s destruction. Moreover, the contemporary demand that a convert swear to uphold all the Jewish commandments was not a universal part of conversion in many eras – or at the least, was winked at. In short, Jewish history and halakhic evolution are clearly on the side of those who understand the “hour of need” (in Hebrew: שעת הדחק) and are willing to act within the more relaxed spirit of the House of Hillel.
None of this is to say that conversion will be akin to waving a wand and declaring “abracadabra you’re Jewish”. Any conversion to Judaism rightly demands learning about the religion’s basics: history, commandments, holidays, values. Courses to prepare for conversion have been going on for a very long time in Israel; it’s the “final test” that few could pass. Such courses will, of course, continue but now the rabbis won’t be demanding that each convert be a “straight A” student in order to enter the fold.
Assuming that the present, heterogeneous coalition government holds together for a few more months, it should be able to finally defuse this sociologically ticking time bomb – thereby converting Israel into a somewhat more normal society.