Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Converting the Torah

The latest Israeli pre-election brouhaha revolves around the High Court of Justice’s ruling that non-Orthodox conversions are legitimate for eligibility regarding the Right of Return, i.e., automatic Israeli citizenship when making Aliyah. The ultra-Orthodox are furious, claiming that such a ruling runs afoul of Torah Judaism. Really?

In an interview soon after the ruling, MK Yitzchak Pindrus, the Yahadut HaTorah faction leader in the Knesset, made this statement (exact translation mine): “There exists the Torah of Israel that does not change, that Moses our Leader brought down from Mount Sinai; a woman converted [in a non-Rabbanut fashion] is a Gentile.” It’s hard to envision another short statement with so many historical errors.

First, the “Torah does not change?” What then are the myriad rulings in the Talmud that directly contradict or significantly amend the Torah’s text? Just to take one example, the Torah has 41 different transgressions for which capital punishment is mandated – but the Rabbis argued whether a Jewish law court is considered to be “hanging court” if it executes even one criminal every seven years or every 70 years. Talk about a “dead letter”!

Indeed, the Talmud’s rabbis actually told God to stop getting involved in their Jewish law decision making; from now on THEY would decide what Jewish Law is to be, because (as stated in the Torah): “the majority rules” – even against the sole vote of the Almighty (Bava Metziah, 59a-b). This is hardly an “unchanging” religio-legal system (and that’s for the better, given the need to adapt to radically shifting environments in which Jews have found themselves throughout the past 2500 years).

Second, MK Pindrus incredibly names Moses in his response. But Moses actually married a non-Israelite woman, and yet clearly their children were Jewish; indeed, it’s his “non-Jewish” (Midianite) wife who reminds Moses to circumcise their sons! Of course, this is not the only example of a Jewish leader doing so (Solomon certainly did), but the classic case in the Jewish tradition is Ruth the Moabite, who – the book named after her goes out of its way to clearly note – was the great-grandmother of no less a Jewish personage than King David! In short, the two greatest leaders of the Jewish People both had a direct connection to “converts”: our greatest Lawgiver, and the ancestor of the future Messiah.

Third, how precisely did Ruth convert to Judaism? Very simply: “Your people are my people” she simply replied to Naomi who told her to go back home, to no avail. And that was it. No extended year’s education course in the nuanced details of Jewish Law and no rabbinical interrogation. In fact, when Boaz goes to the Elders to regularize and get an official imprimatur for marrying Ruth, no one asks “Where’s her conversion document?” – or anything that would suggest “proof of conversion”.

Fourth, and related, it is clear throughout the entire Jewish Bible (Tanakh) that children were considered to belong to the religion of their father. Just ask the literal Children of Israel – our forefather Jacob’s kids, four of whom were begotten by “non-Jewish family” concubines. No one has looked askance at these tribes for emanating from a non-Jewish foremother.

So what happened? For several reasons – some lost in the mists of history – during the Roman hegemony era over Judea, the Rabbis ruled that the Jewishness of a child would be switched from the father to the mother. Perhaps it was clear whether the mother was Jewish but not always regarding the father (rape? Licentiousness?). Maybe Roman Law influenced the Rabbis to switch parents (not the only Greco-Roman thing they were influenced by: with Passover coming up, it is worth recalling that the entire Seder “ritual” is a duplicate of the Greek dinner symposium). But whatever the reason(s), the fact is that this was a major change from what existed for over 1000 years in the Biblical era. Again: “The Torah of Israel does not change”??

This is not to argue that we should allow just about any conversion process to take hold. Clearly, there is a need to have converts: 1- be sincere in their wish to join the Jewish People; and 2- have some knowledge of Judaism’s core principles and some basic knowledge of Jewish history. Moreover, if the Talmud’s approach to everything means anything, then the (ultra-) Orthodox should understand better than anyone that “Judaism = modification” (and even transformation) in times of national change and need. After all, systematic “prayer” is not to be found anywhere in the Bible but was a necessary addition after Temple sacrifice ceased in 68CE.

With hundreds of thousands of ostensibly “non-Jews” having immigrated to Israel since the fall of the Iron Curtain (and tens of thousands of Falashmora “crypto-Jews” still stuck in Ethiopia), the situation is no longer one of “circle the (shtetl) wagons” but rather demands encouraging “half-Jews” to become full-fledged members not only of the State if Israel (Law of Return) but also of the Jewish People.

The question of “Conversion: Who and How?” is a legitimate one that needs serious debate and action. Patently absurd ultra-Orthodox arguments against any such discourse or Halakhic flexibility is no way to find a modus vivendi between all Jewish parties concerned and for the benefit of Am Yisrael.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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