Halachic conversions — To be or not to be …

When faced with an ethical question that has more than one possible answer, the obvious answer is — which serves the greater good?

Psalm 90:12 says it so beautifully:”… teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Why not say “… get us a head of wisdom”? It’s simple. True wisdom comes from the marriage of heart and mind. One is devoid of compassion without a good measure of both.

For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people had little or no clerical hierarchy and it served us well. The opposite can be said for other organized religions that had such hierarchies. We saw their excesses during the Inquisition or the burning of the witches of Salem just to name a few. These terrible events occurred at a historical convergence of a variety of issues, not least being some powerful religious leaders claiming to have divine providence to rule with an iron fist.

We Jews always knew that Ribbono Shel Olam At was only a ‘local phone call’ away. We didn’t and still don’t need intermediaries to intercede on our behalf. We look to Rabbis for interpretation but not control.

At the age of 20, I went to see “Fiddler on the Roof” with my family. At the end of the performance, my late grandfather (of blessed memory) said to us: “To you this is a piece of history, but to me, this was the way we lived. I also remember the melamed of my cheder telling us to go and throw stones at another cheder nearby.”

I never forgot this, and have grown to realize that these stones can be either physical or metaphorical.

Today, there is a small, but as yet uncurbed movement throwing metaphorical stones at those who have good intent but don’t necessarily conform to their narrow definition of acceptability. I speak of course about a woman who was converted to Judaism by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and was refused recognition as a Jew by an Israeli rabbinical court in Petach Tikvah. This is part of a wider international controversy over just who outside of the official Israeli Rabbinate is allowed to perform conversions to Orthodox Judaism. Surely if a conversion is halachically acceptable throughout the Diaspora, performed by a rabbi in good standing, then an Israeli rabbinical court should have no other option but to accept that conversion. On the face of it, it looks like an exercise in political power, and if power corrupts then absolute power corrupts absolutely!

So let’s look at the possible reasons for this rejection.

Maybe the rabbonim feel that Rabbi Lookstein is not in good standing as a rabbi. This would be an acceptable reason but only if it was stated in those terms. This wasn’t mentioned so I believe we can discount this reason. After all, it would have been an easy matter to check with the Rabbinical Council of America. [In a small side-note: Rabbi Lookstein recently received an honorary degree from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in recognition of “the influential role he has played in deepening Jewish values and heritage among American Jewry.”]

The answer was given that the court couldn’t find his name on the list of acceptable rabbis. (Maybe we should feed these rabbis spinach so that they gain the strength to look a little harder.)

At the intellectual level, let’s ask ourselves which is the better option – inclusion or exclusion? A young woman makes a commitment to Judaism and Israel, and the powers-that-be see fit to reject her when she would be accepted outside Israel. Maybe the court wanted to flex its judicial muscle outside Israel, or seek to maintain the ‘purity’ of the blood line. One thing is for certain, transparency is lacking and it always becomes more pronounced when there is a bureaucracy.

Even King David’s famous ancestor, Ruth (the Moabite princess) wouldn’t be considered Jewish under this court’s ruling, but thank G-d its members weren’t around at the time to disqualify her. They may have been technically correct but the Jewish people would be much poorer without Ruth.

Whatever the reason (and it may be none of the above), only wise people stop painting themselves further into a corner. The wise have the moral fortitude to admit to a mistake and roll it back. Thus showing that they have indeed gained a “heart of wisdom” and this would be far more preferable than waiting for the Supreme Rabbinic Court in Israel having to get them ‘off the hook’.

I for one, await the outcome and hope that wise heads will prevail by showing adherence to both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Let’s remember that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.

About the Author
As a Jewish husband, father, and grandfather, vitally concerned with the continuity of the Jewish people, I wish to address issues affecting that continuity as I see them, from time to time, and to acknowledge our place in the continuum of Jewish history.
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