Barry Newman

Hands Off the Conversion Process, Please!

Rabbis and other scholars of Jewish law will have no trouble citing biblical and Talmudic references in support of the argument that we are obligated to love those who have converted and accept them, with open arms, as members of the Jewish community. Too often, though, those arguing is support of a “friendlier”, more lenient policy regarding conversion overlooks the context of the source material. The Torah and Talmud are referring to the Ger Tzedek, someone who converts out of a sincere and deep belief that Judaism, as defined by the precepts of the Torah, is indeed the true religion. Conviction and not convenience or circumstance is the force that drives such non-Jews to immerse themselves into the arduous conversion process. What has been experienced over the last two decades, unfortunately, is that pragmatism and not spirituality is what is bringing potential converts to Judaism. It should therefore not be overly surprising that in more than a few cases the convert will be looked at through the prism of a question mark.

How the Jewish community accepts the convert is – for better or worse – a reflection of three important factors – empowerment to convert, standards that are to applied as part of the process, and who ultimately provides the stamp of approval. Acceptance is not and should not be regarded as a stand-alone issue. And I don’t think anyone would disagree, regardless of where they may stand on the spectrum of Jewish observance.

A cogent, contemporary example puts this into the proper perspective. Suppose that while travelling, an Orthodox Jew encounters a restaurant whose kashruth is supervised by a mashgiach who had converted under the auspices of the Reform movement. Would that individual, as an Orthodox Jew, not be concerned over the nature of the conversion process that the gentleman had undergone as well as the standards of kashruth the restaurant was expected to comply with? Is the Judaism the mashgiach embraced an abbreviated version of Judaism 101 and no more than touches the surface of what being a Jew entails. And would not our traveler definitely wonder how different is kashruth defined under Reform theology and practice.

I am by no means denigrating the Reform movement or those who identify themselves as Reform, and apologize if it appears I am. What can’t be denied, though, is that the matter of being accepted as Jewish involves multiple facets and is not as uncomplicated as advocates of making the conversion process less cumbersome seems to suggest.

And, no, I am not overlooking the sad fact that the issue of conversion has become entwined into Israel’s political agenda and that legislators and judges are all too frequently deciding on both the parameters and perimeters of the conversion process. No matter that conversion became part of Israel’s political agenda from the earliest days of independence. What has taken place over the seven decades of statehood is civil expediency and not an emotional attraction to a Judaism is the driving force behind the vast number of requests for conversion.  Whether it be in order to marry someone Jewish or to avoid the complications of having non-Jewish children, far too many conversions are little more than a business practice culminating in a memorandum of understanding between the convert and the organization issuing the certifying documents. Which is not quite what we have come to expect from the Righteous Convert.

More often than not, the newly rubber-stamped convert celebrates with a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and the structure of the Jewish calendar, an understanding of how the six-hundred+ commandments are communicated, and the differing traditions that have developed over the centuries are subjects that no longer need to be bothered with. I’m most certain that many of our rabbis have become more than a little frustrated by what has turned into a misconstrued form of conversion. Since the mass emigration from the Former Soviet Union, which brought into Israel many thousands of citizens who are not halachically Jewish, considerable attention has been given to the separation – or cooperation – between state and religion, a subject that has perplexed both policy makers and religious leaders in virtually area of religious practice, including conversion. It can also be assumed, moreover, that very few of the thousands who enroll in courses of study required for conversion are drawn to the strength that the Torah provides or to the underlying nature of Judaism; the motivation, instead, is, for the most part, to be declared legally Jewish. Which should automatically eliminate any consideration for conversion.

That, of course, is easier said than done. There should be focused opposition to lowering the bar for acceptance to the tribe, and all efforts to provide a more “user-friendly” gateway to becoming part of Am Yisroel should be aggressively resisted. Our legislators should concentrate on how to protect us from the threat of a nuclear Iran or ways to make our roads and highways safe from reckless drivers, and leave conversion in the hands of those who understand what being Jewish is all about. I do not deny that the rabbinical courts can be, at times, overbearing in their attitude toward those sitting in front of them, but conversion is not something to be treated lightly.  After all, the convert whom G-d demands that we love and respect is the Righteous Convert, not the one looking to make life in Israel a little easier.

Many Times of Israel readers, I’m sure, remember Archie Bunker, the loveable bigot from the iconic television series All in the Family. In one classic episode, Archie is entertaining the late Sammy Davis, Jr. – an African American entertainer who converted to Judaism – in his home. “Lemme ask ya a question, Mr. Davis, okay? I know it’s not yer fault that yer colored, but whydya go and become a Jew?” A terrific question, Arch. And you know what – not an unfair one.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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