Philip Lefkowitz
Philip Lefkowitz

Israel’s Odd Couple

“Launching the new organization (United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism) was not an easy task. Many of the ideological issues that would later beset the Conservative movement were discussed emotionally at the founding meeting. Schechter, Adler, and some of their foremost colleagues on the faculty of the Seminary preferred to view the new organization as an “Orthodox-Conservative Union” whose major mandate would be to stem the persistent tide of Reform Judaism…Conservative Judaism originated in the conviction that the earlier Reform Jewish movement had simply gone too far in its efforts to accommodate modern Judaism to the visible models of Christian church society.” [Quoted from an article by Conservative Rabbi Herbert Rosenblum entitled Conservative Judaism, The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987].

In Israel we have seen a bonding between the Conservative and Reform movements in an effort to combat the claimed “stranglehold” of Orthodoxy on religion in the Jewish State. Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that both these movements under their own auspices could utilize government mikvehs for conversion. To combat this decision, legislation dubbed the Gafni Bill was passed by the Knesset , which gave authority over the local mikveh to the community’s, government Rabbi. What I find astounding about this situation is the fact that Reform Judaism does not require a Bet Din or immersion in a mikveh for conversion!

In the late 19th century, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of American Reform rabbis, formally resolved to permit the admission of converts “without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatsoever.” (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 73–95; American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 68, at 236–237.). This resolution has been reviewed by many Reform rabbis yet remains the official policy of Reform Judaism. (See – CCAR Responsa “Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert” 5756.13 and Solomon Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.) That’s right – Reform Judaism requires neither a Bet Din nor immersion in a mikveh for conversion!

What makes this issue even more astounding is the following responsa of the Conservatives movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards:

The Status of Non-Halakhic Conversions

This paper was adopted on October 27, 1982 by a vote of 10-2-3. Members voting in favor: Rabbis David M. Feldman, David H. Lincoln, David Novak, Mayer E. Rabinowitz, Barry S. Rosen, Joel Roth, Morris M. Shapiro, Harry Z. Sky, Henry A. Sosland and Alan J. Yuter. Members voting in opposition: Rabbis Kassel Abelson and Israel N. Silverman. Members abstaining: Rabbis Ben Zion Bokser, Salamon Faber and Edward M. Gershfield

CONCLUSION I find no cogent basis in halakhah for accepting, even ex post facto, converts who did not undergo specific tevilah for the sake of conversion, unless it can be shown that they are strictly observant Jews, particularly scrupulous in the use of a mikvah. The fact that they may have been taken to be Jews by themselves or by others does not change the need for tevilah for the sake of conversion. The fact that most of these conversions have been conducted under Reform auspices makes the matter especially difficult because of the cordial relationships which exist between Conservative and Reform rabbis and lay people. Nevertheless, this halakhic requirement is not meant as a public rebuff to the Reform movement. If a Reform rabbi conducts giyyur kehalakhah, I accept his converts as bona fide Jews. I might also add that I do not accept the converts of non-Reform rabbis if the conversion was not conducted according to objective halakhic criteria. These objective halakhic criteria, which alone protect the purity of Jewish identity, should not be compromised in the interests of an ultimately meaningless Jewish unity. However, rabbinical experience has taught me that a Conservative rabbi can exercise compassionate tact in urging proper tevilah in these cases. I do not tell such converts that their conversions are invalid, but rather, that they were incomplete, for even the most liberal conversion involves study, thus minimally fulfilling hoda’at mitzvot. I tell them that they inadvertently overlooked an important specific. At the tevilah I ask them to reconfirm their kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim and kabbalat ol shel mitzvot. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the converts have thanked me for helping them to legally assure their unambiguous Jewish identity. One of the most famous converts in Jewish history was the king of the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. along with his whole nation. At the very beginning of R. Judah HaLevi’s theological masterwork, Kuzari, where the king is one of the two main characters in the dialogue, the initial motivation for his ultimate conversion to Judaism is seen as his response to a troubling dream. In the dream an angel tells him, “Your intention is acceptable to the Creator, but your action is not.” When the king learns about Judaism and its practices from a rabbi he seeks out, he is able to remove this contradiction in his life by conversion. Along the lines of HaLevi’s dramatization, I would say that anyone who refuses to rectify his or her halakhically invalid conversion has thereby shown that he or she never intended to accept the Torah anyway. Conversely, a true ger tzedek should welcome the opportunity to consummate once and for all what was his or her true intention from the beginning, to make both intention and practice truly consistent.

Conservative Judaism was, by its very founding, a rejection of Reform Judaism as its most famous expositor, Solomon Schechter, understood it was “to stem the persistent tide of Reform Judaism.” According to the above responsa, Conservative Judaism does not accept conversions done by the Reform movement. One is reminded of that oft referred to truism – What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Surely if the Conservative movement reserves the right to reject conversions done by the Reform movement, Orthodox Judaism should enjoy the right to reject conversions done by both the Conservative and Reform. All the more is this the situation in Israel, where together the adherents of both Conservative and Reform number less than 10% of the population in comparison to Orthodoxy, which is overwhelmingly the predominant faith of the Ashkenazic Jews, and is the faith of the Sfardic Jews. It has long been recognized as the official Judaism of the State of Israel and responsible, through the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, for a number of Jewish lifecycle events.

Perhaps when evaluating what transpires in the “religious wars” in Israel, those of us who view them from afar in the Diaspora, should consider the above.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.