A response to Dov Lipman: Shas racism – the tip of the iceberg

Like Rabbi Dov Lipman, I too “am embarrassed with my country” – but for very different reasons. Rabbi Lipman’s recent blog post for The Times of Israel, Shas racism – a much needed wake-up call, is spot-on in calling the recent Shas election ad for what it is – a “racist attack” that requires “serious soul-searching.” It is dead wrong, I’m afraid, in pointing out the underlying problem or offering a viable solution.

I write these words with some trepidation. I know Rabbi Lipman well and respect him tremendously. He’s more than a friend on Facebook (although he’s that, too). We’ve kept in touch ever since I met him two years ago at a talk he gave about – ironically enough – conversion.

I don’t relish taking on the positions of a rabbi, especially one I like. After all, I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on TV. But conversion is an area I do know something about, and where my personal experience has led me to some strongly held positions. Readers who have followed my past few posts know that, of the four members of my immediate family, I am the only one who was born Jewish. Through my wife, I have seen the Orthodox conversion process up-close – at least in the U.S. – and believe me, it’s not always a pretty picture. Our experiences transforming from an intermarried family to an Orthodox Jewish one have shown me first-hand what is both right and wrong about the conversion process, and have convinced me that a serious support structure is urgently needed for intermarried families who truly wish to become Jewish (more about our soon-to-be-launched program to remedy this void, J-Journey, in a future post).

The problem is not simply, as Rabbi Lipman has described, that Shas or the Haredi establishment refuses to accept Russian conversions adhering to a bare minimum of lighting Shabbat candles, fasting on Yom Kippur and the like. For the vast majority of conversions performed in Israel require much more than that – typically an extended period of intensive study and a commitment to adhere to an observant lifestyle. Rabbi Lipman makes a case for lowering the bar. But too high a bar is not the real problem and lowering it is not the best answer.

Even where a convert has completed his conversion in full compliance with Jewish law, Shas and parts of the Haredi establishment often still refuse to honor it. The refusal, more often than not, is a child of politics and power rather than halacha. In recent years, a disturbing number of Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah have been turned away by the Shas-controlled Interior Ministry after their conversions were already approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In other words, after the Orthodox Rabbinate, charged with upholding Jewish law for conversions in the Jewish State, has already said that a person’s conversion fully meets the requirements of Jewish law, the ostensibly secular but Shas-controlled government Interior Ministry denies that same person Israeli citizenship on the basis that their conversion is not recognized. The Interior Ministry is not charged with opining about Jewish law. The Shas Interior Minister has nevertheless decided to use his power to overrule those who are so charged.

The recent Shas commercial proves the point. The commercial shows an identifiably Russian woman about to marry an Israeli man. She is waiting for her conversion to come through, and all she has to do is dial “star conversion” for her conversion certificate to arrive instantly by fax. The commercial, although disgusting, isn’t really about conversion at all. Nobody with an ounce of brains believes that you can get any kind of conversion in Israel by punching a number into a fax machine. The commercial is really an appeal to a certain segment of the population (who are lacking even that one ounce of brains), playing on their stereotypes of Russian immigrants and playing for their votes. It is not unlike certain American political commercials that have shamelessly used minority populations as a foil to increase electoral standing. Similar to Shas practice at the Interior Ministry, the Shas commercial sacrifices the convert to achieve the real goal of greater political power.

The Shas commercial is unquestionably condescending to Russian Israelis. But, in its own way, so is lowering the bar on their conversions. While Rabbi Lipman is correct in his description of one strain of Orthodox Jewish thought about zera Yisrael-seed of Israel, it is only one strain. A strong case can be made for it, especially in the context of maintaining a cohesive Jewish State. However, Rabbi Lipman does not seem to take into account that zera Yisrael has never been universally recognized across Orthodoxy – even non-Haredi Orthodoxy – and the current conversion conundrum includes other compelling issues not so easily brushed aside.

Rabbi Lipman describes with admiration our fellow Russian citizens who may not be Jewish according to Jewish law, but who live in Israel, speak Hebrew and serve in the IDF. He questions the Rabbinate’s resistance to their conversions in the absence of full mitzvah observance. I share Rabbi Lipman’s admiration, but fail to see its connection to conversion. After all, the Druse and many Bedouin live in Israel, speak Hebrew and serve in the IDF. No one is advocating for their conversion, however.

Obviously, the non-Jewish Russians in our midst fall into a different category. As Rabbi Lipman points out, they are zera Yisrael and many of them have expressed a desire to convert. Rabbi Lipman therefore implies that it would be enough if they agreed “to fast on Yom Kippur, to refrain from eating leavened bread on Passover, to recite the Kiddush prayer and light the candles on Shabbat night.”

It’s a wonderful beginning, not to be minimized, but it shouldn’t be enough for an Orthodox conversion. When my wife became an Orthodox convert, she agreed to observe Shabbat, not just light candles on Friday night. She agreed to all of the mitzvot, all of the Torah. Zera Yisrael or not, by lowering the bar for Russians, we are in effect telling them both that we lack confidence in them to take on all of the mitzvot and that we lack confidence in ourselves that these mitzvot are worth taking on.

If the Shas commercial proves anything, it is that our problem is not what we require of potential converts, but how we treat them. Having witnessed horrific treatment by a Beit Din first-hand, I know that the issue is not our mitzvot, but our approach.

In the end, we should not be asking whether it is enough for a convert to light candles. We should be asking what we need to do to unmask the beauty of Shabbat so that someone would eagerly embrace it in toto. Shabbat candles are wonderful. But why stop there? Why assume that potential converts wouldn’t benefit enough or would find it too difficult to bask in a full day of rest with their family, to immerse in the framework of halacha, to find a meaningful relationship with God through the full range of His commandments. If we really believe in the power and the God-given nature of the mitzvot, then we must start viewing the mitzvot as the solution rather than the problem. The problem lies elsewhere – in political power grabs on the one hand that shut the door in the convert’s face, and in our collective failure on the other to present Judaism to potential converts in a spirit of awe rather than a spirit of compromise.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.