The Conversion Mess

Conversion to Judaism is currently one of the most controversial issues facing Orthodoxy. Especially in Israel. The controversy revolves around what the actual requirements for conversion are. These requirements directly affect over 300,000 Israeli residents who are either immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their children.

They are not considered Jewish because of patrilineal descent. Which means that their mothers are not Jewish.  They are otherwise fully integrated into Israeli society and consider themselves Jewish. They even serve in the IDF – in many cases risking their lives for their countrymen. In most cases they are not observant, and have no intention to be.

This is a demographic nightmare for the State of Israel. As this group continues to grow, it threatens the very nature of the State. It is very possible that non Jews will outnumber Jews even if we do not consider Arab growth on the West Bank.

The government solution fort this is to have wholesale conversions of these people by making conversions easier. They had originally set special conversion courts for this purpose. It was headed by Rav Chaim Druckman a Religious Zionist religious leader. The Chief Rabbinate that has increasingly come under the influence of Charedi rabbinic leaders condemned all of those conversions as illegitimate. The problem they had is that conversion requires acceptance of Mitzvah observance, something that very few of these Russian immigrant children did, nor had any intention of doing.

This is the current standard for all conversions. There is however a minority opinion that allows a conversion without such acceptance. Especially in cases where the father is Jewish. Which means the potential convert has Jewish blood in them through the father even though they are not technically Jewish.

Charedi rabbinic leaders and the current Chief Rabbinate reject this leniency outright. They do not consider anyone converted this way to be Jewish. Religious Zionist leaders who are deeply concerned about the demographic danger to the State believe that this leniency is a must. Otherwise the state of Israel could in the not too distant future be comprised of a non Jewish majority.

Obviously Charedi leaders do not consider that as important as Religious Zionist leaders. They believe that questionable conversions are a far greater danger to the Jewish people. State considerations are to them at best a secondary consideration that cannot override what they believe are false conversions.

So strongly do Religious Zionist leaders believe that this problem requires a solution of wholesale conversions that a few prominent RZ rabbis have set up conversions courts in defiance of the Chief Rabbinate and the Charedi leadership.

For their part the rabbinate has already announced that conversions done by these courts will not be recognized. This contentious issue is why there is a strong move to abolish the Chief rabbinate altogether.  It seem that no one likes them. Not the Charedim, Not the Religious Zionists, and not Secular Jews. Which is too bad. A Jewish State requires a Jewish Rabbinate to determine things Jewish. But for me this is a side issue at the moment. The greater issue here is how we define Jews in the State of Israel.

I am not a Halachic authority. So my opinions on this matter are irrelevant. However, I am more inclined to use a minority opinion if it can solve a serious problem like the very Jewishness of so many of its citizens who have always thought of themselves as Jewish. On the other hand, I completely sympathize with the Chief Rabbinate and the Charedi leadership here. To create hundreds of thousands of Jews that have no interest in following Halacha is not right.  For me Judaism at a minimum is about following Halacha. Cultural Judaism is not by itself Judaism.

No matter how culturally Jewish a Christian (for example) might feel, that does not make him Jewish. Even if he were to join the IDF and volunteer for hazardous duty.  It is true that Jews who do not follow Halacha are still Jewish albeit sinners (whether intentionally or unintentionally).  But that’s because by definition an individual born of a Jewish mother is automatically Jewish through no choice of their own. If these conversions were valid, is it right to create  a community of 300,000 sinners when they have a choice to remain as non sinning non Jews? Even if it is being done to save the Jewish character of the state?

Even leaving all that aside I am opposed to these conversions for another reason. Going ahead with this plan would mean that some segments of Orthodoxy in Israel would consider these converts to be Jewish, and some not. For me that is a nightmare. You can’t have a society where not everyone in the Orthodox rabbinate is on the same page about who is and who isn’t a Jew. That would mean chaos.

Every marriage in the future would be put into question. These converts will integrate into all segments of society, including the Charedim (via outreach groups like Aish HaTorah). They will then integrate into a Charedi community and sent their children to Charedi schools.Will the lineage of every student now be checked?  What about the lineage of a potential Shidduch? Charedim won’t know who is Jewish even among their own. How can Religious Zionist rabbinic leaders participate in creating this nightmare? Even with the legitimate concerns  and even if they are right on the Halachic issue?

The fact that their converts will not be accepted by the largest and fastest growing segment of observant Jewry in Israel should give them great pause.  First, the Chief Rabbinate is opposed to them. Second, many other Religious Zionist leaders have expressed their opposition to this. Third, based on the conversion standards set up by the RCA – which are in line with the Chief Rabbinate – I doubt that these converts will be accepted by them either!  And fourth, there is no way that American Charedi leaders will accept them. Is using a conversion leniency that is not accepted by all worth the price of such divisions?

I don’t think so. You can’t write off the majority of observant Jewry in Israel… or in America for that matter. There has to be another way. I understand the problem and am sympathetic to it, but this solution is too costly.  What a mess!

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.