On March 1, 2021 Israel’s Supreme Court by a verdict of 8-1 dealt a major blow to the country’s powerful Orthodox establishment, ruling that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews under the provisions of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship.
The ruling constitutes a political bombshell, since it punctures the longstanding Orthodox monopoly on officially recognized conversions in Israel.
This landmark ruling, centered around the combustible question of who is Jewish and who is a legitimate Rabbi, and marked an important victory for the Reform and Conservative movements and their Rabbis.
These liberal denominations of Judaism, which represent the vast majority of affiliated US and GB Jews, have long been marginalized in Israel by the Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox political parties.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman calls the High Court decision to recognize Reform and Conservative Conversions to Judaism carried out in Israel “historic.” and says his party will “continue to battle religious coercion and to preserve the state of Israel’s characters as Jewish, Zionist and liberal state.”
It is hard for most Muslims to understand why all Orthodox Rabbis make it difficult for non-Jews to become Jewish. Unlike Muslims, who eagerly welcome converts into the Islamic community, Jews actually warn prospective convert that they will be joining a religious community that has often been persecuted in the past.
Those non-Jews who decide to become Jewish usually feel they are coming home (reverting) while going through the process of conversion. Their own beliefs already were closer to Reform Liberal Jewish values than traditional Christian values.
All they need to do was to add a love of Torah study and debate and the many Jewish Holiday celebrations and traditions to their life; and then push their way into the Jewish community.
I say push their way in because unlike the Muslim community, which since its inception has eagerly welcomed outsiders into the Muslim Ummah, many Jews are ambivalent about converts to Judaism.
This is because more than sixteen centuries ago, when the Church became strong enough to influence the Roman government, it got the government to outlaw conversion to Judaism.
For many centuries prior to Christian rule, the Jewish community welcomed large numbers of converts into the Jewish People. Recent genetic studies have provided strong evidence of this major influx of Mediterranean peoples from North Africa to the Middle East, into the Jewish People.
All this changed in the generations after Constantine. By the fifth and sixth century, converts to Judaism faced death, as did those who helped them become Jewish. These laws remained in effect in Europe until the end of the eighteenth century.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are still wedded to Medieval ways of thought, prefer to avoid non-Jews in general and potential converts in particular. Reform and Liberal Jews who are wedded to Modern ways of thinking, are much more open to welcoming, and sometimes even encouraging, converts.
In addition to being more welcoming to Non-Jews who want to become Jewish, Reform and Conservative Judaism are not as hard to observe as Orthodox Judaism is, although becoming circumcised does discourage some men. But now things might start to change.
A couple of years ago an Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry committee said in a statement that more than 50 million non-Jewish people worldwide have an affinity with Judaism or Israel, including both groups and individuals who could be screened for potential conversion and immigration to Israel.
In what it calls an “unprecedented strategic opportunity,” the committee calls for providing learning materials about Judaism, the Jewish state, and the Hebrew language, and designing a special track for those interested in working, living, and perhaps even converting to Judaism to come to Israel, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported just two days prior to Passover.
Of course Orthodox rabbis immediately attacked the idea, saying that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion and totally avoiding the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar who taught, “The Holy One exiled Israel among the nations only in order that proselytes might be multiplied among them.” (Pesachin 87b)
It is true that in the generation of Rabbi Eleazar there were many more converts to Judaism in diaspora Jewish communities than in the land of Israel. The strong anti-Roman feelings of many Jews in the land of Israel not only flared into two disastrous revolts, in 66-70 CE and again in 132-135 CE, but also must have expressed itself among some Jews in ongoing suspicion and hostility toward non-Jews who had converted as well as those who were interested in becoming Jewish.
Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching that gaining converts was so important that God sacrificed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in order to multiply converts is amazing. Of course, it is possible that Rabbi Eleazar was simply trying to make the best of a bad thing. But he must have thought making converts was of extraordinary importance.
Perhaps Rabbi Eleazar thought that if the Jewish people was much more numerous (like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) we would be a lot less likely to be defeated and oppressed by others.
For example when our forefathers refused to accept Timna as a convert. She eventually distanced herself greatly from the Jewish people, marrying Elifaz and giving birth to a descendant Amalek, who attacked the Jewish people greatly. (Sanhedrin 99b)
The Orthodox resistance to welcoming non-Jews into the Jewish People will end up creating a terrible situation for the Jewish People in future decades and generations.