Very religious Christians and Muslims have great difficulty understanding why Orthodox Rabbis have so much difficulty in sharing Judaism with non-Jews who are interested in becoming Jewish. Often they think that the primary underlying attitude is Jewish clannishness and suspicion of Gentiles.
While Jews know that this is not true, most non-Orthodox Jews also can’t understand why Orthodox Rabbis make it so hard for non-Jews to convert to Judaism. A book review by Lawrence Grossman of Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policy-making in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis (Stanford University Press, 216 pages, $30) contains some of the answers.
“In contrast to the Shulkhan Arukh’s normal practice, which offers lengthy and complex regulations regarding everything from prayer and the Sabbath, to eating and conducting business, conversion takes up just one short chapter of the code.
It states that a court of three qualified judges must determine that candidates know the basics of Judaism and something about its teachings on divine reward and punishment, that they want to convert fully aware that Jews are a persecuted people, and that they have no ulterior motive for converting. A male convert is circumcised, or if already circumcised, a symbolic drop of blood is drawn.
A note identified with an asterisk in the heading of this chapter in the Shulkhan Arukh, hints at why conversion to Judaism has emerged as a major fault line in Jewish life: This procedure is to be followed in only those countries whose rulers allow conversion.
For centuries following the talmudic discussions that produced the code, Christian and Muslim monarchs generally banned conversion to Judaism, making its implementation rare. The few who managed to convert entered a Jewish community whose behavioral norms were uncontested and enforced by the leadership.
Only beginning in the 19th century, as civic emancipation was gradually extended to European Jews, who increasingly mingled socially with non-Jews, did Jewish-gentile marriage become a live option, and with it, if the non-Jew was interested, the phenomenon of conversion.
But conditions had changed drastically since the law was set down — in particular, Jewish communal autonomy had dissolved and multiple forms of Jewish identification had emerged — that controversy was inevitable.
Ellenson, a Reform rabbi and president of the Reform Rabbinical school HUC-JIR. and Gordis, a Conservative rabbi and president of Jerusalem’s Shalem Foundation, skillfully mine responsa literature — written answers to questions about specific cases — to trace how Orthodox rabbinic authorities have reframed conversion procedures over the past two centuries to address the changing reality.
After an introductory discussion of the early legal sources, the book devotes chapters to German Orthodoxy, Central European (mainly Hungarian) writers, post-Holocaust Europe and the United States and the State of Israel.
Two central points of debate emerge. First, is a convert required to pledge acceptance of every single Jewish law, and if not all, how much? The early sources, do not spell this out clearly, and even in the Orthodox world today there is no consensus on what adherence to Jewish law entails.
Second, is marriage to a Jew considered an ulterior motive that makes conversion impossible?
One school of rabbis perceives secularization and religious pluralism as unmitigated disasters, and responds by circling the wagons even at the cost of inevitable demographic losses: Converts must accept the total package of strictly Orthodox Judaism, and there can be no conversions motivated by marriage.
A contending rabbinic view sees matters in the broader context of Jewish peoplehood. Especially vocal in Israel — whose continued existence depends on Jewish solidarity irrespective of religious observance, and where tens of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants have not yet been able to convert — these rabbis look for leniencies in the law to encourage conversion.
At the end, in a short conclusion, the authors explicitly state their shared preference for the more liberal rabbinic view. Of course, this book is by two non-Orthodox scholars who analyze the Orthodox legal tradition on conversion, in the hope that showing how strongly it has been influenced by public-policy considerations, will aid those who seek to interpret Jewish law in a way that strengthens the Jewish people.
But those Orthodox rabbis who currently make conversion difficult do not care what anyone outside Orthodoxy thinks, nor do they acknowledge that extralegal considerations influence their own stand, since they consider their restrictive rulings objective applications of the law. Sadly, this book will convince only those who need no convincing.
The authors must know that. So why write such a book? I think it might be for the minority of non-Orthodox Rabbis who still need to justify in their own mind, their heart’s adaptation to many of the values of a modern open liberal society.
A positive attitude to non-Jews, and a desire to welcome converts to Judaism into our families, is a radical change from 850 years of Jewish life and experience in Europe between 1096 and 1945.
But I believe only a radical break with the negative attitude of Orthodox Jewish law and tradition in our attitude to converts will enable Jews to live and prosper in the centuries to come.
The Crusader’s call of ‘convert or die’ is, especially in the State of Israel, in the past; and the future challenge for the Jewish people worldwide will be ‘welcome converts or die’.