Notes from the New London Synagogue
An Aversion to Conversion
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
You hear a lot of nonsense about conversion, about what can and cannot be done. Many of the conversion courts do not abide by halacha but impose lots of stringent measures on top of the halacha.
Yevamot 47a-b יבמות מז א/ב Our rabbis taught1: If at the present time a man2 desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason do you have for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time3 are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions? תנו רבנן גר שבא להתגייר בזמן הזה אומרים לו מה ראית שבאת להתגייר אי אתה יודע שישראל בזמן הזה דוויים דחופים סחופים ומטורפין ויסורין באין עליהם׃
1. This always introduces a teaching of the Tannaim: an ancient teaching which is a basic teaching.
2. Or woman
3.This was after the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, when Jews really were heavily oppressed.
If he replies, 'I know and am yet unworthy,' he is accepted forthwith4, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments5. אם אומר יודע אני ואיני כדאי מקבלין אותו מיד׃ ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות׃
4. Though this is not yet the end of the process, nothing more is going to be put in his way.
5. Hebrew. It does not say he needs to know everything; he learns some of the easy ones and some of the difficult.
He is informed of the sin [of the neglect of the commandment of] Gleanings 6, the Forgotten Sheaf, the Corner and the Poor Man's Tithe. He is also told of the punishment for the trangression of the commandments. Furthermore, he is addressed thus: 'Be it known to you that before you came to this condition, if you had eaten 7 suet, you would not have been punishable with כרת [spiritual excision], if you had profaned the Sabbath you would not have been punishable with stoning.'8. ומודיעין אותו עון לקט שכחה ופאה ומעשר עני׃ ומודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות אומרים לו הוי יודע שעד שלא באת למדה זו אכלת חלב אי אתה ענוש כרת חללת שבת אי אתה ענוש סקילה ועכשיו אכלת חלב ענוש כרת חללת שבת ענוש סקילה׃
6. These are all agricultural מצות.
7. Of course, nobody was stoned at this time, but they're making a point. Whatever punishments there are, which come from Heaven, they are not punishments human beings make, you now have to accept them.
8. For a male there are two requirements: circumcision and going into the mikva.
And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfilment. He is told, 'Be it known to you that the world to come was made only for the righteous, and that Israel at the present time are unable to bear either too much prosperity, or to much suffering.' He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith.
... When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.9 ....
וכשם שמודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות כך מודיעין אותו מתן שכרן אומרים לו הוי יודע שהעולם הבא אינו עשוי אלא לצדיקים וישראל בזמן הזה אינם יכולים לקבל לא רוב טובה ולא רוב פורענות׃ ואין מרבין עליו ואין מדקדקין עליו׃ קיבל מלין אותו מיד׃
נשתיירו בו ציצין המעכבין את המילה חוזרים ומלין אותו שניה׃ נתרפא מטבילין אותו מיד ושני ת״ח עומדים על גביו ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות טבל ועלה הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבריו׃ ...
9. It does not say that this would take any long period of time.
R. Eleazar said: What is the Scriptural proof? 10It is written: And when she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking to her. "We are forbidden," she told her, "[to move on the Sabbath beyond the] Sabbath boundaries." "Whither thou goest," [the other replied], "I will go."
"If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith." What is the reason? The performance of a commandment must not in any way be delayed11.
...When he comes up ... What is the practical meaning of this? In that if he retracted and then betrothed the daughter of an Israelite, he is regarded as a non-conforming Israelite, and his betrothal is valid.12
אמר רבי אלעזר מאי קראה דכתיב
ותרא כי מתאמצת היא ללכת אתה ותחדל לדבר אליה אמרה לה אסיר לן תחום שבת באשר תלכי אלך׃ אסיר לן יחוד באשר תליני אלין׃
קיבל מלין אותו מיד מאי טעמא שהויי מצוה לא משהינן
טבל ועלה הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבריו למאי הלכתא דאי הדר ביה ומקדש בת ישראל ישראל מומר קרינא ביה וקידושיו קידושין׃
10. They learn the proofs from the Book of Ruth—a proselyte herself. From Ruth's speech* they learn what is required. Following this comes the rabbinic interpretation (in the main text): they interpret each of Ruth's speeches as a response to something Naomi is supposed to have said.
Do not intreat me to leave you, or to return from following
after you; for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge: your
people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. Where you die, I will die, and
there will I be buried: so do the LORD to me, and more besides, if aynthing but
death part you and me.
11. I.e. circumcision.
12. The conversion cannot be undone. He is regarded entirely as a non-practising Jew.
This gives you pretty much the details of what conversion is like in Jewish law. These rules and regulations were codified by all the great teachers of Jewish law—the Rambam, for instance:
If there was a person who came to be converted, and they didn't really give him all the instruction he should have had about theand the punishments; if he was circumcised and went into the before three non-rabbis [hediot], he is nevertheless converted.
Even if we are informed that he wanted to be converted for an improper reason [such as wanting to marry a Jewish woman], since he has been circumcised and been in the mikva, he is no longer a non-Jew.
In view of this, you wonder, in view of some of the things you see going on with conversion, why the stringencies, the insistence that a person be 100% observant, and rabbinical courts in Israel retracting conversions after five or ten years because they are not observant. How can they do that? They are disregarding all the basic laws of Judaism!
One of the chief rabbis in Israel was for many years converting people, and said that the conversion was good so long as they lived in Israel, but wasif they left Israel!
The problem today in Israel is as follows: The rabbinical courts make conversion extremely difficult. All of their requirements go way beyond the halacha. They insist that you know everything, and practise everything. There was a case a few months ago of a woman who went through a conversion institute, and came before a rabbinical court, which asked her if she could reciteby heart. She couldn't, so they turned her down.
There was a whole page in the Jerusalem Post recently about the problem of conversion. One of the columnists talked about defending the stringency of conversion. There was a letter from an Orthodox rabbi arguing against this!
You have courts which don't even recognise each other—rabbinical courts refusing to recognise conversions performed by the London Beth Din! So then you get the London Beth Din retaliating by refusing to recognise conversions by Israeli!
The Neeman Commission (1998)
Conversion in Israel is very complex, because since the Chief Rabbinate is part and parcel of the government, there is the question as to whether conversion by anyone else is to be recognised by the government. The registration of an individual in Israel is done by one's religion. It also used to be listed in people's ID cards.
At one point they only put you down as a Jew, if you were a convert, if the conversion was done by or recognised by the Chief Rabbinate. This can also have consequences as to whether converts can get Israeli citizenship. There are two ways of getting Israeli citizenship, the easy way and the hard way. The easy way is if you are a Jew (or married to a Jew or have a Jewish parent or Jewish grandparent), under the Law of Return. (This leniency is because the Nazis persecuted, under the Nuremberg Laws, people with one Jewish grandparent; such people had no place to go then—see the case of the St Louis. The Law of Return was passed soon after this period.)
If you are not a Jew, the process can take many years.
The Law of Return also states the definition of a Jew: someone who was born of a Jewish mother, or has converted to Judaism. It does not state in the law who converts or which rabbinate has carried the conversion out. For many years the State of Israel took the view that it had to be done by an Orthodox rabbinical court. Eventually this was taken to the Supreme Court, which decided this was not what the law said, and therefore a conversion by any rabbinical court would have to be recognised.
This overturning of the law came about because in 1997 there was a case of adopted children, who were non-Jewish. In Israel it's very difficult to adopt a child, so in almost all cases people have to go overseas to do so; they adopt children from Romania, Russia, the Philipines, etc. These children are not Jews. So the parents would take the child to the Chief Rabbinate and ask the child to be converted, and would be refused because the parents were not 100% observant in the Orthodox manner, as the child would not be living a full Jewish life.
(People converted as children are given the opportunity when they reach the age of religious majority (twelve for girls, thirteen for boys) for renouncing their conversion, as it was not carried out with their assent. This is theoretically possible, but never in practice happens.)
This was very problematic, as most people in Israel are not Orthodox and fully observant! Also, at that time you could not complete an adoption unless the child was of the same religion as the parents. A group of these parents came to the Masorti rabbinical court in Israel and asked them to convert their children. They knew that Masorti conversion adhered to all requirements in Jewish law. Their conversion should be recognised by everyone in Israel. The Masorti Beth Din agreed to carry the conversions out, and converted the group, of about fifteen (using the mikva in Kibbutz Ḥanaton).
This became a major cause celèbre in Israel; it was big news in Israel the next day. So the parents took the certificates of conversion to the Ministry of the Interior to have the children registered. The Ministry of the Interior refused, and did not give a reason. After a long time, they gave the reason that they did not recognise conversions not done by the Chief Rabbinate.
At that point the Masorti movement took them to court, because there is no law in Israel saying that conversions carried out by other institutions than the Chief Rabbinate are not valid. The courts took this up (though a verdict would not be reached for several years).
The Orthodox political parties in Israel often play political kingmaker out of relation to their size in terms of making a viable coalition, as they can threaten to pull out of the coalition and bring the government down. When everybody thought they were pretty certain the court would find in the Masorti movement's favour, the Orthodox political parties moved to prevent this from happening by passing a law in the Knesset saying that the State of Israel only recognised conversions carried out by the Chief Rabbinate. They went to the PM, Netanyahu, and threatened to pull out of his coalition if he did ont have this law passed. At the same time, pressures came upon Netanyahu from Jews outside Israel saying: Most of the Jews in our countries are not Orthodox (in the States, only 10% of the Jews are Orthodox); most of the conversions here are performed by non-Orthodox. People who come from these movements.
So Netanyahu was stuck risking to lose the support, important both financially and politically, of the Jews in the Diaspora. But if he did not act, his government would fall. So what did he do? He appointed a committee, the Neeman Commission, to come up with a compromise that would satisfy everyone. It consisted of representatives of Orthodoxy, the Masorti movement and the Reform movement.
The committee met for the best part of a year. Finally it came up with an idea they were all agreed upon they were willing to try on a trial basis, of a year or two, before seeing how it worked. They would establish a joint conversion institute where all the denominations would be involved in the teaching. There would be an agreed-upon curriculum of what you have to teach a convert. Following the period of study, the converts would be turned over to an Orthodox rabbinical court, but which would consist, nevertheless, of rabbis who were much more open and liberal than your typical Orthodox rabbinical court. Thus the Orthodox would be satisfied that the conversion was valid, because it was carried out by an Orthodox בית דין and the non-Orthodox would be satisfied that the rabbinical court was liberal and open enough to accept all of the converts.
This was the compromise agreed upon; the movements agreed that for the trial period they would not carry out their own conversions. But this was dependent upon the agreement of the Chief Rabbinate that they would go through with this, and appoint the liberal—and once it was agreed upon, the Chief Rabbinate pulled out from it, and issued an extreme statement saying they would not cooperate with any other movement; that the Masorti movement was responsible for the destruction of Judaism in the world, and for intermarriage; and that they were worse than the Nazis, as they had destroyed Judaism spiritually.
However, the representatives of certain Orthodox groups, and the Reform and the Masorti decided to start their institute anyway. It has been going ever since, but as it does not have any backing from the Chief Rabbinate, it has not worked out too well. It's been so problematic, R. Hammer wonders whether it is not time to give up the ghost on this.
One place in which this is working, however, is in the Army: There's a lot of non-Jewish soldiers in the army, mostly people from the former Soviet Union. There are in Israel today 250–300,000from the former Soviet Union, who are not halachically Jews: they have Jewish fathers, or are married to Jews. This is a big number—close to a third of all the olim from the former Soviet Union.
This is one of the major reasons that the Neeman Commission came to its compromise: these are people who have to be accommodated one way or another. The government would very much like to have these people made Jewish. But the Chief Rabbinate is not interested, because they are not going to become observant Orthodox Jews. (The Masorti movement recognises that it's not going to be able to convert them all. It would like to concentrate on new recruits into the Army (see below) and couples wishing to get married. If the older couples are never converted, nothing terrible will happen to them.)
Now, the Army has its own chaplaincy court which is not subject to the Chief Rabbinate. It is much more liberal than the Chief Rabbinate, and they have worked out a whole system so that any non-Jewish army recruit is given the option of attending for six months a very intensive course on Judaism, and at the conclusion of that they can present themselves to the Army chaplaincy for conversion, and will be accepted.
So, the Commission came up [lacuna]
So the Masorti Movement went back to court. (The Orthodox parties, however, did not pull out of the government, for whatever reason.) And the Supreme Court found in the Masorti Movement's favour: Any of their converts had to be registered and recognised as Jews. The one thing they did to placate the Chief Rabbinate was to remove the religion clause from the identity card, because they did not want people running around with identity cards saying they were Jewish when they did not recognise them as such.
They have won all these battles so far through the courts. There is one more battle, however, that is yet to be won, and that is of attaining citizenship if you have converted in Israel. There is no problem if you have converted outside Israel; they will be recognised and granted citizenship. However, there are people who are living in Israel who are non-Jewish, who are non-citizens, who want to become Jewish. When we [the Israeli Masorti movement] have converted such people, and they go to the Interior Ministry to become registered or become citizens, they get turned down. Again, they are told the law requires them to recognise people who have been converted outside Israel; it does not require them to recognise people who have been converted in Israel.
The Masorti movement says where does it say that about the law? This situation is ludicrous! So they took them to court. It's been before the court now for two years. Hopefully the court will find in our favour.
The other problem, of course, of recognition by the Orthodox, is not something which can be addressed by the courts inside or outside Israel.
In Israel, all marriages are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate; there's no civil marriage. Anyone who can't be married as such has to go abroad, though their marriage will still be recognised by the Israeli authorities afterwards. This system was inherited from the Ottoman law, where each religion's marriage is handled by that religion's authorities. The British continued that under the League of Nations Mandate; and it is still continued today. But international law requires every country to recognise the legitimacy of marriages carried out in other countries. Otherwise there would be chaos! So Israel has to recognise civil marriages carried out elsewhere—generally Cyprus. The rabbinate will not recognise such marriages, but the civil authorities will.
This happens increasingly. The Masorti movement performs hundreds of weddings every year, both by its members but also by people who ideologically object to the way the Chief Rabbinate carries out marriages—they require you to prove you're Jewish, to attend marriage courses and so forth. But if the Masorti movement performs a [religious] wedding in Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry will not recognise it; so the couple then has to go over to Cyprus to get a civil marriage as well.