Conversion: Who is the Gate Keeper

June 27, 2011Rabbi Peter Knobel

I just had the privilege of representing the Reform movement on a panel "Conversion: Who Is the Gate Keeper of the Jewish Nation" at the Israeli President's Conference in Jerusalem, Facing Tomorrow.  These are my opening remarks:

The time has come to finally recognize the religious streams as the gatekeepers of the Jewish people.  The current situation is alienating Jews in the tefusot (Diaspora). Conversion is significant for Jewish continuity in Diaspora.

There is no possibility for a unified solution to gerut (conversion). I want to emphasize that, if we had any doubts in the past, it is now clear that, even without Reform and Conservative, Orthodoxy has no unified solution to gerut, and the sociological and political reality in Israel is clearly indicating that within the Orthodox camp, it's the Haredim (ultra Orthodox) that will be dictating the script, and they are already repeatedly nullifying and challenging more moderate and inclusive Orthodox conversions. The failure of the Neeman Commission1 and the divisiveness of the Rotem bill2 are the result of Haredi desire to control the conversion process.

It is time to end the Chief Rabbinate as we know it The clear fact is that not only are they not the chief rabbis for world Jewry, if it weren't for political deals they would not be the chief rabbis of Israelis either! They certainly do not speak for most Israelis religiously, nor for world Jewry.

As in the tefusot (Diaspora) the streams have found ways to cooperate. I believe that must become the model for Israel as well. We are one people even if there is more than one way to enter.  We share a common fate.  I want to cite the important insight of Rav Soloveitchik, one of the great lights of American Orthodoxy.

For Soloveitchik, the shared suffering and common historical fate of the Jewish people represent what he calls brit goral, a covenant of destiny, which is the foundation for the important halakhic category of collective responsibility, kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh. (All Israel are responsible one for the other.) Care for others, feelings of empathy, and a sense of solidarity are not secular categories in Soloveitchik's appreciation of halakhic Judaism. Indeed, the covenant of Sinai requires that the covenantal community have a deep sense of solidarity. Political action that seeks to achieve a secure home for the Jews, thereby giving dignity and new vitality to Jewish communal life and identity, thus acquires religious significance and can be understood as mirroring God's providential love for Israel." (David Hartman, Living Covenant)

Let me repeat: we are one people even if there is more than one way to enter.

This leads to one inevitable conclusion. Each of the streams should be able to perform weddings in Israel.  Civil marriage should be instituted as well. If any of the streams can work out the mutual recognition of their gerim (converts), Kol hakavod (great), but this should take place outside of negotiations with the government. Those who chose to be machmir (strict), and exclude potential converts, will be machmir, and those who choose to be meikil (lenient) and inclusive, they will do so. Those who find a way to be machmir and inclusive, they will do so.

Recent polls in Israel including people who identify themselves as dati (Orthodox) support the recognition of all gerim. .In fact, 75% of the Jewish public [including 59% of those who define themselves as "religious"] opposes nullification of conversions or of making them conditional on observance of Sabbath and Kashrut.  Moreover, 66% of the public supports a joint battle of Israeli and Diaspora leaders to gain equal recognition of conversions in Israel, done by all the major religious streams, and 84% of the public maintain that the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinic courts "failed" [42%] or "weren't very successful" [42%] in meeting the historic challenge of making conversion viable to more than 300,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halakhicly Jewish. This view is shared by 76% of the respondents who identified themselves as "religious."  The Smith Institute poll, commissioned by Hiddush, was based on 500 respondents, a representative sample of the adult Jewish population of Israel.  Even a poll commissioned last year by the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, showed that 63% of Israeli Jews accept as Jews those who converted Reform and Conservative.

Torah cannot and should not be used as an instrument of coercion. Not only will it not work, it is reminiscent of some of the things that are practiced by other fundamentalist regimes, and it is backfiring and causing alienation from both Torah and Judaism. If the Torah is to be an Etz Chayim (a tree of life), then it must be "deracheiha darchei noam vekol netivoteha shalom," all it's ways must be ways of pleasantness and all its paths peace.

Finally it is time for mutual respect.  We can longer tolerate Israeli government practices that delegitimize segments of the Jewish community.  It is clear that every time there is an effort to delegitimize the Jews of tefusot, we unite to prevent it. With so many who want to delegitimize Israel and with rise of the new anti-Semitism, why do we want to exclude those who wish to share our destiny?

  1. The Neeman Commission produced a plan to have the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements cooperate in preparing candidates for conversion, with the conversion itself held under Orthodox auspices.
  2. The Rotem Conversion Bill proposes to give the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Knobel is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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