Clearing the air
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 12, 1998
We all owe Uri Regev, head of the Reform Movement's Religious Action
Center, a debt of gratitude. Writing two weeks ago in this paper, Regev succeeded in clearing away the obfuscations that have clouded the conversion issue in Israel for the past year.
For more than a year, the Conservative and Reform movements have claimed that they were prepared to accept the religious courts of the Chief Rabbinate having the final authority over conversion in return for some involvement in the educational process leading up to conversion. Regev has now made it clear that he envisioned the Chief Rabbinate as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the converts brought before it. Once he realized that the current chief rabbis take seriously their duty to scrutinize candidates on an individual basis, the deal was off.
Thus Regev writes that we need two types of conversion: One for people who wish to accept upon themselves the yoke of mitzvot and one for those who don't. Without the latter, he argues, some who wish to call themselves Jewish will not be able to do so - heaven forfend.
Regev simultaneously accuses the chief rabbis of being too strict and too lenient, correctly noting that in the past many insincere converts were processed through the Chief Rabbinate. But his charge of hypocrisy rings hollow - roughly comparable to arguing that because some people speed without being caught, we should abolish speed limits.
At bottom, what he rejects is not that the Chief Rabbinate may have failed in the past, but that it means to correct those failures today. There is no serious halachic dispute about the halachic standards binding the chief rabbis. The Talmud (Bechorot 30b) states that a non-Jew who rejects even one mitzva is not to be accepted, and the requirement of acceptance of mitzvot has been viewed as axiomatic by the full spectrum of halachic authorities throughout the ages, including in recent times Rabbi Avraham Kook and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
Former chief rabbi Isaac Herzog argued that our scrutiny of would-be converts must be more rigorous today than in the past. Formerly it could be assumed that anyone joining the Jewish community would keep the mitzvot because not doing so would have caused him to be disdained and despised. Today, when non-observance is so widespread, there can be no such presumption of sincerity.
Apparently, in Regev's view, God got it all wrong by making it difficult to become a Jew. A well-known midrash relates that before God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, he first offered it to all the nations of the world. Esau asked what was in the Torah. Informed of the prohibition against murder, he replied that murder is part of their way of life and rejected the Torah. Amnon and Moav reacted similarly when they learned of the prohibition against adultery, and Ishmael to the prohibition against theft. Only the Jews answered without inquiring into the contents, 'We shall do and we shall hear."
FOLLOWING Regev, God should have offered to strike the offending portions from the Torah rather than deny anyone the opportunity to be Jewish. But Judaism has never been an open-admission club, nor have we historically sought converts. Our
tenacity as a people owes, in large part, to our strenuous efforts to preserve inviolate the identity of the Jew.
We are not racists; we do not worship gene pools. All who sincerely wish to bind themselves to the faith community of Israel, as our ancestors did at Sinai, are welcome and even honored. But joining the Jewish people is not easy; nor was it meant to be.
The Talmud forbids the acceptance of converts for ulterior reasons, such as marriage. During the reigns of David and Solomon, when the Jewish kingdom was blessed with economic prosperity and military success, no converts were accepted because there could be no assurance of their sincerity.
What Regev proposes would effectively allow anyone who woke up one morning feeling Jewish to declare, 'Hallelujah, I'm a Jew.' What, realistically, is added by a requirement to appear before three people bearing pieces of paper with the title 'rabbi,' who perform intermarriages or same-sex marriages for a fee.
An institutional framework - Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative - is meaningless in terms of establishing standards. Nothing is more sacrosanct to Reform Judaism than the autonomy of individual rabbi to follow his own lights. There are many more Jews active in cults than members of the Reconstructionist movement, which is barely 40 years old. If a cult member proclaims his own brand of Judaism and gives his followers 'semiha,' on what basis would their 'conversions' be rejected?
Our common Jewishness reveals itself by the day to have less and less power to unify the citizens of Israel. But whatever unifying power remains will be completely vitiated by making Judaism simply a synonym for being Israeli and a certificate of conversion just another perk for those admitted under the Law of Return.
If that occurs, we will do for Israel what patrilineal descent did for America -create two totally separate communities that cannot even agree on each other's Jewishness.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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