A bad idea that won't go away
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 18, 2006
Recent years have witnessed repeated pleas for liberalization of the standards of conversion to Judaism. Most often those demands center on the State of Israel where the Chief Rabbinate still maintains authority over conversions performed in Israel. (Liberalized standards are less of an issue in the rest of the world, where it is always possible to find some "rabbi" to perform the conversion for the right price.)
Proponents of liberalized standards range all the way from those who ostensibly want nothing more than a more welcoming attitude towards converts and fewer bureaucratic hassles to those, like Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, architects of the Oslo process, who have urged the oxymoronic "secular conversion."
In support of liberalized standards, proponents rely on two principle arguments. The first is the necessity of integrating a half a million non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU into the fabric of Israeli life. The second argument centers on the dwindling number of Jews worldwide, and the necessity of encouraging conversion as a means of preventing the disappearance of the Jewish people.
In general, those calling for liberalized standards are not overly concerned with the halachic issues involved. At most, they content themselves with a rhetorical argument: It is unfair to require converts to undertake full halachic observance as a condition of entrance into the Jewish people when the vast majority of halachic Jews themselves do not adhere to halacha.
Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, head of the London Beis Din, incidentally, made short shrift of that argument in a British court more than half a century ago. He pointed out to the judge that the citizenry of England certainly included many common criminals. Nevertheless British authorities would be unlikely to look favorably upon a request for citizenship from someone who listed his profession as swindling or smuggling.
As far as the Torah community is concerned, it is sufficient to note the halachic requirement of kabolas ol mitzvos (acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos) to end all discussion of liberalized standards. As Rabbi Mendel Weinbach noted, at the Eternal Jewish Family conference held in Jerusalem in June, all proposals to change standards of conversion are at root attempts to redefine what it means to be a Jew and to move away from Rav Saadia Gaon’s famous formulation that we are a nation by virtue of the Torah.
That is most obvious in the case of the proposals for secular conversion, which are nothing more than an attempt to equate being Israeli with being Jewish. Proponents of secular conversion invariably offer speaking Hebrew and serving in the Israeli army as examples of qualification for secular conversion.
QUITE APART from the halachic objections, however, the arguments of the proponents fail on their own terms. And it is important to keep pointing that fact out because those arguments will continue to be made and to appeal to many well-intentioned Jews, for they address real issues. The rapidly declining Jewish population is a tragedy – not because numbers have ever been a desideratum for us but because of the potential kedushah lost to the world. And the presence of half a million or more non-Jewish Russian-speakers in Israel is a real problem for a country in which national cohesion is so crucial to its survival.
The solution, however, does not lie in pretending that there is some kind of magical fairy dust that can be sprinkled on 500,000 non-Jewish Russian speakers in order to make them Jewish. The loss to national cohesion resulting from such a fiction would be far greater than any apparent gain.
As long as the rules for determining who is entitled to take part in the discussion are preserved, members of a family or tribe can argue about anything. But if one eccentric aunt adopts her chauffeur and hairdresser, it is unlikely that other family members will recognize any common bond, and further discussion becomes pointless.
For all their vast differences, the Jews of Israel have always recognized some basis of kinship based on common descent from those who stood at Sinai or a commitment to the Torah given at Sinai. But once every group in the Jewish world is permitted to redefine the standards for entry into the Jewish people as they see fit, that binding element is lost, and "Jew" ceases to be a term signifying any connection whatsoever. Open standards for conversion lack both the religious element – a shared commitment to Torah – and the national element – a common history – that have traditionally bound Jews to one another.
Nor can further denuding the term "Jew" of any shared meaning stanch the rapid decline of the world Jewish population. Accounting tricks -- like the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent -- can never work because they do not address the central reason for Jewish demographic decline: Judaism has become something trivial in the eyes of most of those born into the faith. Easy terms of entry only add to that trivialization.
The mainstream Jewish community desperately runs after young Jews, no matter how far they stray and whom they marry, to assure them that they and their children can never escape the fold and are still considered Jews in good standing. But by doing so we just confirm the impression that made marrying another Jew irrelevant to them in the first place – i.e., Judaism is meaningless and not worthy of any sacrifice.
Numerous is not a Jewish standard of evaluation. And the obsession with numbers hides the real issue – the declining quality of Judaism in the lives of most Jews. From quality the numbers will come. But the attempt to artificially increase quantity inevitably dilutes quality and only leads to a further loss of numbers.
A recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post provides a classic example of the patterns of inverted thinking that must be reversed. The subheader read: "Any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish."
As a matter of fact that statement is patently false. The rapid growth of Muslim populations all over the globe owes little to conversion, and a great deal to high birthrates. And on a happier note, the same is true of Orthodox Jews. Indeed demographers predict that by the middle of the century the decline of the Jewish population will bottom out and reverse due to high Orthodox birthrates.
In place of the Jerusalem Post headline quoted above, I would offer a far more defensible rule: A religion whose foundational texts and basic tenets are unknown to most of its members, whose rites and practices are observed by few, and which is of so little significance in its members’ lives that well over 50% marry members of other faiths is fated to diminish.
Such a religion, by the way, will also exercise little appeal for converts. The heterodox branches of Judaism could hardly make "conversion" easier, and yet the rate of conversion among gentile spouses of Jews continues to drop.
My reformulated rule has the advantage of not only being true but of putting the emphasis where it ought to be if we are to address the real demographic threats to the Jewish people.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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