Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven PruzanskyCourtesy

If, as Minister Matan Kahana, and supporters of his conversion reforms, repeatedly state, their proposals to transform the nature of conversions in Israel are “al pi halakhah” (according to Jewish law), why then would the heads of the three leading mainstream Rabbinic courts in the United States oppose these reforms?

This is no small matter. The opposition of the leaders of the rabbinic courts (the Beth Din of America, the Chicago Bet Din and the California Bet Din), not to mention that of the Haredi and Yeshivish rabbinic establishments in America, carries the implication that the bulk of Orthodox Jewry in America will not accept Israeli conversions under the proposed law. That prospect foreshadows such an unimaginable rupture between the Jewish people in Israel and those in the Diaspora that one hopes saner minds will prevail. But why is there such antagonism to these reforms if they are “al pi halakhah”?

The obvious answer is that “al pi halakhah” is a mantra that has been poll-tested and approved by a public relations firm as the means to persuade the multitudes who do not want to delve into the details. It is a clever ruse. There are many practices that could be justified as “al pi halakhah” that would render Judaism unrecognizable. Common practice and the Mesorah reject them. There are innumerable opinions in the Talmud, rishonim (early authorities) and acharonim (later authorities) that are part and parcel of the halakhic system (“al pi halakhah”) but are never practiced because they were not accepted as authoritative.

I hesitate to give examples so as not to encourage spiritually reckless behavior but suffice it to say, one who drinks a cup of milk after eating a steak served to him by his concubine while he is bareheaded could make a plausible case that what he is doing is “al pi halakhah.” But we would rightfully rebuke such an individual as a bad Jew and banish him from Jewish life, if we could.

We do not assert that deviations from traditional Jewish practice are “al pi halakhah” and abstain from providing details. Unfortunately, in this case, “al pi halakhah” is being used as an advertising slogan but carries no substance when the details (sparse as they are) are analyzed. Waving the magic wand of conversion over thousands of people who are Israelis but uninterested in living a Jewish life mocks Judaism and the Torah which we hold dear.

The proposed reforms invariably include a dilution of standards of conversion that have been practiced for generations. To be sure, there have been lenient opinions as well, but those lenient opinions were meant to deal with extraordinary situations (usually in the exile) and were never meant to be mainstreamed, certainly not in the Jewish state of Israel.

To convert people who have no intention of observing Shabbat, kashrut or the laws of family purity – because their neighbors, friends and relatives who were born Jews do not – falls far short of the historical standard of conversion. After all, conversion is not the process by which we inflate the number of Jews in the world. Conversion is intended to augment the number of “avdei Hashem” – divine servants – in our midst. There is not even the slightest intimation that the new conversion standards will produce more avdei Hashem. Instead, it is admittedly intended to solve a social problem – what to do with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Halakhah?

A woman completes her conversion to Judaism at a Jerusalem Bet Din
A woman completes her conversion to Judaism at a Jerusalem Bet DinFlash 90

Conversion to Judaism requires true commitment, not the waving of a magic wand and the distribution of a certificate. For seven years, I headed the Bet Din L’giyur in Bergen County, New Jersey (included in our jurisdiction was New Jersey, upstate New York and much of Pennsylvania). Nothing was more rewarding, even thrilling, than bringing a human being, enthralled by the majesty of Torah and the grand epic of Jewish history, under the wings of the divine presence. Not every candidate was accepted. Some just could not assume the commitment to mitzvot that is expected of every Jew. But many could and did, and we are a better nation because of them.

People often ask, why can't the convert be held to the same standards of observance as is the born Jew who is unobservant?

But we do know the difference between the citizen and the alien. An American citizen, for example, is not stripped of his or her citizenship because of criminal behavior or even rejection of the US Constitution. But a foreigner will not be accepted for citizenship if such a person is a criminal or refuses to faithfully uphold the laws of the country.

Becoming a Jew has different criteria than being a Jew. To ignore those prerequisites, for social reasons, cheapens Judaism and obviously will not be accepted by most religious Jews here or abroad.

And what of the argument that there are so many immigrants who are not Jews but will marry Jews? What can be done to stem the tide of intermarriage in Israel?

That question can be turned on its head in two ways. First, what does it say about the quality of the Jewish education in the Jewish state that a young man or woman can be educated here for 20-25 years, and live in an environment in which observance of mitzvot is facilitated – and still have no qualms about marrying a Gentile? Is Jewish – not Israeli – but Jewish identity so shallow and meaningless that there is such a pervasive failure to inculcate the basics of Jewish life and how the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Biblical and prophetic visions returned to the land of Israel after nineteen centuries of exile? Is the secular school system so devoid of Jewish content that Judaism is ignored, trifled or dismissed? That educational bankruptcy is a colossal catastrophe, with the attendant results before our eyes.

Conversely, what does it say about the nature of religious Jewish life in Israel that after an immigrant, or child of an immigrant, lives here for decades, he or she is unmoved by the sight of religious Jews and knows nothing about the sweetness of Torah, the joy of mitzvot, and the meaningfulness of Jewish life? That too is a failure, and, among other things, we are harmed by religious Knesset members who scream, shout and hurl invectives at others, and thereby tarnish the Torah.

Ideally, it should be impossible for anyone to live in Israel and not want to run to convert to be part of the Jewish nation. And yet, although some are running, most are not even walking.

Indeed, it is a problem, but conversion should be the affirmative acceptance of Judaism and never just a technical means of avoiding intermarriage. If it would be the latter, then we can solve the intermarriage problem in America (73% outside the Orthodox world) by just declaring that anyone who marries a Jew is Jewish by definition. Undoubtedly, some would claim such a process is also “al pi halakhah” because it is meritorious to be part of the Jewish people. But that too would not be sanctioned pursuant to Jewish law.

Most troubling is the proposal to convert non-Jewish children by the thousands even if neither of their parents are Jewish! Traditionally, there has been a dispute over the level of observance of parents if a child is not Jewish (adopted, or the mother converted not according to Halakhah). For example, the Rabbinical Council of America’s “Gerut Policies and Standards” (which I helped draft) requires the parents to be Shabbat and kashrut observant, belong to an Orthodox shul within walking distance and commit to send that child to yeshiva. But to convert a child of two non-Jewish parents?? The child then has almost no chance of living a Jewish life. The end result is the creation of a Jew on paper who will be rejected as Jewish by the overwhelming majority of religious Jews.

The conversion of a child, too young to make a free-willed choice, is done “al daat Bet Din,” on the authority of the Jewish court that assumes the child will be raised observant. In such a case, conversion is a zchut, a benefit for the soon-to-be-observant child, and we can confer a benefit on someone even against their will. But traditionally, converting a child who will not be observant is not a benefit but a hardship and a hindrance. What advantage is it to welcome to the Jewish people a future Shabbat desecrator, put in that position entirely against his or her will? There is a minority opinion, being relied on in these reforms, that it is always a benefit to be part of the Jewish people. That is a minority opinion, but minority opinions should not affect mainstream practice, and as noted above, would render Judaism unrecognizable if universally implemented.

The long term solution to the problem of halakhic non-Jews in the land of Israel involves education, outreach, kindness, friendliness, warmth and exuding the attractiveness of Torah. Not everyone will convert, of course, but many would, if they realized the beauty of Shabbat instead of fearing it and the bright light of mitzvot instead of perceiving only restrictions. In fact, all Israelis could benefit from this, even those born Jews.

The consequences of these conversion reforms, if passed, will be dire. It is not just the split that will occur in the Jewish world. The current assault on Jewish identity arising from a number of different areas could lead even religious Jews to clamor for a separation of religion and state in Israel. Who, indeed, wants the government to decide questions of Jewish law instead of the Chief Rabbinate? Not me.

And once Israel ceases to be a Jewish state in everything but name, the road is then paved for the realization of the leftist fantasy of the state of Israel-Palestine, one state for all its citizens, which snuffs out the Zionist dream and derails (temporarily) the prophetic vision.

It certainly sounds farfetched, and I don’t suspect many of the people leading the charge for these reforms of harboring such motives. But follow the money, see the groups who are funding the de-Judaization of Israel, and it might not be so implausible after all.

Let us arrest the decline in Jewish life, provide positive images of Torah and its adherents, re-affirm our commitment to the Jewish state and its sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and the problem will ultimately solve itself.

Rabbi Steven Pruzanskywas a pulpit rabbi in America for 35 years and lives now in Israel where he serves as Israel Region Vice-President of the Coalition for Jewish Values.