Separating politics from the core conversion issue

Getting to the heart of the conversion matter.

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Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
צילום: PR

Much is published on the question of conversions to Judaism.  In a politically polarized world, in which Israel and America are among the most salient examples, there is a tendency to reduce all discussions on all subjects to politics.  Partisans dig in.  They dig philosophical Maginot lines and Bar-Lev lines, construct fortifications, erect barricades.  Perhaps it is impossible to discuss controversial issues today in any manner that gains a receptive ear from a polar opposite. Yet, herewith an effort to share insight into why conversion to Judaism is controversial.

It is near-impossible for most foreign-born individuals to gain citizenship in the United States without waiting at least five years.  To become an American citizen, one must have had a Permanent Resident card (a “Green card”) for at least five years (or, if a spouse of a United States citizen, for at least three years). The applicant must be at least 18 years old and must demonstrate rudimentary competence in reading, writing, and speaking basic English.  The person must also demonstrate excellent moral character. The applicant must go through a biometrics exam, including invasive fingerprinting and photographing, and an interview. In addition, the applicant must comply with a ten-step process that includes but is not limited to passing the Naturalization exam. That exam consists of ten questions asked at random from a list of 100 possible questions.

If one was fated to be born on American soil, then he or she, under present law, is an American citizen. Likewise, in most cases, if born outside the United States to at least one American parent.

Impressionistic experience suggests that a profoundly large number of native-born American citizens probably would not be able to pass the Naturalization exam if they were stopped on the street at random and asked the questions.  Similarly, other native-born citizens who have been arrested for crimes and misdemeanors would fail the moral character standard. However, citizens need not fear deportation; they are safe by dint of their birth on United States soil. An American citizen, though he or she has faltered gravely, remains an American.

American citizenship is not susceptible to “forum shopping” where a person seeks out a particularly liberal court or judge to confer a citizenship that more severe judges would deny. There is one uniform system throughout the fifty states.
The process of being naturalized culminates with a determination under federal laws codified under Title 8 of the United States Code.  All federal courts and judges are sworn to uphold the same codified federal laws.  Thus, American citizenship is not susceptible to “forum shopping” where a person seeks out a particularly liberal court or judge to confer a citizenship that more severe judges would deny. There is one uniform system throughout the fifty states. As a final step, the naturalized citizen must swear allegiance to the United States and undertake to abide by its laws that are rooted in the American Constitution and further are interpreted, explicated, and have been developed through 227 years of subsequent formal jurisprudence by recognized highest-tier judicial authorities.

Juxtaposed against the American system of naturalization — (i) its 3-5-year waiting period, (ii) its requirement for uniformity in application of the law across the fifty states, (iii) its imposition of higher standards and expectations demanded of outsiders seeking “in” versus its blanket acceptance of those already “in” by dint or “accident” of birth — the process of converting halakhically to Judaism is hardly surprising. 

At its most minimal, a prospective Ger or Giyoret (respectively, male or female convert to Judaism) must study Judaism, learn and practice it well enough to know how to abide by its laws daily for the rest of one’s life, gain facility with the siddur (prayer book) and the many brakhot (expressions of gratitude to G-d) for foods one eats and events one experiences daily, and accept the totality of the Constitution of Judaism: (i) the Written Law that we know as the “Torah” or the “Chumash”; (ii) the Oral Law that emerges primarily from sources in the Mishnah and the Gemara (collectively, the “Talmud”); and (iii) the further interpretation, explication, and development through 2,000 years of subsequent formal jurisprudential interpretation by recognized highest-tier rabbinic authorities.

America’s challenge has been to maintain one American People across a vast continent marked by different dialects (e.g., accents and usages that differ from Boston to Brooklyn to Chicago and Cleveland to Montgomery and New Orleans), different political and social currents (e.g., the Northeast versus the Deep South versus the Midwest), and so many other cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial differences that have taken hold over two centuries. 

Judaism’s challenge has been to maintain one Jewish People across the entirety of the globe marked by different dialects (Sephardic Spanish-Portuguese, Yemenite, other Sephardic North African, Persian, Galitzianer East European, Ashkenazic German, etc.), different political and social currents (e.g., Sephardim shaped under centuries of subtle Islamic influences, Ashkenazim shaped under centuries of subtle Christian influences, German Jews impacted by Nineteenth Century reform and reaction, East Europeans impacted by centuries of ghetto and self-rule amid Tsars and pogroms, Sephardim impacted by alternating periods of Golden Ages offset by Dhimmi restrictions), and so many other cultural (e.g., North African polygamy versus Christian Europe monogamy), religious (e.g., Karaite versus Masorite, Reform versus Orthodox, Hassidism versus Lithuanian), ethnic and racial (e.g., Yemenite, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazic European) differences that have taken hold over two millennia. 

Thus, Nations and Peoples define their identities’ cores and rubrics, and they require outsiders to accept upon themselves unifying standards when entering.  By contrast, it is impracticable and destabilizing for a Nation or People regularly to subject its own members to possible expulsion when transgressing the cores and rubrics.  In rare cases, an American may renounce citizenship or, if deemed a traitor, possibly be denaturalized. In rare cases, a Jew may be placed in cherem (often translated problematically as “excommunication” but more akin to “communal isolation”).  However, by and large, those born into the People, albeit by dint or “accident” of birth, are in for perpetuity, subject to penalty but not expulsion for violations, however grievous.  Thus, a Jew, though he or she falter, remains a Jew. By contrast, outsiders must meet the heightened standards and expectations for entering the community without diluting the defining core. Once in, they are in and their future children inherit their newly attained status.

At the heart of contemporary controversies over Judaic conversion lies that defining core.  For the Judaism of the Torah — the Judaism that defines itself by a People who observe the Shabbat on the Seventh Day by resting from the 39 forms of activity that are proscribed by the Oral Law and the Written Law and that have been interpreted, explicated, and developed for modernity by recognized highest-tier rabbinic authorities (the “Halakhic Mesorah Process”); a People who conform their diets to the regulations and restrictions of the kosher laws as under the Halakhic Mesorah (Tradition) Process; a People who conduct their society in accordance with that same Halakhic Mesorah Process — the conversion process contemplates not only the very important externally symbolic actions of immersing in a kosher mikveh and a converting male undergoing ritual (not medical) circumcision (“brit milah” or “bris”) but also full and complete acceptance of the Judaic Constitution: the Oral Law, the Written Law, and the Halakhic Mesorah Process.

Through the 1960s or so, there was not an overwhelming intermarriage process in the United States. Jews in America still were deemed the “Other.”  The Academy Award-winning film “Gentleman’s Agreement” powerfully depicted this phenomenon in the 1950s.  Major corporations, law firms, and leading universities severely limited Jewish access. Jews in Hollywood, to succeed, had to Americanize their names (e.g., Betty Perske to “Lauren Bacall,” Bernie Schwartz to “Tony Curtis,” Jacob Cohen to “Rodney Dangerfield”). People knew about outlier famous glamorous female celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor — marrying accomplished Jewish men, and they would approach one or another Reform “Rabbi to the Stars” for a quick conversion.  (Occasionally, a male celebrity, too, like Sammy Davis, Jr.) But the Jewish world knew who they were, and no one was surprised when, soon enough after, the celebrity was proceeding to marry one or more non-Jewish spouses thereafter.  At bottom, though, people in the Judaic world knew who really was Jewish and who was not.

Over the past half century, however, the demographics have transmogrified radically in the United States. For example, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews now marry non-Jews.  The majority of those intermarriages pair a Jewish male with a non-Jewish female. The children of intermarried non-Jewish females who choose not to convert to Judaism are, by Judaic definition, non-Jewish.  (See. e.g., Kiddushin 68b.) However, Reform rabbis have declared that such children may be declared “Jewish” if the fathers say they will be reared as Jews. To the degree that some other intermarried non-Jewish females do choose to undergo a non-halakhic Reform or Conservative “conversion,” those processes forthrightly do not include acceptance of the Judaic Constitution — the Oral Law, the Written Law, and the Halakhic Mesorah Process — thus relegating those “converts” to the same non-Jewish status from which they begin.  Again, then, their children are non-Jewish, but their movements or “denominations” certify them as Jews.

It is against that backdrop that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate suddenly has had to ferret through the “conversion conundrum” from across the Atlantic
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate suddenly has had to ferret through the “conversion conundrum” from across the Atlantic that even the American Orthodox rabbinate now finds utterly confounding in its own backyard. 
that even the American Orthodox rabbinate now finds utterly confounding in its own backyard.  Whereas there are no American federal judges naturalizing people who refuse to swear adherence to the American way of life, there are hundreds of Reform and Conservative rabbis in America who, throughout the past half century, have been certifying people as “converted Jews” even though those individuals have made no pretense that they will live by and undertake to adhere to the Judaic Constitution: the Oral Law, the Written Law, and the Halakhic Mesorah Process. 

For that reason, American Orthodox rabbis now are compelled to require evidence that a prospective marrying couple whom they do not otherwise know first-hand are the children of Jewish mothers . . . who themselves were born to Jewish mothers . . . or who converted to Judaism in accordance with the unifying Judaic standard that includes fealty to and endeavoring to live one’s life by the Judaic Constitution: the Oral Law, the Written Law, and the Halakhic Mesorah Process. Regretfully, the same investigation now even must precede admitting a child into an Orthodoz Jewish Day School or synagogue bar/bat mitzvah program.

For the same reason, it understandably no longer suffices in most cases for a person to present paper work in America signed even by an “Orthodox rabbi.” The Israeli Chief Rabbinate cannot possibly know every ordained Orthodox rabbi in the United States — there are thousands. Moreover, not all Orthodox rabbis are of one stripe.  Different theologies have evolved in America, even among the subset of rabbis who present themselves as “Orthodox.” 

For example, there are prominent “ordained Orthodox rabbis” in America who have published beliefs that the Torah contains fictions — e.g., that Abraham never existed, that the Torah’s Exodus narrative is not factual.  There are those who have published that it is time to accept theological intermarriage. Those that are married to wives who have given newspaper interviews stating that they are non-Orthodox rabbis or cantors or even atheist. Those who maintain that non-Orthodox conversions are equally valid in defining Jews. Those who question the longing for the restoration of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem. Those who deny other core Judaic teachings.

That rejection by those “ordained Orthodox rabbis” of aspects of the Oral Law or the Halakhic Mesorah process is their absolute legitimate American right. Yet, such “ordained Orthodox rabbis” cannot gain admission into the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) nor into any other of the mainstream normative Orthodox rabbinic bodies. Not because of “politics” but because of core Judaic defining issues regarding faith and adherence to Torah practice and belief.

If an “ordained Orthodox rabbi” himself is not an adherent of the tripartite system rooted in the Oral Law, the Written Law, and the Halakhic Mesorah Process, it is impossible objectively to know whether that rabbi required his “converts” to adhere and to believe.  Did the rabbi require the “convert” to state that he or she believes unequivocally that every word of the Written Torah was spoken by G-d to Moshe? That every requirement of the Oral Law was taught by G-d to Moshe on Mount Sinai and is incumbent on all Judaic generations to the degree practicable? That the Halakhic Mesorah Process is part and parcel of that Judaic Constitution, as exemplified by our reciting in our blessings that G-d commanded us to light the Menorah, to read the Megillah, to wash and elevate our hands before eating bread — even though all these “commandments by G-d” were enacted by Chazal (the Rabbinic Sages) by dint of the authority conferred on them by the Halakhic Mesorah Process?

To the degree that an “Orthodox rabbinic ordination” does not in itself gain its holder admission into the Agudath Israel rabbinate, the RCA, the National Council of Young Israel rabbinate, or the Rabbinical Alliance of America, it is understandable that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, taking its cue from the official Orthodox rabbinates in America, would hesitate to certify many “American Orthodox conversions” without first investigating further — just as American Orthodox rabbis ourselves now proceed with a caution and trepidation that was much less necessary half a century ago.

When a private rabbi or panel conducts a decentralized “Orthodox conversion,” that conversion is not by definition invalid; rather, it is subject to a reasonble investigation thereafter to determine who the panel were and what conversion standards they employed. And it is for that reason that American Orthodox conversion, which still was almost uniformly decentralized as recently as three decades ago, now is substantially centralized through certain national bodies like the RCA’s Gerut Policies and Standards (“GPS”) protocol with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Those are the issues, concerns, and circumstances as the contemporary Torah society endeavors to preserve the core of the Judaic mission.