There's Room for Flexibility

If we are to develop a formula for conversion acceptable to all the Jewish movements, everyone will need to take a step toward the middle.

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This opinion piece was written in 1997, when controversy raged in Israel over whose conversions were acceptable to the Israeli rabbinate. Although the conversion issue in Israel has moved somewhat to the back burner, this article's exploration of the possibilities for flexibility within the Jewish legal system and among the different Jewish movements remains applicable today, both in Israel and America. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma, October 31, 1997.

It is high time the Jewish people determines if we wish to stand united or come untied. On the secular side, Zeev Chafets speaks of separate states of Judea and Israel for the religious and the secular, and on the religious side, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi and Shas mentor Ovadia Yosef proclaims publicly that "a Jew who desecrates Shabbat is to be considered the same as a goy [a non-Jew]." Such divisiveness has never been our salvation.

We need to seek a formula for reuniting this people. Because conversion is one area where disagreement between the movements is significant, it serves well as an example of what might be done if antagonists decided to seek the center.

What Does Jewish Law Require?

Conversion requires four things, according to halakhah--Jewish law--(the following rules may be found in greater detail in Maimonides, Hilkhot Issurei Biah 13-14 and Caro, Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 268):

    1.        the desire to convert, with a willingness to share Israel's destiny and commandedness;

    2.        circumcision;

    3.        immersion;

    4.        a sacrifice.

Sacrifice is no longer possible but the Talmud finds specific textual support in Numbers 15:14 to nonetheless allow conversion "throughout your generations."

Although the technical requirements of circumcision for males and immersion for both males and females certainly come into play, stipulating conditions for the fulfillment of these requirements that would be acceptable to the various parties would not be difficult. Most Reform rabbis who do not standardly perform immersion would likely agree to do so within a grand entente that sanctioned Reform conversions performed according to common guidelines. It is, rather, the first requirement that is the seat of unremitting debate, and this too, I suggest, is open for a settlement, as the law is written, were there a desire to agree.

Understanding the Objections

The primary objections to liberal conversions by Orthodox parties are three: that a full commitment to observance of all the commandments is not received prior to conversion; that all too often conversion is for ulterior motives, such as marriage, and therefore is halakhically unacceptable; and that the makeup of the rabbinic court [or beit din] accepting the convert is not  acceptable. None of these requirements is unalterably dispositive in the laws, as written. I quote from Shulhan Arukh 268:

"Then they [the court] inform him of the fundamentals of the faith, that is, the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and they go into this at length. Then they inform him of a few of the simple commandments and a few of the weighty commandments, and inform him of some of the punishment for (transgression of) the commandments. They do not overdo this, do not get into all the details."

Here, the greater concern is for the principles of the faith, its theory, and the lesser concern is for its details. It is axiomatic that one cannot agree to what one has not heard, and yet the court is urged not to overburden the willing convert with detail. Rather, it is asked simply to set out the broad strokes, and to do so attractively, for the impetus to conversion has already been established.

"If he accepts, they circumcise him immediately...and afterward he is immersed properly ...with three attending him.... Since he has immersed, he is like any Jew."

The challenge in this law is to construe "acceptance." One court may seek stringently to demand a perfect commitment to action, even a substantial trial period. While that runs afoul of the instruction to perform said conversion "immediately," such a construction is possible. But another court may have substantially different operating assumptions. The extension of the courtesy to accept as binding the deeds of courts with which one does not fully agree is standard Orthodox practice.

Options for Leniency

The second Orthodox objection to liberal conversions is that, too often, marriage is an ulterior motive that vitiates the conversion. Yet non-Orthodox denominations speak openly of conversion as a defense of last resort against an intermarriage. This appears to me to be a worthy substantive debate, but the text of the law as codified in the Shulhan Arukhis instructive.

"When a person comes to convert, [the court] inquires lest it is because of money that he stands to receive or an office he might attain, or on account of fear...and if he is male they inquire if he is enamored of a Jewish woman, or if she is female they inquire if she is enamored of Jewish males. If no ulterior motive is found, then they inform him of the weight of the yoke of Torah and the burden of its fulfillment for simple folk, so that he might be dissuaded. If he accepts, and is not dissuaded, and they see that his decision is taken with love, they accept him."

This section appears to lend credence to the notion that the court should take a tough stand on the matter of ulterior motives for conversion. But the text's continuation places it in a very different light.

"But if they did not inquire or did not inform him of the reward for [observance of] the commandments or the punishment [for nonobservance], and he was circumcised and immersed before three laymen--he is nevertheless a convert, even if it is known that he had an ulterior motive for converting, since he circumcised and immersed he has left the class of gentiles…. Even if he returned to idolatry, he is like a Jewish apostate.…"

The extent to which the court must go in investigating motives is, it seems, a matter in which some discretion is allowed, since the law allows that any conversion is valid. While it is not desirable to reduce all conversion to the lowest denominator permitted by the law, there is ample room here for one Jewish court to tolerate the principled decisions of another, for, as the code clearly implies--all conversions are valid.

Redefining Wickedness

This leaves the third, and most pernicious, area of disagreement in the religious arena today. Following the lead of R. Moses Feinstein, the ultra-Orthodox have found that no Conservative or Reform Jew may serve on a rabbinic court, regardless of his level of personal observance, since the fact of aligning with those movements is a disqualification from giving reliable testimony or serving as a judge.

This position, too, has some basis in law, if we choose to interpret it restrictively. I note that a court for conversion does not require rabbis, but rather laymen fit to serve as judges. One disqualification is wickedness, a standard measure of which is the non-observance of Shabbat. One could, certainly, rule that all those who, for instance, drive cars on Shabbat, are ipso facto within the legal category of the wicked. That would exclude most Reform and Conservative Jews from serving on a court and, again according to law, the whole class of Reform and Conservative Jews could be judged unfit by association with its majority.

But that is not the only possible construction, and the test of our intentions is precisely whether we seek interpretations that allow all of Jewry to recognize one another or whether we hanker for a split. In 1946, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, then Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled in a case that sought to invalidate a marriage witnessed by secu!ar Jews that indeed they should be viewed as reliable witnesses. Uziel's argument was that, in light of rampant transgression of those commandments between man and God, and since the intention of the law was to class as wicked and therefore unreliable only those who were in fact disreputable, the court should accept all testimony that they determine to be reliable. That remained, until quite recently, the regnant position of Israel's rabbinical courts.

Thus it is not only not difficult, but it is in large measure the presumption of the law as written, that there must be flexibility and tolerance of significant differences in judgment built into the legal system. I think this is not an accident. It is certainly a test of whether we desire to see Jewry united or whether we prefer to see it sundered in the name of purity. I pray that all of us, not least the State of Israel and its rabbinical hierarchy, retreat from the brink and seek conciliation.

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Dr. Avram I. Reisner

Dr. Avram Israel Reisner is a teacher and lecturer in Baltimore, MD. He is a member of the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards.