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:

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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.