Con­vert­ing mi­nors to solve Is­rael’s con­ver­sion cri­sis

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM -

There are cur­rently 6.6 mil­lion Is­raelis who iden­tify as Jewish. Within that group, some­where be­tween 375,000 to 400,000 are not rec­og­nized as Jewish un­der Or­tho­dox Jewish law be­cause they were not born to a Jewish mother (ac­cord­ing to Or­tho­dox stan­dards) or did not un­dergo con­ver­sion through an Or­tho­dox rab­binic court. This means that roughly 1/20th of the coun­try’s “Jewish” cit­i­zens may not marry a bona fide Jew through the Is­raeli Chief Rab­binate, even though these cit­i­zens are fully in­te­grated cul­tur­ally into the school sys­tem, army and work­force.

This group of “cul­tur­ally Jewish Is­raelis,” if you will, comes from a va­ri­ety of back­grounds. They in­clude chil­dren of Is­raeli men who met non-Jewish women abroad; ba­bies born to Is­raelis through sur­ro­gacy in for­eign coun­tries; and some Ethiopian im­mi­grants, whose in­di­vid­ual sta­tus as Jews may be un­clear for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Most promi­nently, this in­cludes im­mi­grants from the for­mer Soviet Union and their de­scen­dants, who ar­rived un­der the Law of Re­turn, which only re­quires one Jewish grand­par­ent.

While many suc­ceed in prov­ing their Jewish lin­eage through projects like Tzo­har’s Sho­rashim in­sti­tute, oth­ers can­not. More­over, many im­mi­grants ar­rive as spouses or rel­a­tives of these cit­i­zens with no pre­tenses of be­ing Jewish. Roughly 6,000 new im­mi­grants ar­rive each year with this doubtful sta­tus (or as un­ques­tion­able gen­tiles with Is­raeli rel­a­tives), while an­other 4,000 are born each year. In con­trast, Is­rael’s con­ver­sion au­thor­ity con­verts ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 cit­i­zens each year. Ac­cord­ingly, Is­raeli so­ci­ety is rapidly grow­ing two types of “Jewish Is­raeli” pop­u­la­tions. Ei­ther these groups will co­habit or marry out­side the rab­binate, lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­mar­riage, or they will not, lead­ing to greater fis­sures within Is­rael’s sen­si­tive so­cial fab­ric.

To pro­vide a so­lu­tion, Is­rael founded a Con­ver­sion Au­thor­ity in 1995 to in­crease the num­ber of con­ver­sions. The prob­lem, how­ever, is that many of these Is­raelis have no in­ter­est in meet­ing the stan­dards of ob­ser­vance re­quired for con­ver­sion ac­cord­ing to the ma­jor­ity of Or­tho­dox rab­bis, which in­cludes kab­balat mitzvot, sin­cere ac­cep­tance to abide by Jewish law.

To pre­vent in­ter­mar­riage in the early 20th cen­tury, some fig­ures like rab­bis Chaim Grodzin­sky, David Tzvi Hoff­man and Ben­zion Uziel le­niently ruled that we may con­vert those who gen­er­ally in­tend to ob­serve the ba­sic facets of Jewish law, even if their per­for­mance will be lack­lus­ter in cer­tain ar­eas. Yet most de­cisors, like Rabbi Moshe Fe­in­stein, have ar­gued that Jewish law re­quires sin­cere in­tent to com­pletely ob­serve Jewish law, which is the po­si­tion of the cur­rent Is­raeli Chief Rab­binate.

Kab­balat mitzvot raises a prob­lem with con­vert­ing chil­dren who are pre­sumed not to have the in­tel­lect nec­es­sary to take upon this re­spon­si­bil­ity. The Tal­mud as­serts that the ju­di­cial court serves as their guardian and can ac­cept for them this cat­e­gor­i­cal ben­e­fit. Once reach­ing the age of ma­jor­ity, the child can the­o­ret­i­cally repu­di­ate their Jewish­ness, but is pre­sumed to con­sent un­less oth­er­wise stated. This pa­ter­nal­is­tic ap­proach has been chal­lenged re­gard­ing chil­dren of in­ter­mar­ried cou­ples where the child would be raised in a non-ob­ser­vant home, thereby set­ting him or her up to sin and be­come li­able for pun­ish­ment.

When ad­dress­ing cases in the Di­as­pora, fig­ures like rab­bis Ye­hiel Wein­berg and Abra­ham Kook as­serted that con­ver­sions in these cases should not be done and would not be ac­cepted even post facto. They con­tended that courts who per­form such con­ver­sions will only cre­ate chaos re­gard­ing per­sonal sta­tus while fur­ther re­mov­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant so­cial sanc­tion of in­ter­mar­riage, the threat of one’s chil­dren not be­ing ac­cepted in the com­mu­nity.

Yet oth­ers like rab­bis Yitzhak Sh­melkes and Moshe Fe­in­stein al­lowed such con­ver­sions be­cause it re­mains mer­i­to­ri­ous for the child to en­joy the sanc­tity of the Jewish peo­ple while her sins will be ex­cul­pated be­cause she acts out of ig­no­rance. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalis­cher also added that we should seek to con­vert those of Jewish lin­eage (zera yis­rael) and pre­vent as­sim­i­lated Jews from be­ing lost for­ever.

IN IS­RAEL, this le­nient ap­proach re­gard­ing chil­dren with Jewish an­ces­try was ad­vo­cated in the 1970s by Ashke­nazi chief rab­bis Ye­huda Un­ter­man and Shlomo Goren to ad­dress prob­lems aris­ing from the ar­rival of the first Soviet im­mi­grants in the 1970s, when only 20% of them had ques­tion­able lin­eage. More strin­gently, Sephardi chief rabbi Ova­dia Yosef as­serted that these con­ver­sions shouldn’t be done but would be ac­cepted post facto. Yet he fur­ther ar­gued that the rab­binate should con­vert mi­nors from non-ob­ser­vant fam­i­lies if their par­ents would agree to send them to a re­li­gious pub­lic school since they would plau­si­bly get pos­i­tive in­flu­ences from such ed­u­ca­tion. This ap­proach was also ad­vo­cated by Rabbi Yis­rael Rosen, the first head of Is­rael’s Con­ver­sion Au­thor­ity.

In prac­tice, how­ever, most chil­dren in these cir­cum­stances at­tend non-re­li­gious schools. To­day, very few chil­dren are con­verted by the rab­binate since more re­cent chief rab­bis, along with fig­ures like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, have ar­gued that mi­nors should not be con­verted if it is un­likely they will grow up re­li­gious. What’s their so­lu­tion to the so­ci­o­log­i­cal rift and grow­ing in­ter­mar­riage? That’s not clear.

Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabi­novitch, one of the most se­nior re­li­gious Zion­ist de­cisors of this gen­er­a­tion, has there­fore ad­vo­cated con­vert­ing any mi­nors when re­quested by their Is­raeli par­ents. He as­serts that in con­trast to the strin­gent po­si­tions taken in the Di­as­pora, le­niency to­day will pre­vent the scourge of in­ter­mar­riage in the State of Is­rael. More­over, Jewish Is­raelis, es­pe­cially if com­mit­ted to a ba­sic mod­icum of re­li­gios­ity (“ma­sorti”), live by de­fault with kosher food from the su­per­mar­kets, a na­tional Jewish cal­en­dar and a blos­som­ing re­li­gious cul­ture. His ap­proach has been sup­ported by other se­nior fig­ures like rab­bis Re’em Ha­co­hen, David Stav, Shlomo Riskin and Haim Am­sallem, who have formed a na­tional ini­tia­tive called Giyur Ka’Halakha.

Their ser­vices around the coun­try may be ac­cessed at

Is­raeli so­ci­ety is rapidly grow­ing two types of ‘Jewish Is­raeli’ pop­u­la­tions. Ei­ther these groups will co­habit or marry out­side the rab­binate, lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­mar­riage, or they will not, lead­ing to greater fis­sures within Is­rael’s sen­si­tive so­cial fab­ric

(Wikimedia Commons)

NAOMI ENTREATING [fa­mous con­vert] Ruth and Or­pah to re­turn to the land of Moab, by Wil­liam Blake, 1795.

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