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The Unwelcome Mat

Today’s rabbinic culture is closing the door to converts, and ignoring its own history in the process

Allan Nadler
April 16, 2010
Collage Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine. Photos except Metzger and Uziel: Wikimedia Commons; Metzger photo: Religon and State in Israel; Uziel photo: The Committee for the Publication of the Manuscripts of HaRav Ben Zion Hai Uziel Z"l
From left: Rabbis Shlomo Goren, Yona Metzger, Ben-Zion Uziel, Ovadia Yosef, and Joachim Prinz.Collage Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine. Photos except Metzger and Uziel: Wikimedia Commons; Metzger photo: Religon and State in Israel; Uziel photo: The Committee for the Publication of the Manuscripts of HaRav Ben Zion Hai Uziel Z”l
Collage Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine. Photos except Metzger and Uziel: Wikimedia Commons; Metzger photo: Religon and State in Israel; Uziel photo: The Committee for the Publication of the Manuscripts of HaRav Ben Zion Hai Uziel Z"l
From left: Rabbis Shlomo Goren, Yona Metzger, Ben-Zion Uziel, Ovadia Yosef, and Joachim Prinz.Collage Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine. Photos except Metzger and Uziel: Wikimedia Commons; Metzger photo: Religon and State in Israel; Uziel photo: The Committee for the Publication of the Manuscripts of HaRav Ben Zion Hai Uziel Z”l

“Converts are a hardship to Israel,” declared the rabbis of the Talmud, “like a bad case of psoriasis.” A callous statement that is, one that reflects a posture held by rabbis toward converts since the Pharisees adamantly rejected John Hyrcanus’s forced conversion of the Edomites, in 125 BCE. But it is also, for others, a surprising statement, given that the pantheon of important actors in Jewish history features numerous converts—including the founding fathers of the rabbinic tradition, Shemaya and Avtalyon; and Onkelos, the author of the Targum, the canonical Aramaic translation of the Torah; and of course Ruth, from whose line King David (and, eventually, the long-awaited Messiah) would emerge. Indeed, the entire history of rabbinic culture is marked by this ambivalence toward gerut, or conversion: openness and admiration on the one hand, but on the other a suspicion and discouraging of would-be converts, a deep sense that, no matter how sincere and pious, their attachment to the Jewish people has the potential to cause endless irritation.

This issue flared up again in public discourse earlier this year, when Tablet Magazine published an investigation into Rabbi Leib Tropper, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi and influential figure on conversion standards brought down by an alleged sex scandal involving a woman seeking his counsel in her effort to join the Jewish faith. The exposé centered on Tropper and his small but influential organization, Eternal Jewish Family, but it was also about something much more important: the monopoly over conversions recently acquired by a small set of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The story evoked revulsion from rabbis of all denominations. For starters, there were the non-Orthodox rabbis, whose converts have been denied Jewish status under Israeli law since the establishment of the state. But the Tropper scandal arguably evoked even more delight, exchanged discreetly, among modern Orthodox American rabbis who had recently seen their conversions invalidated—and in many instances even retroactively revoked—largely as a consequence of a 2006 decision by the official Israeli Rabbinate. This body has in recent years seen its ranks filled by fervently Orthodox, often non-Zionist rabbis—a consequence, largely, of years of political negotiations between the major parties and the smaller ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, ones needed to form workable governing coalitions in the Israeli Knesset. Sadly, the U.S. mainstream Orthodox rabbinate, represented by the Rabbinical Council of America, lamely caved to the outrageous new conditions imposed on them by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. With very few exceptions, most notably Marc Angel, the senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Shearith Israel Congregation, this country’s modern Orthodox rabbis demonstrated a shameful failure of courage to express righteous outrage, let alone to assert their own authority.

Tropper’s enemies were not confined to the more progressive side of the religious spectrum. In Israel’s ultra-Orthodox enclaves, such as Meah Shearim and Bnai Berak, his downfall was unabashedly celebrated, boldly announced on broadsides with sensational headlines referring to Tropper as “Oto ha-Ish”—the traditional Jewish moniker for Jesus Christ—and sternly warning that they would publish photographs and videos of his decadent behavior. As it turns out, Tropper’s approach to conversions had long been considered a violation of Jewish law by these ultra-Orthodox Jews, largely because—even while adding all manner of new stringencies as preconditions for conversion—Tropper still encouraged potential converts and embraced already inter-married gentiles, both of which have long been matters of rabbinic controversy.

But as is typical with sexual scandals, especially those involving men of God, the titillating details of Tropper’s misdeeds ended up obscuring the deeper issues at play. Aside from these initial bursts of outrage from very specific corners of Jewish life, the one reaction that should have been generated by this scandal has been unconscionably avoided: a clear and critical evaluation of the obscurantist, divisive, and dysfunctional state of today’s rabbinic conversion business. How did we get to a point at which the ultra-Orthodox essentially maintain a monopoly on conversions? Is there a way to break it? Should there be?

As in all matters pertaining to Jewish law, the history of the rabbis’ adjudication of conversion is based on standards set by the Talmud. Unfortunately, those standards are almost impossibly vague, and the Talmudic legislation regarding conversion is limited to a few brief passages in Tractate Yebamot, the most important of which reads:

Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and yet am unworthy,’ he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments… And just as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment. He is told, ‘Be it known to you that the world to come was made only for the righteous, and that Israel at the present time are unable to bear either too much prosperity or too much suffering.’ He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much.”

For centuries, conversions to Judaism were so rare as to have merited almost no discussion in the vast rabbinic literature. Throughout the middle ages, intermarriages resulting in the conversion of a gentile spouse were almost entirely unheard of. Jews living under both Christian and Muslim rule—where conversions to Judaism were considered capital crimes and often punished accordingly—not only followed the Talmudic posture of discouraging potential converts, but strengthened it.

All this changed in the wake of the Enlightenment, the ensuing emancipation of Western European Jews, and especially the rise of Zionism. Among the array of new challenges generated, the proper approach to converting gentiles became the subject of particularly heated debates. These arguments tended to pit the isolationist rabbis of Hungary and Germany—insular, ultra-Orthodox, and anti-Zionist rabbis, who did not share either the reformers’ or the Zionists’ belief that the Jews were on the threshold of a dramatically new historical era—against the more flexible rabbis of Lithuania and Russia. The latter did not have to confront the threat of religious reform, intermarriage, and conversion by building walls of theological stringencies to keep out the Gentile world, and many more of them were sympathetic to the nascent Zionist movement.

For Zionists struggling to create a utopian Jewish future in Palestine, the Talmud’s instruction to depict the people of Israel as “persecuted, oppressed, despised and overcome with afflictions”—to say nothing of the declaration that “Israel at the present time are unable to bear too much prosperity”—were textbook examples of both the repressive realities of European Jewish life and the pathetic exilic mentality it had engendered, both of which Zionism was so fervently dedicated to eliminating. For religious Zionist rabbis, then, neither the Talmudic formulas nor the scant medieval legal precedents would do in dealing with potential converts in what they believed was the dawn of a new, pre-messianic age.

Among those in the more flexible group of European rabbis was the widely revered chief rabbi of Bessarabia, Judah Leib Zirelson—who, in 1922, issued a landmark lenient ruling on conversions. From our modern vantage point, Zirelson might not appear a likely champion of such a lenient ruling, rooted as it was in Jewish nationalist sentiment. He formally quit the Zionist movement during the heated controversies about the role of the World Zionist Congress in cultural education, and he went on to become one of the founders of the non-Zionist Agudath Israel movement in 1912. But in many ways, Zirelson never abandoned his passionate support of the Zionist cause: He was one of earliest and most distinguished pro-Zionist rabbis in Eastern Europe, a group whose approach to conversions was informed by a historical sensitivity and a concern for the national welfare of the Jews. These rabbis shared the passions of secular Zionists to build a modern Jewish nation, one whose criteria for citizenship would break the medieval legacy of insularity and fear that governed conversions to Judaism.

Zirelson’s 1922 decision was addressed to a Jewish community leader in Pernambuco, Brazil, and concerned a number of Russian Jewish immigrants who had civilly married local Brazilian women and, in many cases, had children with them. (In the absence of local rabbinical authorities in Brazil, the leadership of this tiny Jewish community turned to Eastern Europe in search of guidance.) Soon these gentile wives began expressing an interest in converting to Judaism and even started studying Hebrew. This posed a problem: The classical—which is to say medieval—codes tended to rule against converting a gentile who had already married a Jew, out of suspicion regarding the spiritual purity of their motives. Cognizant of the changed political realities of his era, and sharing the Zionist yearning to build a modern Jewish nation, Zirelson wrote a daring responsum in which he argued that even the principle in Maimonides’s Code, the Mishneh Torah, mitigating against such a conversion, could be disregarded.

Without entering into its Talmudic complexities, Zirelson’s decision was animated by a modern Jewish national spirit, combined with social sensitivity and progressive political pragmatism. In addition to being the city’s Chief Rabbi, Zirelson was, for a time, the mayor of Kishinev and served from 1922 as a member of the Rumanian parliament, to which he was promoted a senator in 1926, all distinctions that rendered him a uniquely pragmatic legislator of Rabbinic law. The other notable feature of this decision was that Zirelson authorized the use of a lay beit din to formalize the conversions, since there was no rabbinical court in Pernambuco. This was an important reminder that, in fact, rabbis were (and are) not needed at all to formalize any conversion to Judaism. All that is required is a tribunal of three Jewish men who observe Jewish law.

Zirelson’s Pernambuco decision, as well as a subsequent lenient decision of his that recognized the legitimacy of a marriage between a Cohen and a female convert to Judaism, fomented bitter rabbinic controversies, evoking angry rebukes not only from Hungarian ultra-Orthodox authorities, but, far more consequentially, from the revered founder and chief rabbi of the staunchly anti-Zionist rabbinic authority for the “Old Yishuv” in Palestine, the Edah Ha-Haredit, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld, a sage still revered within ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist enclaves worldwide. Sonnenfeld issued a responsum rejecting in the strongest of terms any new leniencies in all matters pertaining to conversions. His posture remained the dominant one within the ultra-Orthodox community in Palestine until the establishment of Israel, and to this day.

Beginning in June 1947, when he reached out to the rabbinical leaders of Palestine’s then-tiny Orthodox communities, in anticipation of the establishment of a Jewish State, David Ben Gurion made a cluster of decisions that proved fateful. Motivated by a desire to include the Orthodox parties in a unified first national parliament, he promised certain concessions to the champions of traditional Judaism, specifically to the Mizrachi and Agudath Israel parties. Most of the concessions—for example, that the Sabbath would be the national day of rest, or that the army and other public institutions would respect the Jewish dietary laws—were initially met with barely any controversy, since they merely extended the “status quo protections” enjoyed by religious minorities under Ottoman law. The history of Ben Gurion’s efforts to gain universal consensus on standard and universally accepted criteria for Jewish identity (which were to become critical to establish eligibility to qualify for immediate citizenship under Israel’s law of return), most famously in his “Who is a Jew” referendum issued in 1958 to the Diaspora’s leading Jewish intellectuals and scholars, has been extensively documented. What is far less famous, indeed until very recently almost entirely unknown, is Ben Gurion’s very personal stake in the question.

As it happens, in 1946—exactly a year before his fateful agreements with the Orthodox parties—Ben Gurion’s son, Amos, fell in love with a Christian British nurse while recuperating from wounds he suffered fighting with the British Army during World War II. The woman, who was to become Mary Ben Gurion, was raised a devout Christian on the Isle of Man, knew nothing about Judaism, and evinced little interest in it. But out of love for Amos, she decided to move with him to Palestine. Desperate to appease his wife Paula, who had made it clear that she would never accept Mary into the family unless she converted to Judaism, David Ben Gurion contacted Newark’s famous rabbi and Zionist leader, Joachim Prinz, who was visiting London at the time. In his posthumously published memoir, Rebellious Rabbi, which only appeared in 2008, Prinz recounts at length the bizarre, untold story of his quick and questionable conversion of Mary to Judaism in a London hotel room in June 1946, a conversion about whose legitimacy he himself had grave doubts. Prinz made it clear that were it anyone but the future daughter-in-law of David Ben Gurion, no such conversion would ever have taken place.

But this strange case eventually took an unexpected turn. As Prinz recalls: “I firmly believed that Mary would not stay in Palestine, so that the conversion would be a mere formality and serve mainly to appease Paula. I made out a certificate of conversion… omitted the matter of the naming, and until today Mary remains Mary Ben Gurion. But a great miracle occurred. Although Paula Ben Gurion never fully accepted her as a Jewess, Mary became, according to David Ben Gurion ‘the only real Jew in the Ben-Gurion family.’ Until this day she lights candles on the eve of the Sabbath, attends services, and observes every Jewish holiday. During the War of Independence, just two years after her conversion, she fought with her fellow Jews, a rifle in hand, without any fear and completely identifying with the Jewish people. The conversion, which was performed in violation of every possible ruling, proved to be one of the most successful conversions I have ever performed.”

Maybe so. But though this one story had a happy ending, the same could not be said for the system that Ben-Gurion’s government, Israel’s first, set in place two years later. Ben Gurion could not foresee the astonishing growth of the Haredi sector of the Israeli population; in fact, secular Israelis of his era were so confident in the liberating power of the “new, normalized Jews” that Israel was creating, that they were convinced the ultra-Orthodox would inexorably disappear into their larger, modernized society. And so, he could also never have imagined just how much intra-Jewish conflict and division his good-willed attempt to unite the nascent Jewish state would generate over the subsequent half-century.

Ben Gurion and his colleagues in Israel’s early government were dealing with, and appointing to rabbinical office, progressive and pragmatic Orthodox rabbis, all of whom were ideological Zionists. Their desire to protect and perpetuate Jewish tradition was balanced by a concern for the welfare of the new Jewish state and the preservation of its social peace. Such modern nationalist considerations greatly influenced the manner in which Israel’s earlier chief rabbis dealt with the issue of conversion, particularly when it came to the respective waves of new immigrant communities coming from distant lands.

A case in point is a remarkable 1951 decision that Israel’s second Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ben Zion Uziel, sent to his colleagues in Morocco. “It is clear from all that I’ve written that we do not demand of the [potential] convert that she will observe the mitzvoth,” he wrote.

Moreover, there is no need for the Beit Din to know whether she will be observant, for if that becomes the criterion, no converts will be accepted in Israel…. from all that we have learned it is clear that there should be no pre-condition of observance that might thwart conversions…. rather, the Torah today requires that it is not only permissible, but a mitzvah to accept converts even if we know that they won’t observe all of the mitzvoth. And if they indeed do not [observe the commandments], they will carry the burden of their sins, and we [the rabbis] will have fulfilled our duty, especially in this generation when shutting the door before potential converts is a heavy dereliction of responsibility, as it opens the other door, namely of alienating the men and women of Israel and potentially causing them to abandon their own faith and assimilate among the Gentiles… so that we have a duty to embrace and encourage potential converts.”

Rabbi Uziel’s ruling marked the culmination of a tendency toward great leniency regarding conversions that began with Zirelson and other modernizing Zionist rabbis in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. And it was practically employed, if never quite so boldly published, by all of his colleagues in Israel’s earlier Chief Rabbinates, including such stellar figures as the otherwise very stringent Ovadiah Yosef and the maverick innovator Shlomo Goren, who respectively served as Israel’s Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis from 1973 to1983. In fact, despite his later turn toward a more Haredi posture as head of Israel’s Shas party, Rabbi Yosef’s earliest responsa regarding the proper posture of leniency toward potential converts relied heavily on the precedents set by Zirelson and other modernist European rabbis (most notably David Zvi Hoffman of Berlin, whose decisions he cited numerous times). As Israeli historian Moshe Samet has documented in his studies of orthodoxy in the modern period, a deep fissure had developed by the first half of the 20th century between progressive Zionist rabbis and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts, particularly on the issue of conversion.

Israel’s current chief rabbis are of an entirely different breed. Both Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis since 2003, are far closer in their theological thinking and decisions to the ultra-Orthodox ideology than any of their predecessors in the chief rabbinate. While Metzger was raised and educated in a modern religious Zionist environment and served in the Israel Defense Forces for almost a decade, he has over the years drifted steadily toward a staunchly Haredi posture and today turns to the senior sage of Bnai Berak, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, for counsel on all controversial matters, including conversion. Amar, who has been far more aggressive in “strengthening” conversion standards and worked closely with Tropper before his downfall, is a disciple of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and is closely associated with the Shas party.

The Haredi rabbis’ response to modernity has resulted in the inventions of extreme stringencies, often with no basis or precedent in rabbinic law. It is hardly an exaggeration to characterize the posture of current ultra-Orthodox authorities toward converts—which since 2008 have included spying on their religious behavior years after their conversion and retaliating by retroactively revoking the conversion, a theologically questionable action, when it is found lacking in piety—as closer to the spirit of the Inquisition than to anything found in the history of rabbinic Judaism.

In my own previous career as a congregational rabbi in Boston and Montreal, I officiated at dozens of conversion ceremonies with both immigrant Lithuanian Sages and native Modern Orthodox rabbis of great stature, in which the observance of the mitzvot, while always emphatically stressed, was an ideal goal, and never an absolute prerequisite, for our converts. And we certainly never followed, or spied upon, our converts to assess their level of halakhic observance. Like all good legislation, cogent adjudication of Jewish law requires not only a technical mastery of the Talmud and medieval codes, but sensitivity to one’s political and social reality.

To preserve not only Jewish unity, but the very dignity and integrity of Israel as the State of all Jews, the government of Israel must introduce legislation requiring that representatives of the rabbinical agency—the chief rabbis are, after all, government appointees—comply with universally accepted principles of jurisprudence, most importantly by being bound by the fundamental principle of stare decisis, a respect for legal precedence that is operative in Talmudic law, no less (some would argue even more) than in modern Western law. The Knesset must rule that the Chief Rabbinate, with its extraordinary jurisdiction in a matter that determines fundamental rights of citizenship, must adhere to the same principles governing the country’s Supreme Court. Only when the chief rabbis are stripped of their carte-blanche license recklessly to disenfranchise their Diaspora colleagues by introducing unheard-of stringencies and inventing new Jewish laws—rulings that overturn more than two generations of precedents set by Israel’s Chief Rabbinical courts—can sanity be restored to Israel’s posture toward potential converts, one that demands a decent embrace of all who yearn to join her people.

Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Drew University, is currently a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.