Inclusivity’s Difficult Questions

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March 1, 2007
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Sanford Ragins

A colleague recently brought me the following problem: “I was approached by John who was raised in a family that practiced Christian Science. He has been happily married for some time to a woman who has a strong background in Conservative Judaism. They were not married by a rabbi but today they keep a kosher home, their children were welcomed into the covenant of Abraham by a mohel and now attend a Jewish day school, and they are active members of my synagogue. John has long since abandoned any specifically Christian practices and has come to love Judaism.”

When John came to discuss his conversion, my colleague questioned him closely about his belief in Jesus (none) and his identity as a Christian (none). Then he explained what would be required: further study, milah, and mikvah. John agreed readily, but when he heard the questions he would be asked in the ceremony and came to, “Do you renounce your former faith?” he blanched. “I cannot answer ‘yes’ to that,” he said with considerable feeling. “That would be an insult to the loving way my mother and father raised me.”

My colleague’s dilemma left me troubled. As gatekeepers, rabbis have an ethical responsibility to authenticate the integrity of those we bring into Judaism. The tradition of turning away a candidate for conversion thrice is time-tested and wise. The questions we ask in the ceremony of giur are important border-markers. Only those who can give the appropriate answers without hesitation or qualification should be accepted.

My first thought was that the question he found to be a stumbling block was nonnegotiable. Yes, it is rather stark, but that is the way it should be. When you enter Judaism you are indeed turning your back on other religious communities, and that should be acknowledged directly. To renounce is not to denounce, but to turn away from, give up, abandon. And that is, in part, what conversion means.

Yet, John was all ready — not just verbally, but in his life and practice — to be such a good Jew! How could we turn him away because of one harsh question? Without violating the integrity of the conversion process, couldn’t we find a way to welcome him into Judaism?

This particular case illustrates the inescapable tension that rabbis — and all serious Jews — face in making ethical decisions. On the one hand we have in Judaism a venerable body of principles and regulations. The wisdom, precedents, and, some believe, divinely ordained judgments of the past, must always be considered seriously. But these teachings of Judaism and the values they articulate come to life only in specific situations that are often fraught with ambiguity and demand of decisors imagination and flexibility. The massive body of Responsa literature reminds us that the knotty complexity of unpredictable life circumstances incessantly challenge the clarity and the validity of established boundaries and rules. A wise leader will bear in mind the dictum of Immanuel Kant, teacher of Hermann Cohen and Leo Baeck: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

Of late we see a much vaunted return to tradition, and many previously discarded or ignored aspects of premodern Judaism have been rediscovered. As a result, Jewish life has been enriched and enlivened. But we ought never forget that two of the oldest and most vital Jewish traditions have been our capacity for creative innovation and our ability to respond sensitively to those who come to us in search of the succor and guidance of Judaism.

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Sanford Ragins is Emeritus Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor in Religious Studies at Occidental College. For five years he served as Chair of the Committee on Ethics and Appeals of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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