Converts: Power and Consequences

November 1, 2008
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Jess Olson

The last two years have been a trying time for converts to Judaism in both the United States and Israel. With very little warning, the status of individuals who make the highly personal and private decision to convert to Judaism has become the lynchpin in a massive shift in Israeli rabbinic authority and, through a new kind of religious imperialism, a robust assertion of power over both Israeli policy and the American rabbinate.

Converts to Judaism in Israel have often found themselves in the middle of a uniquely Israeli culture war. There, conversion is not just a matter of individual choice and identity, but of national identity and state policy, with its own bureaucracy under the auspices of the chief rabbinate. In the early days of the state, placing “personal status” issues under a chief rabbi who was reflexively Zionist seemed of little consequence in a homogeneously Jewish and Ashkenazi society. But the question of conversion intensified in the 1980s, the unintended result of welcoming hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel. To streamline these olim into full Jewish citizenship in Israel, the Israeli government has attempted — in concert with religious authorities — solutions that converted them without undermining the halakhic integrity of the chief rabbinate. The latest attempt is the Conversion Authority, formerly supervised by Religious Zionist Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

In the U.S., matters have always been different. Religious identity here is a personal matter, largely devoid of implications beyond the synagogue walls. While issues of denominationalism — whether Orthodox authorities would accept Reform or Conservative converts — are a real part of American Jewish politics, they have little impact on a convert’s acceptance into the American Jewish community. And if American Jews, converted under Orthodox auspices in the U.S., made aliyah they could usually count on their conversions being recognized by the chief rabbinate, regardless of the specific affiliation of the Orthodox rabbi who supervised them.

But in the last year the status quo in both countries has been dramatically upset by two separate but linked incidents. The first was the decision made by the Great Rabbinical Court of Israel to affirm a decision by the Bet Din ha- Gadol of Ashdod that invalidated the Jewish status of a woman converted by the state Conversion Authority under Rabbi Druckman. Audaciously, in a decision penned by R. Avraham Sherman, the council then declared all conversions performed by Rabbi Druckman’s commission retroactively invalid. And Rabbi Druckman, aged 75, was forcibly retired, ostensibly because he had reached the maximum age of service under civil service laws.

Further, in recent years, the Israeli state rabbinate has turned its attention to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), one of the two largest Orthodox institutional bodies in the U.S. In a decision contrary to the entire history of the relationship between the RCA and the chief rabbinate, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, whose portfolio includes authority over the status of converts, announced that individuals who converted under the auspices of the RCA would no longer be uniformly accepted as Jews in Israel. Seemingly in response, last February the RCA created the “Gerus Policies and Standards” (GPS), which identified a list of fifteen acceptable batei din in the U.S. that would be acceptable to the chief rabbinate as the only sanctioned bodies to perform conversions.

As conversion is a complex and sensitive process, it makes sense to argue that it is best handled by experts — rabbis with the knowledge to ensure that the individual convert is fully aware of the implications of their choice and the moral responsibility that it entails. While experts should have the best interests of both the convert and the institutions they represent at heart, these recent incidents seem to highlight the injection of more dubious concerns into the mix, even if the principal players act in good faith. There is the issue, most obviously, of the phenomenon Samuel Heilman has aptly described as a “slide to the right,” the ascendance of a conservative, rigid, and isolationist tendency in the Orthodox world, achieving what could be its most muscular expansion of power in Israel and beyond. There is a representative of the Israeli chief rabbinate, no longer simply a reliable dati leumi (national religious) extension of the government, undermining with impudence the decisions of an Israeli state agency. Related is the perception (whether correct or not) of the American rabbinate knuckling under to a foreign state authority, essentially surrendering its prerogative to adjudicate in a major aspect of modern American Jewish life to the Israeli chief rabbinate.

But it is the human cost that is the most disconcerting. From the woman whose longtime status as a Jew living in Israel has been nullified (along with her children, who are now no longer Jewish according to the chief rabbinate), to the American Jew whose conversion was supervised by a rabbi in good standing in the RCA but is now left off the new list (and the names of those left off indeed comprise very prominent names in the Modern Orthodox world), and who now lives in perpetual doubt about his status, it is difficult to quantify the major damage these maneuverings have wrought. Regardless of the principles at stake, whether to streamline entrance of immigrants into Israeli society, or preserve an ideal of religious purity, there is something gratuitously cruel about the use of converts in service of any agenda, regardless of the side of the combatants. No converts ask to be fodder for Jewish culture wars; indeed, few ask for more than to simply live their lives as Jews, accepted as full members of their communities. All power struggles have their victims; it is a dark time in the Jewish world that those victims are the ones least able to defend themselves.

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Jess Olson is an assistant professor of modern Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York. He is currently writing an intellectual biography of Viennese Jewish nationalist Nathan Birnbaum.

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