Conversion and Conversation

March 1, 2011
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Mark Washofsky

“We cannot remain silent. We must protest against those who, by facilitating conversions not conducted in accordance with halakhah, allow goyim to enter the vineyard of the house of Israel.”

(Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, quoted in “Rabbi Elyashiv Opposes Army Conversions,” Yediot Ahronot, January 11, 2011)

Daniel Gordis calls for a “conversation” on conversion policy in Israel. Yehiel E. Poupko endorses that call, tells us that such a conversation once took place, and bemoans the intracommunal political realities that have “muted” the conversation today. “Muted” would be putting it mildly. The recent news report cited above indicates the total opposition of two of the gedolei hador, the preeminent Orthodox halakhic authorities, to the latest effort to resolve the conversion crisis and the plight of soldiers like Lev Paschov, z”l. While a conversion initiative supervised by the rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces has received approval from leading authorities, including Chief Sefardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar and his mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, other rabbis — including Rabbis Elyashiv and Wosner, along with other leading Ashkenazic halakhists — reject such conversions as a sham. Their opposition threatens the future of the conversion initiative.

The problem, at its core, is that conversion to Judaism has always been understood as a
religious phenomenon. One who becomes a Jew does more than simply join the Jewish people; he or she “takes refuge under the wings of the
Shekhinah” and accepts the responsibilities of a member of the covenant community of Israel. Traditionally, as Rabbi Poupko reminds us, these responsibilities correspond to the mitzvot; therefore, “it is inconceivable” that a non-Jew could become a Jew without accepting the “yoke of mitzvot.” And that, in the view of Rabbis Elyashiv and Wosner and their allies, means that the convert to Judaism must become an Orthodox Jew. One who converts but does not live a life of mitzvot — as that life is defined by Orthodox Judaism — did not truly “accept” the mitzvot, and his or her conversion is thus regarded as invalid.

Does the stance of these Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis doom any hope for a “conversation”? Not at all. As Rabbis Gordis and Poupko note, debates over the precise standards for conversion stretch back to talmudic times. And prominent Orthodox rabbis today have permitted conversions in cases where it was clear that the candidates would not live their lives in an Orthodox fashion. These authorities were simply applying the dictum of Rabbi Yosef Caro in his monumental Beit Yosef (Yoreh De`ah 268): Questions concerning a person’s suitability for conversion must be left to the judgment of the rabbinical authority in charge of the case. Given this flexibility in the halakhah, it is not difficult to imagine that responsible rabbinical authorities could approve the conversions of individuals who, though they may not become Orthodox, nonetheless complete a program of Jewish study and stand ready to defend Israel and to contribute to its vitality as a Jewish state.

A solution, in other words, lies in sight. Its success depends upon the willingness of the broad swath of the rabbinical community to pursue the conversation that Rabbis Gordis and Poupko advocate. They must pursue it even against the implacable opposition of ultra-Orthodox forces for whom the term “halakhic flexibility” is an anathema. If they do, they will have earned the thanks of klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people, in Israel and everywhere else.

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Mark Washofsky is the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at the Hebrew Union College– Jewish Institue of Religion in Cincinnati. He is the chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the author of Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice.

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