What, Not Who, Is a Jew?

March 1, 2011
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Daniel Gordis

Lev Paschov, an Israeli soldier who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return from the Former Soviet Union, was killed while on active duty in Southern Lebanon in 1993, and buried twice. He was first interred in a regular Israeli military cemetery, but after it was discovered that his mother was not Jewish, his body was exhumed, and Paschov was buried a second time, in a cemetery for non-Jews.

For many Israelis, the macabre end of Paschov’s brief life journey was deeply disturbing. How was it possible that someone could be welcomed to Israel under the Law of Return, serve the Jewish state’s army, and die defending his adopted homeland, and still not be considered Jewish enough to be buried alongside his comrades?

But Jewish law is clear, traditionalists responded. Jews are either those who are born of a Jewish mother, or those who have converted to Judaism in a halakhically valid fashion. Yet others wondered: Had Jewish national sovereignty rendered classic halakhic standards insufficient? What, in our increasingly conflicted and nuanced world of identity formation, should being a Jew mean? What should joining the Jewish people require? Those questions, more than anything, are at the heart of the now relentless debate surrounding conversion, a debate that often threatens to tear the Jewish people asunder.

This vehement, often nasty, debate is not new. Even the talmudic sources are divided. A well known baraita (Yevamot 47a) says that converts should at first be turned away: “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 is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and yet I am unworthy,’ he is accepted immediately ….” After he is accepted, he is instructed in some of the commandments, but his acceptance comes first.

But another source (Bekhorot 30b) insists that a convert who rejects a single iota of Jewish law may not be accepted. These sources can be made to agree, but doing so clouds the question that their apparent contradiction raises. Is being a Jew fundamentally about the observance of every detail of Jewish law (as Bekhorot implies), or does converting mean joining a covenantal community that sees itself as marginal, a community in which commandments are central, but perhaps not the defining characteristic (as in Yevamot)?

Today’s liberal Jewish communities, in which rigorous observance of the ritual commandments is no longer part of the fabric of daily Jewish life, insist that a genuine desire to join the Jewish people and share in its fate ought to be a sufficient standard for conversion. Many Orthodox communities, alarmed by what they see as the dilution of Jewish content in liberal Judaism, in general, and liberal conversations, in particular, have responded by adhering ever more rigidly to classic conversion standards. Valid conversions must be accompanied by a genuine commitment to observe the commandments — “for the sake of heaven” (Geirim 1:3) — they insist, and conversions that lack that are simply null and void.

Although pronouncements of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and some leading Orthodox authorities seek to convey the impression that Orthodox standards for conversion are monolithic and always have been, the truth is much more complex. There has long been disagreement, even within Orthodox circles, about what constitutes “for the sake of heaven.” Rabbi David Zevi Hoffmann (1843-1921), for example, ruled that a gentile man could be converted, even though he would not be observant, because his Jewish partner was already pregnant. (Melamed L’ho’il, Yoreh De’ah 83) That the prospective convert wanted to be Jewish, though he could have stayed with her regardless, was sufficient for the conversion to be considered “for the sake of heaven.” Hoffmann introduced moral considerations, as well. If the man abandoned this woman because the court declined to convert him, she would still have a child, and without a husband, she would become a social pariah.

But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), America’s greatest halakhic authority, railed against such conversions and the Orthodox rabbis who performed them. “What value are they bringing to the Jewish people by accepting converts like these? For it is obviously not good for either God or the Jewish people that converts like these should be mixed into the Jewish people.” (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 157)

Feinstein’s certainty about what is good for God and the Jewish people evades most of us. Ours is an era of unprecedented complexity in the formation of identity. What we need now is a conversation with each other — about what Jewishness is at its very essence and about how the changing face of world Jewry should and should not be reflected in conversion policy. We may not necessarily agree, but we will, one hopes, protect the unity, and therefore the survival, of the very people to which committed prospective converts still seek to dedicate their lives.

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Daniel Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author, most recently, of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, which won a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He has just completed, with David Ellenson, a volume on 19th and 20th century Orthodox responses to conversion, which will be published by Stanford University Press in early 2012.


  1. Well, then, Jacob the patriarch wasn’t Jewish, because Rebecca wasn’t. Also, none of the Hasidm are Jewish, because they were excommunicated by the Vilna Gaon.

    Posted by
    Randy H. Farb
  2. Lev Paschov gave his life for the Jewish state. He died a Jew and he had chosen to live as a Jew. He was more Jewish than any rabbi who worships his practises more than his Jewish morality, justice and tolerance. The issue is not who is converted, but who are the converters. The Jewish people cannot surrender to the fanatics who demand that people submit to their primitive and punative interpretation of halacha. The subsidised ghetto in which such rabbis exist is parasitic and ultimatly life destroying. Their rigid interpration of halacha and conversions is based not on true knowledge but on a desire for power and the funding that goes with it. When there is no compassion and love for one’s fellow human being, when one denies the essence of another person’s being for the sake of rules that never really applied and certainly don’t after the Shoah and Israel’s rebirth, one in not a Jew and certainly not a rabbi.

    Posted by
    Paul Winter
  3. Daniel Gordis characterization of the ‘Rabbi David Zevi Hoffmann (1843-1921), for example, ruled that a gentile man could be converted, even though he would not be observant, because his Jewish partner was already pregnant. (Melamed L’ho’il, Yoreh De’ah 83)’ is misleading. Rabbi Hoffman did not consider the conversion as a halakhically valid. He held that given the circumstances it was not the issue. Since the mother was jewish the children would be jewish. He never made this statement in connection with a female convert. Differences of opinion on conversion is not new. The nature of the differences are very new. For frum jews that people perceive an increasingly conflicted and nuanced world of identity formation as not revelant. The basic issue is whether the issue is defined by G-d or man. For this issue there is no compromise. The only way to maintain jewish unity is for all factions to ban conversions.

    Posted by
    Kenneth Perlman
  4. The case of Lev Paschov is a very sad one and tears at one’s heartstrings.`I believe he should have been instructed when he was inducted into the army that he has the option to choose conversion and should have been given the possible consequences if he didn’t. A society has to live by rules (in America we live by the Constitution) or the result is
    chaos. Perhaps he is the victim of neglect or carelessness which only proves that Israel is a democracy and no “wild-eyed ultra- or modern Orthodox Rabbi is forcing ritual compliance upon the public. Some years back, a terrorist in an Israeli jail was part of an exchange deal for the return of some dead Israeli soldiers. While in jail, he saw one of the guards eating a bread sandwich during Passover. He subsequently assured his fellow prisoners that they have nothing to fear - they will win the war with Israel because a populace that doesn’t honor its own history and laws and customs cannot win. I take exception to Paul Winter’s uncalled for accusation of the Rabbis who want only power and gain. If there are any, they are certainly the exception. To accuse them wholesale of bad faith is violating Jewish law and the Talmud teaches that Jerusalem and the Jewish State were destroyed because of prevalent “causeless hatred”. To denigrate great thinkers and scholars, past and present, is downright inexcusable and presumptuous.

    Posted by
    Lillian Tobin
  5. Israel is a democracy, not a theocracy. If a person is Jewish enough to become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return, then they should be Jewish enough to be recognized as Jewish, to be married in Israel by a rabbi of their choice, and to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

    Of course, as I said, it’s a democracy, so it’s only the Israeli people who can change the system to recognize all Jews.

    Posted by
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