A while back I sent a certain Orthodox rabbi a link to Rabbi Mark Angel’s article about conversion which appeared in the Forward http://www.forward.com/articles/11985/ in which Rabbi Angel argues quoting former chief Sephardic Rabbi Uziel, that we should err on the side of accepting converts rather than rejecting them and criticizes the high barriers the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has placed before those who wish to be part of our people. The particular rabbi’s response to me was, “Don’t get involved with ideas and people which are so extremely liberal, everyone like that wants to hang their hat on Rav Uziel the one minority opinion.” End of conversation.
Another conversion experience: Several years ago I brought a very sincere potential convert to a Orthodox Bait Din which had functioned for many years and whose conversions are widely accepted. The potential ger had a Jewish father and non Jewish mother, and no Jewish girlfriend or wife that he wished to please. He just wanted to be an observant, full-fledged Jew. After about a year of study and several meetings with the bait din the bait din brought him in for what I assumed would be his final meeting and conversion, he was fully religious, studying torah and attending synagogue, had taught himself Hebrew off the internet and was actually studying mishnah and chumash on his own in Hebrew by this point. A no brainer.
After his meeting I asked how it went, when would the mikvah be? He answered that they had given him a test of which he knew practically all the answers, except for all the names of the Hebrew months, and they had sent him back to wait another 6 months before converting him asking him to study more halacha, specifically a book by Rabbi Shimon Eider on the laws of the 3 weeks and a 150 page English halacha book on the laws of yichud, the laws pertaining to with whom and when one is allowed to be in a room together with someone of the opposite gender.
Enraged I called the head of the bait din, “isn’t this a violation of “lo tunu et hageer” (The biblical commandment not to oppress the stranger, which some commentaries applies even to one just considering conversion) I asked?
“We are volunteers,” he replied, “I will not convert someone if there is a chance they will not observe a law on my account.”
I tell these stories now for two reasons. Recently I had two experiences that offer at least a bit of indication that things may change. That we have gone so far to one extreme that we may soon see the light and the Torah’s way and experience a corrective return to the middle. Myself and several other rabbis met with Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a member of Kenneset from the Shas party. Rabbi Amsalem showed us the 2 volume magnum opus he has just published entitled “Zera Yisrael,” “seed of Israel” which refers to someone who is not technically Jewish by birth but has some connection to the Jewish people, a Jewish father or grandparent, or perhaps lives in the Jewish country fighting its wars and casting their lot with its people.
Such people are not halachically Jewish but are not like other non-Jews either, they occupy an intermediate space in Jewish law referred to as zera yisrael, much as the person in my story above or the myriads of Jews I see on a daily basis in America who due to an entire generation assimilating have a Jewish father or grandfather and a non Jewish mother. In his book, which he says Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef is willing to support, he argues that the opinion of Rabbi Uziel that someone, especially a person with a previous connection to the Jewish people, should be able to convert even without full acceptance of the commandments, is actually the opinion of tens of rishonim, early halachic commentators. Not just a minority opinion ”upon which liberal hang their hat”.
Another experience was a speaker I heard today, Rabbi Telushkin, who has just written a book on the sage Hillel. Well known are the stories in which a person wanting to convert but with outlandish demands, such as convert me while I stand on one foot, convert me on the condition that you make me a kohen gadol, convert me on the condition that I accept only the written torah and not the oral one, is rejected outright by Shamai and immediately accepted and converted by Hillel. Only afterward did Hillel teach them the torah. Rabbi Telushkin put it well, “Though Hillel always wins in the gemara, it is Shamai who wins in Jewish life.” That just about sums it up I think.
And so perhaps soon we will realize that though the words of Shamai are also the words of the living God, the law is like Hillel who is almost always lenient. It seems this is what our tradition is supposed to be, leniency that results, as the converts say of Hillel, in lovingly bringing others underneath the wings of the divine presence.