It’s not just politics. It’s not just religious gerrymandering or denominational tactics. Why is so much Jewish energy being spent on the Rotem conversion bill in the Knesset? Why does so much of the Jewish agenda — in Israel and in the Diaspora — center around the convert?
In the past few decades, we’ve seen proposals and heard arguments dealing with patrilineal descent; Jews-by-choice; legitimizing proactive proselytizing agencies; the assessment of proactive outreach programs; the status of intermarried and mix-married couples in the synagogue and in the leadership of Jewish organizations; and the amendment to the Law of Return, which has been presented 43 times before the Israeli Knesset and which, again, focuses on the status of the convert.
Why the convert, the ger, and why now? The Jewish community is concentrated on the ger, the stranger in our midst, because the ger, particularly in an open society, has become a litmus test for the character and course of global Judaism. How Judaism treats the stranger standing on the threshold of our homes will shape the Jewish relationship to the non-Jewish world outside us and to the Jewish community within.
Two competing strains within the Jewish religious tradition influence Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews and, by extension, the Jews they may marry. These two temperaments sharpen the self-understanding of Jews and of Judaism (e.g., does Orthodoxy subsume Judaism, or does Judaism embrace non-Orthodox beliefs and behavior?).
The two strains within one tradition I identify as “Ezra and Ruth” schools of thought and predilection. Both biblical attitudes are evident in the contemporary Jewish debate over the legal and moral posture of Judaism toward the ger.
For the Ezra strain, conversion is, in the last analysis, no solution for what it considers to be a tragic entanglement of Jews and non-Jews. The Ezra position presumes a primordial foreignness in the stranger, an innate alienation that cannot be assimilated to authentic Jewish life.
The foreignness of the non-Jew, according to the Ezra outlook, is more than a matter of culture or faith. When pressed, it can be seen as a matter of inherited traits. Chapter 6 in the Tanya, the Chasidic classic, separates the pure from the impure souls of creation, the pure Jewish souls from “the souls of all the nations of the world which are unclean.”
Echoes of this biological metaphysics are evident in the writings of the 12th century philosopher Judah Halevi and in the contemporary philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, who, in his book “The Body of Faith,” asserts the “carnal election of Jews” who remain elect even “when it sins.” The intensity with which the Charedi, the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel, builds walls to discourage conversion to Judaism and even ban burials on Jewish soil of Russian immigrants who fought and died in combat as members of the Israel Defense Forces, manifests the severity of the Ezra temperament in our times.
The Ruth strain celebrates the choice of the Moabite Ruth. It deems highly laudable the choice of non-Jews to join the faith and fate of the Jewish people. Ruth is revered as the great-grandmother of King David. And it’s the Book of Ruth, not the Book of Ezra, which is chosen by the ancient rabbis in the Talmud to be read on the festival of Shavuot. In contrast with the distancing stance of Ezra, the outlook of the Ruth strain embraces the non-Jewish seekers and reaches out to those who seek Jewish adoption. Those who adopt the Ruth paradigm challenge the genetic bias of the Ezra orientation that favors biological origins over chosen faith.
The world Jewish people is undergoing a Kulturkampf, an internal battle of values. It articulates the shift in the pendulum that swings between fate and choice. The swing of the Jewish pendulum is not over, and its direction hovers over the storms of controversy.
In the stranger, Judaism discovered the idea of the human being. So the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen averred. In the stranger, Judaism is challenged to determine the nature and character of its own identity. Beyond the controversies swirling around descent and conversion is a persistent ancient and modern question: Is Judaism essentially a biological, genetic affair determined by the status assigned the ovum? Or is Judaism a spiritual and cultural matter of faith freely chosen? While formally, either birth or choice qualifies as events of Jewish identity, it is birth to a Jewish mother that issues the seal of Jewish authority according to the fundamentalist Ezra mindset. Neither religious law nor political partisanship move the conversion battle as much as the nature of Jewish sensibilities and the direction of the policies reflecting the ideals of the modern Jewish state in a widening global universe.
The ger is our mirror. How Judaism sees the stranger outside reflects its own image within. Before us is a crucial choice in the Jewish self-understanding. World Jewry stands between a faith and fate that is insular, parochial and closed, and one that is an expanding, accessible and open tradition. Jews are a choosing and chosen people. Before us is a fundamental choice of character that will affect our closeness to Israel, our relationship to each other in the Diaspora and to the non-Jewish world.
Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and the author of “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker” (KTAV, 2010).