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What Does Conversion Really Mean?

by Shmuel Rosner

March 18, 2012 | 3:10 pm

David Ellenson, left, and Daniel Gordis

In a joint e-mail exchange, Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, discuss Jewish conversion and their new book, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa (Stanford University Press).

Shmuel Rosner: When people have converted to Judaism during the 3,500 years of Jewish history, have they converted mostly to the Jewish religion or the Jewish nation?

Daniel Gordis and Rabbi David Ellenson: As we note in the introduction to our book, one of the things that makes conversion such a fraught topic today is that we now distinguish between categories that centuries ago were seen as thoroughly overlapping. Being a member of the Jewish collective was not a matter that was subject to an individual’s own beliefs or desires, but was dictated by the rules of Jewish law and the communal structures that enforced them. The lines between Jew and non-Jew were clearly drawn, but lines between the Jewish religion and the Jewish nation were almost unthinkable. The phenomenon of people wishing to be members of the Jewish people, for example, without accepting the tenets or customs of the Jewish religion (or vice versa, for that matter) is a modern one. Thousands of years ago, this distinction, which seems so natural to us today, was simply not made. 

SR: What would be the preferable choice for the Jewish people as a whole — to have many converts who are less committed to Judaism and the Jewish identity, or a small number of converts that are more committed?

DG and DE:  It is important to stress that ours is an academic book, which seeks to describe what we believe was happening in Orthodoxy in the 19th and 20th centuries, without prescribing what we believe ought to happen. As we note in the conclusion, we cite many authorities who have very clear views on these questions, but our explicit goal was to describe what they believed rather than writing about what either of us might actually think is desirable. In our book, we point to authorities on both sides of this critical divide. We see Rabbi David Hoffmann, the most important Orthodox German rabbi during the first quarter of the 20th century, going to great lengths to find ways of converting even Jews who he knew full well would not be observant.  In the contemporary period, there are rabbis such as Yoel Bin Nun who urge “courage, my colleagues, courage,” and advocate mass conversion of Russian immigrants to Israel, for example. 

But there are counter-examples, as well. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most important Orthodox halachic authority in the United States (and perhaps the world) in the 20th century, explicitly chastised his Orthodox colleagues who were lenient. “What good do you believe you are doing for the Jewish people?” he asked them. For Rabbi Feinstein, converts who were not completely committed to the halachic system were of no value to the Jewish people.  Rabbis Hoffmann and Bin Nun, to mention but two of those whom we discuss, clearly disagreed and advocated a more embracing approach. As becomes clear from our book, your question is one that has been dividing the Jewish people and its legal authorities for quite some time. Our hope is to write another book where we express our own opinions on this question.

SR: Do we need different criteria for converting people to Judaism in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora communities?

DG and DE: On the surface, it might seem that there should be no difference in conversion policy in Israel and the Diaspora, for the dictates of Jewish law do not typically change from one location to another. But as your question rightly suggests, matters are not that simple. Several of the authorities we discuss understood that when someone converts to Judaism in the United States, for example, they are becoming part of a small minority, surrounded by Christian discourse, practice and culture. It is thus unlikely that the broader culture in which they live will deepen their Jewish commitments. In Israel, however, people live in a rich Jewish environment, in which the language of the street, the national holidays, discourse in the public square and much more could well strengthen their Jewish commitments over time. For that reason, a few of these authorities did argue that standards in Israel could be different and more accommodating. To be sure, however, not all of the authorities we discuss would accept this view. 

In one fascinating case, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, noted that conversion needs to be undertaken “for the sake of heaven,” meaning “for no ulterior motive.” But what if one wanted to convert specifically so he or she could make aliyah and join the effort to build a new Jewish state?  In December 1948, he ruled that in certain cases, converting for the sake of making aliyah was to be considered a conversion for the sake of heaven. 

Thus, both because of the nature of public life in the Diaspora and in Israel, and because of the special sanctity that some authorities attributed to the process of building the Jewish state, there have, indeed, been those who have urged different standards for conversion in the Diaspora and in the Jewish state. 

SR: Is there any chance that the Jewish people can achieve some level of unanimity on the issue of conversion, or are we damned to have to live with many types of conversions recognized by some communities and not others?

DG and DE: Given that there is virtually no subject on which the Jewish people has achieved unanimity today, it is highly unlikely that with regard to conversion — which we demonstrate has been a conflicted subject since the time of the Mishnah — we will achieve anything even remotely approaching such universal agreement. The question is whether that really means we are “damned.” In some ways, of course, a unified policy across all domains of the Jewish people would make life much simpler. We would all agree who is Jewish and who isn’t, who we can marry and who we cannot, etc. But as we demonstrate throughout our book, the standards that one employs for conversion are in many ways an indication of what one thinks Judaism is at its very core. Is being Jewish essentially joining a people? Is it a national experience? A halachic commitment? A moral set of tenets? Depending on how one answers that question, different standards for conversion will emerge. Complicating though it may be, perhaps the Jews are well served by a constant discussion of what Judaism is and the policy implications derivative of the answers different Jews provide. We would certainly be better off, however, if these discussions could be carried out in manners far more respectful than unfortunately is often the case today.  


SR: And finally, in your opinion, what would be the right solution for immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, who are not yet recognized as Jewish by the state?

DG and DE: Again, as noted above, our book is a descriptive one, not a prescriptive one. Writing for an academic press, it was our role to illustrate what has happened in the Jewish community, not to suggest policy. But in the final chapter of our book, which deals with Israel, we do cite a number of halachic authorities who see in the unconverted Russian population a ticking demographic time bomb, and who therefore urge mass conversion of these Russian immigrants, possibly through the aegis of the army, in which many of them serve. 

What we certainly believe would serve the Jewish world well, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, is a return to the personal courage and halachic creativity that characterized significant leading Orthodox thinkers and authorities in previous centuries, but sadly, is found today only in the writing of a relatively few courageous individuals.

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