Opening, not Slamming, the Door

Two weeks ago today, a rabbi in London proposed a solution to the conversion issues surrounding Orthodox Judaism. In the last ten years, conversion has increasingly become complicated by politics as the Israeli rabbinate was taken over by Haredi rabbinate, and so suggesting solutions makes sense, in the grand scheme of things. His idea was so radical that I think it took me the last two weeks to digest it, and even now I am not fully convinced that I totally grasp his understanding of what he was suggesting.

So, what does Rabbi Schochet suggest? Stopping conversions entirely.

Although Judaism has always accepted converts, and does, in fact, have a lot of rules about welcoming strangers and converts, there have been situations in which conversion has been suspended. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the time to do it. Rabbi Joel Katz has a theory (check it out here – his theory is that because Schochet accepts the Lubavitch rabbi as the messiah, that would indicate stopping conversions), but either way, the idea is ridiculous. To consider that the system is so “morally bankrupt” that the only solution is to stop the conversion process for good? It’s a preposterous idea on any account, but it’s as though he has no understanding or idea what it is to be a convert to Judaism. Sincere converts give so much to the Jewish community, and should be embraced, and we should be trying to help them not telling them that we don’t want them.

As so many stories I have heard illustrate, conversion is a long, difficult process, often celebrated with a sense of relief. More and more, converts are required to make concessions to their beit din, their panel of judges, about their practice and their future practice that no born Jew would ever, ever have to make, except, perhaps, if they chose to become community leaders. It just isn’t done, and yet, we ask these people, individuals who, for whatever reason, often just out of their love of Judaism, have chosen to join us, to do things that we would never consider of those that are already “in”. Or even the list of acceptable rabbis issued a few years ago by the Israeli rabbinate that retroactively made many people (and their children!) not Jewish anymore.

Yet. Yet. Rather than dealing with the myriad issues, we should just stop. Because, generally, when things in Judaism get difficult, we just stop and take it lying down. We don’t argue or have multiple opinions or even validate multiple opinions at once. No, we are the people of the book, but that book records the minority opinion as well as the majority opinion and we take pride in the fact that for every two Jews there are three opinions. And to suggest shutting down a debate like this, without a true understanding of what that does to the Jewish community – like cutting off an arm, seems totally outrageous.

There is a good side to this story, however. While it may exist, nowhere have I seen this idea registered favorably. In fact, the London Beit Din rejected the idea outright (here) and the same paper that published the opinion article published another opinion article rejecting his claims outright (here). As the daughter of a convert, married to a convert, I find Rabbi Schochet’s position personally offensive. The conversion system may be broken, but this is certainly not the way to fix it!

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8 thoughts on “Opening, not Slamming, the Door

  1. Thanks for sharing, Jess! I really love reading your opinions here – I shared with my rabbi’s wife as well 🙂 Maybe she’ll write something for you, who knows!

  2. The thought that I may never be officially Jewish can literally bring tears to my eyes. The idea of living forever on the outside of something that I can’t help but cling to is like the idea of being a ghost, stuck between two worlds.

    That, also, then brings an even worse scenario. What happens if an entire society is created of people who are Jewish without being Jewish? Even if the Conservative movement and the Reform movement still keep conversions open, how long will it be before the separation between the movements becomes so great that they’re no longer movements, but completely different religions.

    I know that, as you said, this guy is not getting a lot of support, and I fully understand why Halacha has to stay strict in the Orthodox community (otherwise, what’s the point?), but there is definitely a place for liberal Judaism and only so if it is still true Judaism. I understand that I will never be recognized as Jewish by the Orthodoxy, and I’m okay with that, but my kids don’t deserve to have their entire upbringing and heritage ignored because they were raised in a liberal Jewish community and they deserve to make Ba’al Tshuvah and marry any type of Jew they darn well please, regardless if they’re Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Haredi!

    • Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman (19th-century German Neo-Orthodox) as well as others were willing to convert the non-observant in an Orthodox conversion ritual, simply so that the person wouldn’t convert Reform instead. They reasoned that if we can convert a non-observant Jew’s non-Jewish spouse lest the Jew convert to Christianity (to join his non-Jewish spouse), then we can convert a non-Jew to Orthodoxy in order to avoid strengthening Reform.

      Rabbi Marc Angel’s book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion is a book-length treatment of this; he argues that when Orthodoxy decides to be strict and convert only those who are ready to be completely observant, all this accomplishes is that it strengthens the non-Orthodox movements. In other words, he says, Orthodoxy is shooting itself in the foot.

      Rabbi Angel largely follows Rabbi Benzion Uziel, the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, who argued that children of non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers are Jewish in some uncertain non-halakhic way, and that we must offer them Orthodox conversions in order to “save” them and return them to their proper place as members of the Jewish people. (Rabbis Isser Yehuda Unterman (of Britain and later the Chief Rabbi of Israel) and Eliezer Berkovits (pulpits in Germany, Britain, Australia, America, and Israel) had similar views.) For a summary of Rabbi Angel’s views on conversion, see Conversion to Judaism: Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge.

  3. Until recently, British Orthodoxy had the pride of having non-Orthodox Jews all belong to an Orthodox umbrella. Similarly to the Sephardim, they were able to grant tolerance and pluralism to the non-observant while ensuring that the official standard was always staunchly Orthodox.

    Unfortunately, WWII and the subsequent rise of the Gateshead Haredi community has destroyed that. Rabbi Marc Angel has said that the members of the Bedatz and Edah Haredit in Israel are “destroyers of the Jewish people”, and I think the same could be said of Haredi communities outside Israel as well, such as Lakewood and Gateshead.

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