Important book about Jewish converts...3/2012 Mar 23, 2012 16:15:27 GMT -5
Post by shira on Mar 23, 2012 16:15:27 GMT -5
A Question Of Belonging, A book review by Jay P. Lefkowitz
The book: Pledges of Jewish Allegiance
By David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis
(Stanford, 206 pages, $30)
A firestorm erupted in the Jewish world a few years ago when the head of Israel's High Rabbinical Court issued a ruling invalidating thousands of conversions to Judaism performed under the authority of a well-known Orthodox rabbi who had been the director of the State Conversion Authority. The ruling was followed by an announcement from Israel's current chief rabbi reserving the right to revoke any conversion at any time, presumably if the sponsoring rabbi doesn't have the right pedigree or if the convert fails to live a life devoted to Jewish law.
Though such a position flies in the face of long-standing precedent, which holds that conversions are not reversible, the Israeli government's decision to vest exclusive authority over matters of personal status in the hands of clerics has made Israel resemble, if only in this respect, some of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
The question that lies at the heart of this controversy—"Who is a Jew?"—is not always easy to answer. Since the rabbis first codified Jewish law in the Mishna in 220 A.D., someone born to a Jewish mother has been considered a Jew. Notably, the Reform movement in the U.S. broadened the definition of a Jew to include patrilineal descent, though the other main branches of Judaism don't accept this innovation.
But the rules governing traditional conversion are more complicated. There is no prescribed conversion ritual in the Bible, and the Hebrew word used to describe a person not born into Judaism (ger) is ambiguous, meaning both "convert" and "stranger." When Moses, Joseph, David and Solomon took non-Jewish wives, the wives simply joined their husbands' community. Even Ruth, the paradigmatic symbol of conversion, undergoes no formal ritual; she becomes a Jew by declaring her loyalty to Naomi: "Wherever you go, I will go. . . . Your people shall be my people; your God my God."
Nor is rabbinical Judaism any clearer. The Mishna describes a process in which a would-be convert must first be challenged about his motives for wanting to become a Jew: "Don't you know that Israel is persecuted and oppressed, harassed and overcome by afflictions?" If the convert persists, he must then be given instruction in some of the major and minor commandments of Jewish law and must agree to accept them.
This second prong has given rise to much controversy: Rabbis diverge over what a convert must believe or commit to do in order to become a Jew. Although it has not always been so, many Orthodox rabbis today demand obedience to all of the Torah's 613 commandments. Such a requirement imposes a harsh double standard on converts, given the lack of nearly any ritual observance among most Jews, whose Jewish identity is never questioned.
Into this thicket have plunged David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, the leading institution of American Reform Jewry, and Daniel Gordis, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who lives in Israel and writes widely about Jewish culture. Although neither has Orthodox ordination, they are both scholars of the first order and have written an important book about conversion law and its ramifications for the Jewish community.
"Pledges of Jewish Allegiances" surveys the most influential rabbinical legal opinions about conversion by Orthodox rabbis in Europe, the U.S. and Israel over the past 200 years. Jewish law (like American law) is grounded both in an essential text (the Torah instead of the Constitution) and in precedent. Thus Messrs. Ellenson and Gordis begin with an analysis of classical Jewish sources about conversion (from the Bible and Talmud). They then turn to the legal opinions themselves and the facts and circumstances surrounding each case.
Their key theme is that Jewish law is susceptible to multiple interpretations. The authors provide several examples where Orthodox rabbis gave different answers to similar questions. Esriel Hildesheimer, a leading 19th-century German rabbi, refused to give his approval to a marriage between a Gentile man and a Jewish woman because he learned that they intended to be married civilly even if he denied the prospective husband's conversion request. But the rabbi's student David Hoffman permitted a Gentile man civilly married to a Jew to convert because, in Hoffman's view, the man no longer had a concealed motive. And Ben-Zion Meir Uziel, the first Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, justified his willingness to convert non-Jewish spouses because he believed such conversions were preferable to intermarriage.
Alas, times have changed. The current chief rabbi's declaration that conversions may be revoked has riven the Jewish community. The recent violence in the Jerusalem suburb of Bet Shemesh, incited when a modern-Orthodox girl was spat upon and called a whore by ultra-Orthodox residents, is evidence of the intolerance that flows from the chief rabbi's contemptuous view of non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The stakes for American Jews, too, are grave. In the de facto caste system created by the Israeli rabbinate, the vast majority of American Jews (fewer than 15% are Orthodox) fail the test of religious purity, and even American Orthodox rabbis are under pressure to conform to the chief rabbi's standards. No less important, the gulf between Israeli and American Jews may widen over the next generation as Jews whose conversions are not accepted in Israel have children of their own.
Messrs. Ellenson and Gordis demonstrate that there is an alternative within Jewish law to the religious extremism of the Israeli chief rabbinate today. Jewish law, as interpreted for centuries by Orthodox rabbis, is broad enough to adapt to a changing world and to the exigencies of particular cases—in a manner that is genuinely inclusive. We can only hope that the Orthodox rabbinate sees the wisdom of moving in such a direction.
Mr. Lefkowitz is a lawyer in New York City and adjunct professor at Columbia Law School.