Needed A Conversion Policy

Of all the narratives in the Bible, one of the most disturbing to me appears in the book of Ezra. A scribe in ancient Babylonia during the fifth century BCE, Ezra returned to Judea about 150 years after the Jews had been exiled from that land. To his dismay he found that the Jews who had returned earlier had largely intermarried with neighboring tribes.

“Separate yourselves from …the foreign women,” Ezra commanded, ordering the intermarried men to send their wives back to their own peoples along with the children they had borne. The command was meant to save the small, struggling Jewish community from disappearing into the nations around it, and some sages consider Ezra such a savior. Nevertheless it was a cruel demand. And although lists of intermarried men were drawn up, nobody knows how many actually cast out their wives and children.

I thought about Ezra’s harsh order over Shavuot, when the book of Ruth was read in synagogue. Ruth was the model convert to Judaism, uttering those memorable words to her mother-in-law Naomi, “… your people shall be my people and your God my God.”Why couldn’t Ezra have accepted the foreign-born wives in Judea the way Naomi accepted Ruth? The answer concerns timing. In earlier biblical eras, those who wished to join the Jewish community could do so simply by living among Jews and adopting their religion, as Ruth did. Such a person was called a “stranger,” or ger, and was to be treated kindly, as an equal. But in Ezra’s day, this casualness no longer seemed to work. The many foreigners who brought their own religious practices with them into the community threatened to dissipate its Jewishness.

Why, then, did Ezra not offer conversion, instead of ordering non-Jews kicked out? Timing again. Formal rules of conversion had not yet been developed. They came later, probably in the second and first centuries BCE. How sad that under his watch Ezra saw no choice but to break up families. How sad it is today, that thousands of years after Ezra, issues of conversion can still cause pain for individuals and families. A Chicago writer, Nancy Yos, describes in the March issue of Commentary magazine why she felt drawn to convert from Catholicism to Judaism, although her husband has not. Hers was a Reform conversion, she writes, to a “people without whom life would be intolerable.” In a letter in the magazine’s June issue, an Orthodox Israeli rabbi sympathizes with Yos, but states that her Reform conversion is “less than authentic.” He also questions how she can raise Jewish children with a non-Jewish husband. Shades of Ezra. Would the rabbi prefer that she dump her husband now, although he’s been consistently supportive of her conversion?

On the other hand, why can’t the Reform movement, which has done so much outreach and moved toward tradition in its conversion guidelines, commit itself fully to halachic standards, minimizing community divisiveness? By the same token, of course, when will the Orthodox, especially in Israel, finally agree to recognize the many Conservative and Reform conversions that do follow halacha? Several women I know have reluctantly undergone Orthodox conversions after their halachic Conservative ones to guarantee that if they have children who want to live in Israel someday, the Orthodox establishment will accept those children as Jews. Enough of this. Isn’t it time at last to end the conversion morass in Israel and here? Meanwhile, the good news is that even with infighting and even in this period of worldwide anti-Semitism, non-Jews feel attracted to Judaism. A few months ago I attended a panel discussion on conversion at the JCC in Manhattan organized by Rabbi Carol Levithan, director of Jewish learning programs there. The panelists had converted for diverse reasons, ranging from marriage to a Jew to a lifelong sense of feeling Jewish.

One of my favorite explanations came from a Swiss-German veterinarian who grew up Protestant, but was taken, he said facetiously, with a religion based on a “book [the Talmud] in which no one agrees with anyone else.” More seriously, he and the others spoke of Judaism as a religion of “doing” and of the excitement of learning about it. Those of us who are Jews by birth often take our heritage for granted, while those who choose Judaism long only to be considered “real Jews.”? Like Ruth and Abraham before her, these people give up their ancestral homes and their families to journey to an unknown place. Had Ezra understood the great commitment outsiders make when joining the Jewish people, perhaps he would have tried harder to incorporate them into Jewish life instead of pushing them away. Certainly we today need to give all who convert the total acceptance they deserve. We, too, once were strangers in a strange land.

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the SabbathDay”?

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