EVEN IN THE MIDST of Israel’s current securityf crisis, an intra-Jewish battle over the definition of Jewish identity is brewing. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in February that the Interior Ministry is required to register people converted to Judaism by Reform and Conservative rabbinical courts in Israel as Jews. Undoubtedly, the “Who’s a Jew” debate – which has roiled the Jewish world for over a decade – is destined once again to be a focal point of division among Jews and Jewish religious denominations in both Israel and the Diaspora.

In his article in the April 22 issue of The Jerusalem Report, Rabbi Avi Shafran implied that there is a monolithic Orthodox position on Jewish identity and conversion, and that the halakhah speaks with a single voice. He argued that the State of Israel should prefer this voice over the stances advanced by the liberal Jewish movements on the grounds “that only a single standard for personal status issues can maintain the societal cohesiveness necessary for the Jewish state’s future.”

The standard that the Israeli Orthodox establishment puts forth on conversion and Jewish identity does tend to be monolithic. It is generally stringent, based on an uncompromising assertion that Jewish law requires a pledge to observe all 613 commandments as a prerequisite for conversion. In the case of gentile children adopted by non-observant Jewish parents, conversion is also denied on the grounds that such children – inasmuch as they will be raised in non-observant homes – are unlikely to be observant. Finally, the Orthodox rabbis who champion such positions generally assert that conversion for an ulterior motive, such as marriage to a Jew, precludes acceptance into the Jewish community.

While there are unquestionably grounds in Jewish law for these rulings, they hardly exhaust the range of halakhic opinion. On the contrary, Jewish law speaks in multiple authentic voices – even within the Orthodox camp – on these issues and the Jewish public should be aware of this. For example, the legal writings of Orthodox Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), who was head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin and the greatest traditional Jewish legal authority of his time and place, present a completely different approach.

In his “Melammed Leho’il,” Rabbi Hoffmann employed lenient precedents in Jewish law as warrants for a relaxed stance on intermarriage and conversion – a stance he considered better suited to meet the challenges of Jewish peoplehood in modernity. In the case of conversion prompted by desire to marry a Jew, Rabbi Hoffmann noted that two Talmudic masters – Hillel and Rabbi Hiyya – approved conversions in cases where gentiles had ulterior motives. Indeed, these precedents gave rise to a rabbinic principle – “All depends upon the judgment of the rabbinical court” – granting wide latitude to rabbinic authorities as they struggle to resolve these questions in an authentic and humane Jewish manner.

Rabbi Hoffmann used this principle to allow non-Jewish partners of Jewish men and women to convert to Judaism even when it appeared that they would not observe every stricture of Jewish law. In an age and setting where social relationships between Jews and gentiles were common, he believed it was in the Jewish community’s interest to permit their conversions, as such an embrace would keep their Jewish partners and their progeny within the Jewish fold.

Other modern Orthodox figures such as Eastern European Rabbi David Horowitz in his “Imrei David” and the great first Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel issued identical opinions. Furthermore, rabbis such as Marcus Horovitz of Frankfurt (1844-1910) and Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) of Thorn asserted that the conversion of infants born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers into Judaism was a commandment imposed upon the rabbinic court even in instances where it was unlikely that such children would become observant Jewish adults. As Rabbi Kalischer, one of the great forerunners of religious Zionism, phrased it in an 1862 responsum, “Perhaps great religious leaders will spring from among them.”

These sources indicate that there is hardly a single standard that Jewish law puts forth on the matter of conversion and Jewish identity. Jewish law here – as in so many other areas – is flexible and supple.

The Orthodox establishment ought to be at least intellectually and religiously honest enough to admit that there is no monolithic standard of Jewish law that keeps the state rabbinate from adopting a less exclusive posture. Its current stance is not demanded by Jewish law, but reflects a sociological judgment that privileges stringent rulings as the best way to preserve Jewish tradition in an age of widespread non-observance.

I would argue the more inclusive interpretations of Jewish law that most Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis adopt on questions of personal status – which comport with the Orthodox understandings I have cited – more compellingly address the needs of Israeli and Diaspora Jews than do the readings provided by the majority of Orthodox authorities today. The State of Israel would do well to heed their words.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


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