Scandal in the Rabbinate

Israel?s Supreme Rabbinic Court effectively accepted a radical stance that conversions can be retroactively annulled. The decision is a scandal.

Once, the rules seemed clear: Reform or Conservative converts knew that some Jews wouldn?t accept them as members of the tribe. Orthodox conversions were honored by everyone, including Israel?s state rabbinate. They were the gold standard.

It has actually never been so simple. Orthodox rabbis have cast doubts on one another?s conversions, and the Israeli rabbinate has become steadily more selective even about accepting Orthodox converts who come from the diaspora. But the idea of universally accepted conversions collapsed completely with a decision of Israel?s Supreme Rabbinic Court publicized in May. The panel of three judges upheld a lower court?s ruling that a woman who had converted 15 years ago?under state-sanctioned Orthodox auspices?was not Jewish, because she?s not currently living by Orthodox law.

The judges also cast doubt on thousands of conversions performed through the state?s Conversion Authority, headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading religious Zionist rabbi. (The Authority was set up to ease the conversion process, until then handled by state rabbinic courts.) What?s more, the court effectively accepted a radical stance that conversions can be retroactively annulled.

The decision is a scandal: People who made the choice to become Jews, studied Judaism and underwent the required rituals now find their identity challenged. Children born to female converts have been put in limbo.

But the implications go further. The decision undermines the last teetering arguments for state-established religion in Israel. It removes the basis for the controversial agreement on conversion between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)?representing modern Orthodoxy?and the Israeli rabbinate. And it demonstrates that ultra-Orthodoxy is not old-time religion, but rather a modern movement?one increasingly setting itself apart from the rest of Judaism.

Fortunately, a guide exists for those perplexed by the current crisis: Israeli scholars Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar?s newly published book, Transforming Identity, traces how giyyur, the process of becoming Jewish, has developed in rabbinic tradition. Theirs is that rare scholarly study ofesoteric material that?s easily read by lay people.

As Sagi and Zohar demonstrate, the Talmud contains two views of giyyur. One describes it as joining a group defined by the discipline of religious practice ? the equivalent of joining a religious order. In the other view, giyyur is a ritual process by which ?an individual?born as a gentile is transformed into a Jew,? a member of a kinship group. When a convert immerses in a mikveh, a ritual bath, and emerges, it?s as if he has reemerged from the womb and been reborn into the Jewish family.

For centuries, the model of joining the tribe dominated halachic thinking. At the same time, rabbis have argued over whether a person had to show religious motives to be allowed through the gates of rebirth. But everyone has agreed on this: Giyyur is irreversible. A convert who doesn?t keep the commandments is precisely like a Jew born of a Jewish mother who eats treif. Both are still Jewish.

In the last century or so, as Sagi and Zohar show, a new approach to giyyur has developed in ultra-Orthodoxy. First, some rabbis began to require converts to have inner sincerity in accepting the commandments ?for the sake of heaven.? Demanding an inner feeling was a fundamental innovation. Since the 1980s one Israeli rabbi, Gedalya Axelrod, has promoted an even more radical innovation: If a convert does not strictly follow religious law, we can deduce that she was insincere at the time of conversion. So the conversion is void. Therefore, all conversions are conditional on converts? current behavior. Axelrod?s revolutionary view has gained support among Israeli rabbinic court judges and underlies the lower court decision that was just upheld by the Supreme Rabbinic Court.

In the past, many Orthodox Zionists defended Israel?s state rabbinate by arguing that it preserved ?one Jewish people.? No one but the rabbinate could perform marriage, divorce or conversion, and everyone accepted the rabbinate?s decisions. Everyone knew who was Jewish, who was single or married. So went the argument, but the argument is dead. Now, one state-backed rabbinic body can convert you, but another can decide you?re not Jewish. You get the uncertainties of pluralism along with the tyranny of state-imposed religion.

In America, the RCA announced earlier this year that it was establishing a network of conversion courts following a standardized policy on who could be accepted for giyyur. The move followed pressure from Israel?s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. Critics within the RCA said the new system would rob American rabbis of discretion in dealing with converts. Proponents claimed it would ensure that the Israeli rabbinate would accept American Orthodox converts.

The proponents were wrong. Rabbi Amar can agree to accept RCA converts. But tomorrow, an Israeli rabbinic court can declare those converts to be gentiles. The RCA has traded its birthright for less than a bowl of stew.

The court?s ruling is based on an ultra-Orthodox school of thought. Ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to represent Judaism as it was and criticize innovations made by other Jews in response to modernity. But ultra-Orthodoxy is itself a response to modernity, a new form of Judaism. Sometimes it makes innovations as radical as any coming from the other streams. Treating conversion as contingent and reversible is a case in point.

Given the ideological divisions in contemporary Judaism, there is no universal standard for who is Jewish. The ultra-Orthodox have fed the uncertainty. There?s no way that other groups, including modern Orthodoxy, can play by ultra-Orthodox rules, and no reason to try. Responsible rabbis will make their choices on conversion based on their own understanding of Jewish law and of the good of the converts and the community.

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