Retooling halakhic conversion for the sake of a healthy Jewish identity in Israel

Re-imagining halakhic conversion matters is necessary both for the health of Jewish identity in Israel and for the attainment of untapped potential of Jewish possibilities in the Jewish state.

Historically, radical change has been an essential element in the survival of Jews and Judaism. This has been true not only with offshoots from, or “reformers” of the Jewish establishment, but also with that establishment itself, when it has recognized the need to adapt.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., for example, the sages changed the focus of Jewish worship from sacrifices to prayer and study. Not long thereafter, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi broke with normative Jewish law and compiled a heretofore prohibited written record of the Oral Law – the Mishnah – and in the 13th century Rabbi Menachem Hameiri unilaterally declared Christianity as non-idolatrous, thus allowing Jews to conduct business with a population previously prohibited to them.

The definition of Jewish identity has also undergone radical change over the past 2,000 years. During the times of our forefathers and foremothers, patrilineal descent was the key to being Jewish. Thus, Jacob’s Jewish identity was passed on to all 12 of his sons, who then became the heads of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and further in Leviticus 24, a man born to an Egyptian father and a Jewish mother is not given the status of an Israelite.

Culturally, patrilineal descent made sense in the ancient world, as it was the most reliable way to insure continuation of the Jewish people, for whomever a man married became part of his clan.

Critical to this conversation is the fact that prior to the Temple’s destruction, a person was considered to have converted to Judaism if he or she lived among Jews (as Ruth says to Naomi, in Ruth 1:16, “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy People shall be my People, and thy God shall be my God”), and underwent ritual immersion, and, if a male, ritual circumcision.

The earliest mention of the move to matrilineal descent is found in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12/13). Most believe it was a response to wars waged against the Jews of Palestine by the Greek-Assyrians and Romans, which threw into question the paternity of babies born to Jewish women.

When the Jews were dispersed, the sovereignty of Jewish society was lost. For the next 2,000 years, Jews were hosted by, and lived among, strictly gentile societies. It can be argued that one consequence of that dispersion was yet another radical change in the definition of a Jew – this time with respect to conversion requirements, which evolved to include a commitment to observance of Jewish law. Proof of such an unprecedented requirement is found in the commentary of the Tosafot – the post-Talmudic, early-Medieval rabbinic voices who demanded halakhic observance to accompany conversion. Since then, standards of observance have continued to be requisite for conversion in the halakhic Ashkenazi world.

Fast forward to modern times. Though the Jews’ proportion of the world’s population decreases yearly and the number of people opting out of Jewish identification is rapidly growing, halakhic observance requirements for conversion to Judaism remain in place. And in the Diaspora, these requirements maintain their historic relevance, as they ensure the commitment to Judaism and public expressions of Jewish identity for a Jew-by-choice.

However, for those people who move to Israel under the Law of Return but do not have halakhic status as Jews; who have left the birthplaces to come to the world’s only Hebrew-speaking society; who are prepared to serve or have their children serve in the Israel Defense Forces; who take upon themselves the challenges of living in an Israel that is under constant threat specifically because it is a Jewish state – a return to the Jewish societal milieu model for those who are prepared to undergo circumcision and ritual immersion should be sufficient for a halakhic conversion.

It is a well-known halakhic tool – the very same tool employed by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi to circumvent the prohibition on writing down the Oral Law: to permit an action that has heretofore been prohibited when doing so will result in benefit to the Jewish people, God and the Torah.

Retooling halakhic conversion in Israel will increase the number of Jews living here; increase the number of Jews engaging in Torah study; increase the importance and relevance of Jewish identity for citizens of Israel; and decrease the number of halakhically prohibited marriages.

Most non-halakhic beneficiaries of the Law of Return come here with a desire to be recognized as Jewish, and many seem willing to undergo formal conversion. But the strictures imposed by the Israeli rabbinate are so great that only a small fraction of those wanting to convert are allowed to do so. Consequently, as time passes, their interest, motivation and urgency to be recognized as Jewish among all wane. For both this immigrant population and for those secular Israelis who see prohibitive halakhic definitions of status as prejudicial and anachronistic – efforts to rethink halakhic conversion may stem the weakening relevance of Jewish identity among Israelis, and give our Education Ministry a chance to correct the error of not teaching Judaism in the secular schools.

Recognition of the radical difference in Jewish life afforded by the State of Israel – a phenomenon unknown in the world for 2,000 years – certainly qualifies as justification for a re-imagining of halakhic conversion matters. Such a change is necessary both for the health of Jewish identity in Israel and for the attainment of untapped potential of Jewish possibilities in the Jewish state.

Adam Frank is rabbi of the Masorti Movement’s Congregation Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem.


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