Conversion to Judaism is a hot topic both in Israel and elsewhere. The recent firing of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of the conversion courts, has amplified the volume. Prominent U.S. Jewish newspaper editor Gary Rosenblatt featured Jerusalem Rabbi Benny Lau as a reluctant crusader against the increasingly haredi rabbinic establishment in Israel who was energized into action over the ruling that led to nullifying conversions permitted by Druckman, a Religious Zionist leader and head of the government’s special conversion administration.
Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, head of Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel, called in a Jerusalem Post article for religious Zionists to form parallel courts to perform marriages in what could be construed as civil disobedience.
At the same time, outside Israel, there are many people hungry to join the Jewish world. A San Francisco-based group, Bechol Lashon, which says it “advocate(s) for the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and through contemporary forces including intermarriage, conversion and adoption, announced its involvement in a project to convert 150 Ugandans and Kenyans to Judaism in a ceremony in the village of Nabugoye near Mbale, Uganda.
There is even talk that Jean Sarkozy, 21-year-old son of the French president and a rising political star in his own right, may convert to Judaism after his marriage to Jessica Sebaoun, an heiress to the Darty electronics and white goods retailing empire.
Various Hartman Institute scholars have been contributing to and commenting on the ever-contentious issue of conversion and “membership” in the Jewish people. In fact, the premiere issue of the Institute’s new journal, Havruta, is devoted to the issue.
Avraham Reiner’s piece, “‘Tough are gerim’: Conversion to Judaism in medieval Europe“, discusses the difficulties facing converts in that era, but finds inclusiveness and compassion in some rabbis of the day. “If the world at large was getting harder for Jews, should not Jews be easier on converts?” Reiner writes.
While those calling for more stringent criteria claim to be speaking with the authentic voice of Judaism, our analysis of the halakhic literature reveals that it is the more inclusive position which is truer to the classic halakhic tradition. Today’s rabbis would be well advised to adopt this view, not only for the sake of halakhic consistency, but also for the future of the Jewish People.
Finally, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, in a recent column, stated flatly that all Israelis must recognize once and for all that “the State of Israel cannot serve as the arbiter as to what constitutes an authentic conversion.”
Referring to the firing of Rabbi Druckman, Hartman described it as a wakeup call “not simply to the arrogance of the ultra-Orthodox, who deem to determine the Jewish policies for a country they do not value in a Jewish way,” but to all Jews, religious and non-religious alike.
The Jewishness of this country and its policies are in serious danger. We need Jewish policies that reflect and are grounded in the Zionist ethos, which recognize that Israel is the home of all Jews, a country grounded on the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. We require policies that respect this and which see it as the foundation for the direction they must take.