The entire State of Israel (when not occupied with Ehud Olmert’s cash-filled envelopes from Morris Talansky) has been in an uproar the past month over the conversion issue.  To briefly recap the facts:  the High Rabbinic Court, led by Rav Sherman, declared invalid all of the conversions made over the past ten or fifteen years by Rav Hayyim Druckman—a leading Religious Zionist rabbi and educator, head of a special Court especially created to handle conversion and thereby relieve the huge back-log of (mostly Russian) immigrants wishing to convert to Judaism.  The main argument for this rather drastic step was that Druckman was too lenient, allowing people who are ultimately not committed to a fully observant life style to be accepted as converts. 

I will leave aside the political aspect of the issue:  i.e., the power struggle aspects, and that over the past few decades the Haredim have gradually come to replace the “Mizrachinikim” as the leading force in Israel determining the direction of religious life, and especially halakhic public policy issues (also regarding issues of marriage and divorce, the agunah question, etc.)  Nor will I address the halakhic aspect of the question, including the concept of retroactively nullifying a conversion, which I find most peculiar and difficult to justify, in light of the basic concept of conversion, once performed, as an unqualified, final act  (see what I wrote on this and other issues over a year ago, in HY VIII: Vayikra=Vayikra [Rashi]).  Nor will I dwell on the grave insult to an entire community of non-Haredi Torah scholars, in the high-handed treatment of Rav Druckman.

I would simply wish, in the spirit of Shavuot and the reading the Book of Ruth to make a few short comments about the central issue here:  the definition of Jewishness.  The core issue is the old one:  Is Judaism or Jewishness primarily a matter of peoplehood or religion?  The Haredim are clearly pushing a purely religious, halakhic model:  one who unreservedly accepts belief in God and His Torah, and commits him/herself to live thereby, may become a Jew;  one who does not, cannot do so.  (Moreover, even within the religious context, the Haredi model is that of a “sect’ than that of a “church,” to use the language of sociology—but that is another, albeit closely related discussion.)  Much of the counter argument, say, in the secular Israeli press, takes the other tack:  the Jews are a people, who have lived in Exile, and who have now returned to their homeland.  Anyone who participates in the life of the nascent state, serves in its army, speaks Hebrew, participates in its culture and everyday life, and chooses to raise his children here, etc., is a welcome and worthy addition to the Jewish people, regardless of his or her halakhic or theological beliefs or practices, or absence thereof. 

Both are in a sense right, and both are wrong.  The Book of Ruth presents the classic answer to this question.  When Naomi attempts to dissuade Ruth from following her, she replies, “Wherever you go, I shall go;  wherever you sleep, I shall sleep;  your people are my people, your God is my God.  Where you die, there I shall die, and there will I be buried” (1:16-17).  In brief, the model for the identity of this woman, seen by our tradition as the paradigmatic proselyte, is that nationhood and religion are welded together inseparably:  “your people are my people, and your God is my God.”

In the ancient world, and in medieval Judaism, the two were indeed more or less identical.  Thus, R. Saadya Gaon could say that “Israel is a nation by virtue of the Torah.”  In the pre-modern world, the sociological reality was that one was born into a given religion and died in it, and only rarely was it a matter of personal choice.  Indeed, in the Middle East today religion is largely a matter of communal belonging;  in Lebanon, for example, being a Shi’ite or Sunnite or Druze or Christian is first and foremost a matter of birth.  There are even those who are atheists, but atheist Shiites, Sunnites, Latin or Greek Christians, etc. 

The problem is that, in the modern world, these two elements have come apart.  Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the only solution to the dilemma—both in terms of intellectual honesty, of stating the simple truth, and in practical terms of public policy—is to understand that Jewish identity is in fact both religious and national/ethnic.  Indeed, the Rav made an attempt to provide a theological framework for this insight in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, where he develops the idea of two covenants:  the covenant of destiny (brit ha-goral), i.e., being born into the Jewish nation, symbolized by infant circumcision;  and the covenant of purpose (brit ha-yi’ud), symbolized by Sinai, and the voluntary acceptance of the Torah.  Thus, a way must be found to conduct conversion to Judaism—which, remember, is also a gateway to Israeli citizenship, under the Law of Return—in a way that recognizes both:  the common sense understanding of belonging to the Jewish people, while somehow acknowledging its religious roots.  How this is to be done in practice sounds a bit like squaring the circle;  particularly as, to avoid a total split within the people, the solution must be one which can be supported, at very least, by a broad reading of the Rabbinic halakhic tradition.  (But see on this Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi’s excellent study, Transforming Identity:  The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew:  Structure and Meaning)

More important, all this will require good will and mutual respect, relinquishing power struggles and hatred of ideological opponents—items in notoriously short supply in our country, not to mention the Middle East generally. 


Originally published at You can comment here or there.


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