Monday, February 04, 2013

Understand conversion – Israel's survival is at stake

It was announced Wednesday that the Elections Board has strongly recommended the removal of Shas' insidious video that viciously questions the entire government (and army) conversion authorities, characterizing them as cheap fictions. Shas, happily, has agreed to comply with Justice Elyakim Rubenstein's suggestion. In addition, removing the video also removes a striking irony. The message conveyed by this cheap piece of propaganda is diametrically opposed to the published opinions of none other than Rav Ovadia Yosef, the putative supreme authority of Shas. Rav Ovadia, In stark contrast to other Haredi authorities, was very supportive of Rav Haim Druckman, when he headed the National Conversion authority. (The fact that Shas MK's didn't know that says alot about their Jewish Literacy and/or the true standing of Rav Ovadia in Shas, but I digress).
The ad has engendered a fair number of responsestwo of the better ones appeared right here at the Times of Israel. That is a good thing, because this election is as much (if not more) about the Jewish character of the Jewish State, than it is about Social Justice and our future relations with the Palestinians.
The Conversion question stands at the center of a much broader debate, comprehending many different, if related topics. Discussion of the question of 'Who is a Jew?', for obvious reasons, tends to quickly become very personal, and very nasty. This is certainly understandable. It is also unhelpful. If we are to address the question, we need to restrain our passions and speak with our heads, as much as with our hearts. We also need to be better informed voters and citizens.
So, even if it was just a slogan for a now defunct, much lamented clothing chain, I agree with Sy Syms that 'An educated consumer is our best customer.' Toward that end, I would like to offer a series of brief points to focus the discussion. I believe that they reflect objective facts (though, I am sure that others will differ). At the very least, my hope is to bring the discussion to a more constructive level.
1. As opposed to Christianity and Islam, Judaism has traditionally defined itself as a religious commitment that under girds a nation's identity. The two elements are so intertwined as to be, practically, inseparable. That is why one's basic standing as a Jew is unaffected by one's level of observance, and why conversion has an unabashedly religious character.
2.  Historically, as the late Professor Jacob Katz used to observe, levels of personal (non)observance often lead to heated arguments and a lot of bad blood. They do not, however, tear the Jewish People asunder. Only differences over the religious question of 'Who is a Jew' can achieve that. That's why there was no schism between Pharisees and Sadducees, between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, between Maskilim and Orthodox, or between Secular Zionists and Haredim. That is precisely what, in the end, drove Jewish Christians, Karaites, and Sabbatians out of the fold.
3. In Israel, especially, it is a matter of both physical and national survival that our tribal unity not be destroyed. Put differently, one's Jewish bonafides (and national solidarity) are defined by one's birth and the validity of one's conversion. They are expressed by our ability to marry one another. (At least, that's what the Talmud and Maimonides said.)
4. Western culture and thought preach the absolute, total autonomy of the individual. Judaism traditionally maintains that the individual has free will and free choice. However, Jewish People-hood makes demands on the individual that s/he may well not like. At rock bottom, then, Jewish Nationhood and Religion are not 'politically correct.'  (As in, 'Who are you to tell me whether I am a Jew, or not?').
5. There are positions, because of their liberalism, that non-Traditional Jews can adopt, which Traditional Jews cannot. Traditional Judaism, with all due respect and affection, can't compromise on the assertions that: 1) no conversion can be halakhically valid unless performed by an Orthodox rabbinical court 2) a convert, like every Jew, is theoretically bound to observe the Torah's commandments. That is why presumptive 'acceptance of the commandments' (Qabbalat ha-Mitzvot) is a factor in the conversion process.
6. Since the Emancipation, when being Jewish no longer presumed being religiously observant, the debate has raged among Halakhic authorities as to what minimal degree of observance should be demanded of the potential convert. Nevertheless, a commitment to Jewish observance is necessary, as with all systems of naturalization.
This is not the forum to vet that debate. However, the Talmud and all subsequent authorities make it patently clear that if a conversion is effected by a qualified rabbinical court, based upon accepted precedent as to the extent of a convert's a priori observance, then that conversion stands and cannot be reversed (except, perhaps, in cases of outrageous fraud). Furthermore, anyone who has ever studied rabbinic responsa knows that rabbinic collegiality demands that, especially in matters of personal status, one court's rulings are respected by another's.
7. Israel's rabbinic establishment has violated two thousand years of Jewish Legal practice in its arrogant (and often, ignorant) behavior regarding rabbinic court actions, generally, and conversions, in particular. (For example, one rabbinic court judge was heard to observe that no one outside of Israel knows how to study Talmud, so no one there is reliable.)
Consider the infamous disqualification of thousands of conversions undertaken under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office Conversion Commission. Overwhelmingly, in determining the minimal requirements expected of the converts, these courts relied on an explicit ruling by the preeminent halakhic authority, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Resp. Ahiezer III, 23). Before World War 2, R. Grodzinski's rulings were accepted as final throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Lithuania (with the possible exception of Hungary). Even those who might have disagreed with him, would never have dared to dismiss a court action based on his decision. Yet that is, effectively, what the Rabbinic Courts did in overturning the conversion authority actions. They not only 'oppressed the stranger,' they casually dismissed the greatest Lithuanian Haredi authority of Pre-War Europe and made a mockery of two thousand years of Orthodox rabbinic collegiality.
I started by saying that the conversion issue lies at the interface of the colliding questions regarding our Jewish identity in the Land of Israel. The recently published Guttman Study confirmed an impression that I've had for many years. There is an ongoing, very laudable process through which Israeli Jews are becoming more Jewishly educated, involved and expressive. I firmly believe that this process is critical to our self-preservation in the Land of Israel. After all, sharing the same Jewish Collective Memory,the same self-image as the latest stage in four millennia of history, the same ethnic and religious solidarity that has sustained us through our long exile- what good will fancy weapons do, without the will to use them?
[This column appeared in the Times of Israel on January 10, 2013]

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