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Can we agree on a standard for conversion?

Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovivei Torah
Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovivei Torah

Two articles showed up recently among postings by Facebook friends. One linked from the Sun Sentinel theorized that there should be a means to convert to Jewish culture without converting to the religion. The other article, from Ynews, noted that Israel’s chief rabbinate was planning to invalidate conversions by Avi Weiss, the noted, liberal, Orthodox rabbi. The appearance of these two articles within so short a time demands reexamining the conversion process and rethinking what it means today to be a Jew.

Describing Judaism as a culture is interesting. Cultures are characterized by several components. These include a common heritage, a language, and a body of folk practices. Certainly Judaism does all that, but culture alone cannot be the definition of Judaism. Other facets are equally essential. These include adherence to a set of common beliefs and a devotion to common values. There are aspects that are uniquely Jewish and beyond the matter of culture. Zionist Jews, for example, stress a relationship with the Land of Israel, the traditional homeland of the people. Indeed that facet informs Jewish culture extensively with a wide appearance in the belles’ letters of the people as well as its liturgy. Unique among Jews is the matter of peoplehood. DNA evidence and other medical records have proven that there truly is a common genealogy to the Jewish people. For generations there has been an ongoing argument as to whether Judaism is more a matter of religion or peoplehood. In both debates, whether casting Jews as a people or members of a religious group, or whether describing Jews as activists in a religion or part of a religious corpus, the argument is artificial. Since when must there be an either or choice in determining how a Jew identifies with his/her roots?

If the matter is of how one becomes a Jew, as is true for any other group, that decision is generally determined by rules and precedents that are enacted by its leadership. In the case of the Jewish people, those rules are called Halacha. While today those standards are generally described as religious, there was a time that those rules were just accepted as the guiding norms of the Jews. One must understand that the term religion is one external to Judaism and is used today to fit Judaism into the vast set of practices that exist around the world. Traditionally Jews saw their Judaism as their way of life. Halacha is and was the term traditionally used to describe that way of life. More than considering it as a set of laws, it is a set of normative practices.

In the era when those rules were established, and for generations that followed, the communal leaders who set and maintained those standards were a scholocracy. They led their people not because of their higher sanctity, but because of their deeper understanding of the intricacies and complexities by which the halachic practices developed. Throughout time there have been debates among scholars, at one time known as rabbis but today perhaps by other titles as well, as how Judaism evolved and was to be lived. In the rabbinic era and shortly thereafter there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, Karaites and others. Today we use different terms to describe approaches to Judaism. Several years ago an advertisement described 57 varieties of Judaism. Perhaps today there are even more.

Common among all these groups is that members of the group, its recognized leadership, determine what is demanded to be adopted into the Jewish people; to convert. Jews could define how they identify their Judaism, and no one else can impose that. Who is a Jew, though, perforce remains a decision by the existing Jewish leadership, and must follow a set of prescribed rules that informed Jews accept. It is recognized that different groups among the Jewish universe may apply those rules differently. This does not impinge on any individual’s ability to adhere to the Jewish culture or to identify with the Jewish people. That individual decision, though, has never been sufficient to define him or her as a Jew.

This in turn leads to the issue of Rabbi Weiss. If who is and who is not a Jew is a matter of the application of Halacha, then whether a rabbi is the most stringent or the most liberal rabbi is irrelevant. It reveals a sad reality among the officers of Israel’s chief rabbinate. The decision as to who may be in a religious court, the body that decides whether a candidate for conversion is or not accepted into the Jewish people, is a political determination. That is sad. It contravenes centuries of precedent in which it was a set of rules, Halacha that established how the Jewish people should act.

In Israel today, Reform and Masorti (Israeli Conservative) movements are attempting to persuade the government to accept the pluralism of the modern People of Israel. It is an argument long debated in the Diaspora. To this writer’s way of thinking it is the wrong argument. For Chareidim who control the Chief Rabbinate and for liberal movements there should be a negotiation. It should not be based on pluralism but on readiness to define for all a set of guiding policies and procedures that all groups will accept to determine which aspirants will be accepted as converts.

Without such a common set of rules, Rabbi Weiss’ case may be followed by many others. Moreover, It could lead to dividing Jews into a network of castes. Weiss’ case will not be the last until common rules are accepted. Until then the Chief Rabbinate can continue to act capriciously, and that would be a travesty.

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