Conversion: The Need for Orthodox Leadership

In every generation throughout Jewish history there have been people who desired to enter into the Covenant of Israel and join their fate with the fate of the Jewish people. The earliest examples we have of such people are from the Tanach. The story of Ruth and her journey to the People of Israel became the paradigmatic story of conversion for the early rabbis1. Before Ruth rabbinic tradition speaks of Abraham as the first convert2 or of all of the Jewish people standing at Sinai as all converts3. Regardless of where conversion began, there has always been paths open for people who have yearned to convert to Judaism.

Unfortunately, nowadays we are facing a tremendous amount of internal conflict, power struggle and strife within the Orthodox rabbinic community that has directly impacted the personal status of thousands of people who have already converted and made the path towards conversion that much more murky and unclear for those seeking conversion through Orthodox auspices4. Most of these power struggles are between the segments within the American Orthodox rabbinate and between the American Orthodox rabbinate and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It is not the intent of this blog post to go into details of the dispute itself, many other people have done so and if one is curious they should read those materials. The truth is almost everyone involved in these disputes are convinced of the rightness of their approach and feel they have the best interest of the Jewish people at heart.

This, however, in my opinion is not the crux of the issue. While it is true that everyone involved feels the genuineness of their case and are advocating for what they believe is best long-term for the integrity of Torah and of the Jewish people, in the meantime, the Orthodox rabbinate has butchered its conversion processes and made the path forward for prospective converts extremely shaky, unreliable and tumultuous. This is not in the best interest of Orthodox Judaism nor for the Jewish community as a whole. It is imperative that conversion through Orthodox Judaism be a viable option for people that does not involve a constant second guessing of the validity of their conversion. In my time as a rabbi on a large college campus I have dealt with several cases of people who are the children of non-Orthodox conversions who now have the need to convert through Orthodoxy because of their own personal journey, life status issues, or simply a desire to be recognized as Jewish in the entire Jewish community and not only in their specific denomination.

Orthodoxy bears a sacred responsibility of maintaining a path for conversion that remains true to Torah and halacha while being possible for people from a variety of socio-economic, educational, racial and other backgrounds to access it. This requires members of the Orthodox rabbinic community to see from a “balcony perspective” and to understand the greater picture and the impact on all of the Jewish people and not only their own specific community. This also requires leaders of the Orthodox rabbinic community to move towards internal compromise for the sake of something much larger than their own individual principles and values.

I have my own perspective and understanding of how a halachic conversion process should function. Yet, for the sake of the larger Jewish world and for the sake of the untold amount of people who either have already converted or who are seeking a path towards joining the Jewish people that will bring universal recognition and avoid future difficulties for them or their children, the disputes must end and compromise and reconciliation must begin.

1. Ruth Rabbah 2:22
2. Talmud Chagigah 3a
3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:3
4. YNet News as one example of many news articles on this subject

  • Daniel

    I’m ok with reconciliation, but I frankly do not have any room for compromise, on this issue.

    I need to follow the halacha as my poskim determine. Now, there can be differences in interpretation of halacha, as there often are. But I can hardly be expected to act in accordance with someone else’s interpretation.

    The gemara says that Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, despite their disagreements, were friendly to one another, and would marry from one another’s families. Yet, Beis Shammai would tell Beis Hillel which families to avoid because of mamzeirus of tzaras ervah, and Beis Hillel would tell Beis Shammai which families to avoid because of pegam of yevama l’shuk.

    So I suppose we could reconcile, and then start keeping track of which families are not Jewish according to me. Perhaps some would view that as a positive development. I would not; all I see is a splitting of the Jewish people into multiple tribes, which after several generations would be completely separate.

    • Rabbi Ben Greenberg

      Yes, I agree that one should not be expected to act in accordance with someone else’s interpretation of halacha, that seems perfectly reasonable. Yet, can there not be room for consensus on matters that impact all of Klal Yisrael? Personal issues (i.e. whether you put on tefillin on chol hamoed or eat gebrochts, as just two examples) are one thing but matters of national significance are quite different. If so, can we find consensus in the Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 268:3, 12) which is based on the words of the Rambam (M”T, I”B 13:4, 14, 17) which is simply based on the Gemara in Yevamot 47a-b? It pains me to think we cannot for if we cannot then the scenario you painted at the end of your comment is quite likely.