A landmark article has been published in Tradition Magazine. Rabbis Michael J. Broyde and Shmuel Kadosh have written a treatise on the issue of conversion to Judaism. It was written in the context of refuting a recent book by authors Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar who challenge the notion that acceptance of Mitzvah observance is a necessary component to the conversion process.
In going through their refutation of Sagi and Zohar, Rabbis Broyde and Kadosh have done thorough research on this matter and have surveyed a tremendous amount Halachic literature on the subject.
Though I have some very minor quibbles with one or two of their points I support their conclusions and highly recommend this article. It is currently available in PDF.
They discuss and clarify many of questions raised on this issue in the past - both here and elsewhere. This issue of conversions in Israel of masses of non observant Russian immigrants who have been raised Jewish but are technically not - is as of yet unresolved.
Debates have been held. Edicts put forward. Respected rabbinic figures have been trashed on both sides… and there has been a lot of just plain name calling. Individuals with long service to Klal Yisroel have been besmirched. In some cases legitimate conversions have been cast into doubt. Many sincere converts have been force to re-convert along with their entire families because of this controversy.
Rabbis Broyde and Kadosh have in my view successfully refuted the claims of Sagi and Zohar. The overwhelming evidence of Halachic literature supports the notion that an applicant for conversion to Judaism must accept the requirement to abide by the Mitzvos of the Torah. Without that there can be no conversion. The applicant remains a non Jew even if the rituals are performed.
But the question remains. What is to be done with non Jews who were raised to believe they were Jews but are not observant – and do not intend to be? They serve in the army and are in may ways culturally Jewish – even observing in their own way - some of the Mitzvos.
Non Halachic ‘conversions’ is certainly not the answer. But in a postscript to their article Rabbis Broyde and Kadosh offer a possible alternative that may in fact have the desired effect - and which has more merit Halachicly:
Yet in the area of conversion, there is perhaps a possible solution to what ails us, and it is on much firmer ground in Jewish law than the solution proposed in the book being reviewed. There is a large number of Russians in Israel who are culturally and socially, but not halakhically Jewish.
The writing of R. Moshe Feinstein have shown the way to a realistic solution to this and many other conversion problems, particularly in Israel where Jewish identity is a more central concern. R. Moshe permits the regular conversion of minors into Judaism, so as to create, after the passage of many years, a society in which all those who think they are Jewish, actually are.
Unlike the conversion of an adult (which certainly does require kabbalat ha-mitsvot by the convert) the conversion of a minor certainly does not require acceptance of mitsvot, but may be done with the consent of the rabbinical court—al da’at bet din (Shulhan Arukh, YD 268:7).
While the exact parameters of what this means is subject to significant dispute, R. Feinstein actually posits the most liberal view—that since it is always better to be a Jew, every child is eligible for conversion even if they will not be religious upon becoming an adult.
Others contend that such a policy of conversion would be unwise, but it seems at least reasonable that once the conversion of a minor is done by a valid bet din, it is always a valid conversion. Under this type of a conversion program, all children of parents who identify as Jewish and wish to have their children raised as Jewish (even if the parents themselves are not halakhically Jewish) would simply have their children converted to Judaism by a ger katan program (and perhaps would be expected to send their children to the mamlakhti dati school system).
Over the course of a generation, this type of program could potentially solve the current crisis developing in Israel.