Monday, June 06, 2016

Mass Conversions to Judaism

Some of the new converts from Madagascar (JTA)
One of the hot button issues of the day is conversion to Judaism as it applies to an estimated 300 thousand non Jewish immigrants to Israel. This has been an ongoing – and unresolved issue for some time now.

The problem is as follows. These 300 thousand immigrants are mostly from the former Soviet Union. They think of themselves as Jewish and were persecuted as such in their former homeland. Which is why they made Aliyah. In most cases they are the products of an intermarriage where the mother was not Jewish. If she was converted at all, it was not by Orthodox standards. But the children of these marriages were raised as Jews albeit without actually being observant (for the most part). They are all proud to be so and their emigration to Israel is their ultimate way of expressing that pride.

In most cases they integrated quite well into Israeli secular society believing they were Jews and participating fully in Israeli life including serving in the military. Which in many cases involve risk to their lives – protecting their fellow citizens. And although they were not fully observant, many of them were traditional and practiced Judaism in some form. Such as having a Seder on Pesach and perhaps even fasting on Yom Kippur.

But as far as Halacha (as defined by Orthodoxy) was concerned, they were not Jewish at all – since in Judaism the religion of an individual follows the mother. So if their mother was not Jewish, being raised as a Jew and thinking one is a Jew – doesn’t matter.

This is where the controversy comes in. The religious world agrees that these people require conversions if they are to be considered Jews. The debate is over how to do that. What does it take for someone to convert to Judaism?

Two of the three requirements is a circumcision (if you are male) and immersing in a Mikvah. Everyone in Orthodoxy agrees to this. The third requirement is where the debate comes in.

To briefly sum up the positions of both sides, the vast majority of Poskim require a sincere pledge to be observant. There is apparently a minority opinion that does not require that. Most of the people from Russia that stem from mixed marriages are aren’t observant , and don’t intend to be. So that any kind of mass conversion of people that are not observant would not be valid according to the vast majority of Poskim. This has been standardized by the Charedi world,  Israeli Rabbinate and in America, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 

But many religious Zionist rabbis in Israel have been pushing back against this requirement. The masses of Russian Jews that think they are Jewish, are fully integrated into society; serve in the military, and have Jewish blood in them (through their father). They argue that all this militates for relying on a leniency for conversion with respect to observance. They believe that for the greater good of the country and society, this is what should be done. (There are other ways around this requirement in certain circumstances which are also controversial – but are beyond the scope of this post).

To the best of my understanding this is what the debate is about. 

It seems that we are at an impasse as many Russians like that have undergone conversion using leniencies – for the sake of the Klal. This is the Religious Zionist position as adhered to by organizations like Tzohar. They believe that without converting these over 300 thousand people, a demographic time bomb exists that will undermine the very Jewishness of the state. That – along with the fact that they have Jewish blood via their fathers is enough to use a Kula of a Daas Yachid.

The Charedi position is that a conversion without a commitment to observance is invalid. This is also the position of the Israeli Rabbinate and it is the official position of the RCA (whose conversions are recognized by Israel). They believe that even if the Klal is undermined, that does not justify ignoring a requirement that they believes is vital to the conversion process to the point of invalidating it if it is ignored. (Lip service to observance alone is not enough. One must actually sincerely commit to it in order for a conversion to be valid.) 

What happens to the Klal by virtue of a 300 thousand (and growing) non Jews being part of it? What about the sacrifices by the many among them serving in the IDF on dangerous missions? It doesn’t matter since Halacha is what it is - the chips falling where they may!

I can see both side of the issue. But lost in all of this is the fact that even if the Kula was utilized, we will be creating a  demographic that – if they are truly Jewish – will be deliberately be violating Halacha – with all the consequences attached to that. Whereby leaving them as non Jews, they do not need to follow anymore than the 7 basic laws of mankind. Which most of them probably already do. 

One may ask, should that really be a concern when it comes to saving the Klal? I don’t know. But is is surely something to think about. One wonders why it is all that important to a non observant individual why it should make all that difference to them whether they are Jewish or not? They can be full participants in Israeli society with all their civil rights intact. Shouldn’t the desire to be Jewish include a desire to follow the laws of Judaism? I think it does. If one is serious about becoming a Jew then one needs to study what that means. And once one studies it they can decide if that is what they want to do. If you want to play the game for real, you must follow the rules.

Contrast this with what happened recently in Madagascar. From JTA
 A nascent Jewish community was officially born in Madagascar last month when 121 men, women and children underwent Orthodox conversions…
The conversions, which took place over a 10-day period, were the climax of a process that arose organically five to six years ago when followers of various messianic Christian sects became disillusioned with their churches and began to study Torah.
Through self-study and with guidance from Jewish internet sources and correspondence with rabbis in Israel, they now pray in Sephardic-accented Hebrew and strictly observe the Sabbath and holidays. 
How inspiring! How different this is from what is going on in Israel. These people sought truth and found it in Judaism. And they saw that observance is a requirement. Which made it easy to see these conversions as sincere. And made it possible for three Orthodox rabbis to convene a Beis Din (religious court) and convert them all.

Should this not be the requirement for being a Jew? Learning about Judaism understanding what it really means and committing yourself to it? Wouldn’t it be nice if the 300 thousand Russian immigrants actually understood what being Jewish is? That it’s even more than about serving in the army – as important as that is?  That to live as a Jew means being observant of the laws God mandated for us?

I don’t know. Right or wrong - for me there is just something off about saying ‘go immerse in a Mikvah and abracadabra – you’re now a Jew’. ‘Continue as before.’