Assembly-line Jewish conversion

The situation resulting from the immigration of hundreds of thousand of people who are not Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law) during the 1990s poses a tough challenge to Orthodoxy, a challenge it doesn’t seem able to meet. The reason is simple: In contrast to the conservative and technical nature of halakha, public opinion is characterized by flexibility and joie de vivre. While those hundreds of thousands of people are considered non-Jews by halakha, as far as most Israeli citizens are concerned they are Jews in every respect.

In a poll published by Haaretz a month ago, 75 percent of the secular people questioned said they would not try to prevent a marriage between a relative and “a new immigrant who isn’t Jewish according to halakha,” while among the religious-Zionist respondents only 29 percent wouldn’t object to such a marriage and among the Haredim only 5 percent. All told, 56 percent of Israelis wouldn’t make a big deal about a relative marrying one of these hundreds of thousands.

And lest we think that we dealing with broad cosmopolitan pluralism, the same survey revealed that with regard to a relative marrying an Arab or a European Christian, the objection among the total Israeli population would be 72 percent and 53 percent, respectively. In other words, Israelis aren’t open to everything; these veteran immigrants are simply considered by most Israelis to be Jews, whatever the halakha might say.

The recent debate over the “conversion law” proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) blatantly revealed the degree to which this is almost completely an intra-Orthodox struggle. Stern and the Habayit Hayehudi party want to expand the conversion apparatus, while the Haredi parties object. What emerges from this is that if there is no reform in the conversion process, weddings between those who are Jews according to halakha and those who are not will continue, and those who want to avoid marrying their descendents will be forced to keep genealogical records.

The problem is that even if such a reform is enacted, there will still be those among the strictly religious who will not recognize it and will not accept the descendents of such converts as Jews. So either way there will remain a group of Orthodox Jews that will insist, contrary to most of the nation, on relating to part of the people as non-Jews. The struggle over conversion conditions is nothing but an internal Orthodox scuffle aimed at determining the limits of that group.

So here we have another example, one of many, of self-centered patronizing by the State of Israel’s Orthodox establishment. Its members are fighting among themselves for the right to convert people who aren’t interested in converting, to make them eligible to marry people who even now see nothing wrong with them, and all this just so that they themselves will find it easier in the future to see large parts of the Israeli people as Jews – even though Israelis themselves have long ignored the halakhic categories that this group considers so important.

But what makes this ridiculous festival so sad is a deeper issue. This whole story illustrates not just the Orthodox establishment’s narcissism, but also demonstrates in the most extreme fashion how a major proportion of Israeli rabbis take a totally technical and utilitarian view of halakha, and perhaps of the entire Jewish religion.

After all, what’s going on here? We’re talking about conversion, which is probably the deepest, most personal, and most difficult thing a person can do; it’s changing one’s identity, entering a new framework of meaning, and in this case making a covenant with God and the Jewish people. Conversion is being turned into a pathetic bureaucratic matter, a mechanical procedure entirely designed to calm those rabbis so that their children or their neighbors’ children won’t marry non-Jews, so there won’t be “assimilation.” For this they will expand the conversion system, ease the conditions for conversion, and conduct a marketing campaign for joining the Jewish people as if it were soft drinks.

These rabbis don’t seem to care what motivates the converts or what spiritual journey they have been through. The main thing is to accept them and convert them on an assembly line so that there will be as many Jews as possible – that is, more people who agreed to take some classes and say “Amen” to everything they’re told. All this is to get their status changed on their identity card so the only democracy in the Middle East will allow them to get married and in general treat them like human beings.

And if that’s what the rabbinical establishment looks like, is it any wonder that so few people want to convert?

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published today in Haaaretz.

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Tomer Persico

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