Stumbling Blocks: Conversion and the Israeli Rabbinate

The issue of conversion to Judaism has always been a topic of interest to me, as it is simultaneously an interfaith and intra-faith issue. Each of the denominations within Judaism has their own standards for what must be done in order for a conversion to be officially counted as valid. The recent decision by rabbis in Israel to not accept as valid a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, one of the most well-known and respected Modern Orthodox rabbis in America, highlights this issue. This sort of additional questioning of the convert, as reported here by Michele Chabin of the Religion News Service, makes the statement that even if one is converted under all the correct parameters, internal power struggles can cause problems.

From the standpoint of the Orthodox, it makes perfect sense that Reform or Conservative conversions would not be accepted as they do not follow the same stringent rules that the Orthodox do for the conversion process. An Orthodox conversion, performed by a well-respected Orthodox Rabbi following all the rules should certainly be considered a valid conversion. I feel that this sort of questioning and re-conversion of a new convert, even if it is only a formality to ensure that he or she is Jewish according to the standards of the state Rabbinate in Israel for the purposes of being able to marry in Israel, should not be acceptable under any circumstances. This shows that the Orthodox in Israel do not see their counterparts in America as being at the same level as they are. This sort of dismissal of American Orthodoxy, as well as the Reform and Conservative movements, has been going on for a long time and only serves to further distance American Jews who want to be involved and connected to Israel from feeling that they are accepted in this pursuit.

Many leaders of Jewish organizations in America have condemned this and similar actions by the Israeli government, saying that such episodes show the disregard that the Israeli rabbinate have for their counterparts in the United States. Rabbi David Stav, the founder of Tzohar, which is an Israeli organization meant as an alternative to the official state Rabbinate, holds that this type of incident sends the wrong message to potential converts. If their conversion and new status as a Jew would not be accepted by those who control the religious life of Orthodox Jews in Israel, why should they spend all this effort to do so? That is the whole reason why organizations such as Tzohar and ITIM, whose goal is to help people navigate the intricacies of the religious bureaucracy In Israel exist as alternatives. Of course, the State rabbinate does not want other organizations to curtail its influence, which creates further problems.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b-59b) states that one is not supposed to ask a convert about their history prior to conversion, and that anyone who does so trangresses. Once a person converts, they are to be counted as a full member of the Jewish people, and one would expect the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to be aware of this ruling and that they are transgressing by making someone authenticate their conversion, let alone making them under another conversion under their auspices. Conversion to another religion is a very stressful and difficult process for anyone to undergo, and it is not right that anyone should feel it necessary to question their commitment to being a member of the religious community to which they are joining themselves, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other religion.

The stance of the Israeli rabbinate needs to change and hopefully it will do so soon, as it creates needless divisions among the communities in America and Israel. The Jewish people are small enough that any division impacts everyone, and in a time in which there is growing rejection of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, all of the Jewish community needs to show that they are united. There is also the tradition in the Talmud (Yoma 9B) that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was ultimately permitted by God to be destroyed due to the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that Jews had for one another caused by infighting and divisions. The Israeli rabbinate, by showing that its any Orthodox rabbi not following their standards-for conversion but also other issues are less Orthodox than they, is engaging in this exact type of infighting. Of course, there is no Temple in our days, but we as the Jewish people of today should be careful of the ramifications of our actions in relation to our fellow Jews. While the Jewish community is currently split into multiple denominations, I hope that we can all work towards unity together, as we are all responsible for one another, as the Talmud teaches us.

Image Source: Vadim Akopyan via Wikimedia Commons

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