Jul 14, 2010

Conversion in Israel, We're at it Again.

I really want to be up in arms about this, I really do. I want to be up in arms because I have a lot of good friends who didn't go through an Orthodox, RCA, Israel-approved conversion like I did. I want to be up in arms because even my conversion could go kablooey if one of my beth din rabbis decided to do something drastically un-rabbi like.

But I just can't. I can't be upset about what's going on in the Knesset because I get what the bill is trying to do. For those of you who don't know what I'm blabbering about, I'm blabbering about the big fat Conversion Bill that's floating through the Knesset as we speak.

The crux of the bill is actually to ease the process for potential converts by allowing local batei din convert folks instead of using a big centralized system. The tag-on to that has folks up in arms "expands the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction by bringing conversions, until now the province of special conversion courts, under the explicit authority of the Chief Rabbinate."

The former has the ultra-Orthodox in Israel peeved because it would make the process "more lenient" (right ... ) and the non-ultra Orthodox in the rest of the world are peeved because the latter would bring non-Orthodox conversions up for consideration as non-halakic/legitimate.

You can't please anyone, right? Listen, I get what the guy who proposed the bill is trying to do. He's trying to help converts, but in the process, there are things tagged on that have to be used to please all sides of the battle (if you can call it that). It's just like bills in America. We want something, but we don't like all the add-ons that make us wonder whether the actual bill is worth it.

I guess that's what I have to suggest: Is making the conversion process in Israel less-centralized worth all of the stuff that's going to come along with it? Is allowing hundreds of Russian olim the ability to finally say "we're Jewish" worth putting all Reform, Conservative, and other non-Orthodox conversions on the line? If you ask a Russian olah, they would say yes. If you ask a Reform convert from Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A., they'd say no. So who gets the weight here?

I really want to be upset about this, but I can't. My big thing is to not let this stuff bother me. It ruins the lives of people who dwell on it, it puts chips on the shoulders of converts and potentials everywhere, it makes people live their lives as if they're under a microscope rather than living their lives as Jews. And I can't buy what they're selling. I have to approach it from a positive angle, and perhaps I'm lucky for my "status" as a convert. I really feel for my friends who are drowning in this debacle, the what ifs and the what will I do?

My advice: Only HaShem knows who is a Jew, so continue to live your life as you do as a Jew, and don't let anyone dictate who you are. The conversion question and the "Who is a Jew?" question is a deep, dark, messy one that I'm often asked about. People want to know whether I consider my Conservative-converted friends Jewish or my patrilineal friends Jewish, and all I can say is: Is it my place to say? Everyone's on their own journey. I know that going the Orthodox, RCA, Israel-approved route was the best for me at the crossroads of my life. Our journeys move at different paces and I'm happy to support converts as they move through their Judaism, whether they end up Reform and end up Orthodox or start Conservative and end up Conservative. It takes a huge neshama to take that step, in whatever form you take it.

So live as you live, don't let this bill ruin your hope and your confidence in who you are.

Also: Remember, halakicly you can't "revoke" a conversion. You can be excommunicated, you can be shunned, you can be treated like trash, but once you're converted, you're Jewish. If some rabbi out there wants to correct me and point me to where the law says you can revoke a conversion, I'd be happy to take up that conversation. The way that conversions are done (i.e., the process, the requirements, the tests to make sure you know how to tear a bag on Shabbos, etc.) is a very really new concept (save circumcision and mikvah, of course). Look at Ruth, Yitro, Na'aman, and Rahab -- the Rabbis took their simple declarations about HaShem being the only G-d out there as enough to deem them awesome, rocking, righteous converts. The way we do things now would probably make the Rabbis roll over in their graves.


Daniel Saunders said...

My understanding (and I'm no expert so someone can say if I'm wrong) is that while a conversion can't be revoked, it can be declared invalid. This would be if the Bet Din felt that the convert had not sincerly accepted the mitzvot at the time of conversion. My understanding is this was done very rarely in the past, but happens with increasing frequency now.

A recent case in the UK was where the convert married a Cohen, which is against halaka. The Bet Din argued that as she knew she wanted to marry this man when she converted, she did not honestly accept to perform all the mitzvot. The upshot of all this was that the women's kids couldn't get into the Jewish school where she actually taught (declaration of interest: it was my school and she was my teacher), the Jewish press and then the national press took up the issue, it went to court, the courts declared that Jewish schools can't use birth to decide if someone is Jewish, only religious observance and the whole thing turned into a big chillul Hashem in the eyes of the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish community. (Incidentally, I'm not saying that the Bet Din was wrong - I'm not educated enough to venture an opinion on that - just that the fall out was disastrous.)

Incidentally, do you see Na'aman as a convert? My reading of the story is that he became a Noachide (if he was a convert, surely at that time he would have moved to Israel or Judah cf Ruth).

Drew said...

My husband takes the same approach as you when I fret about this bill, my eventual conversion, and the definition of who is "Jewish". I can't help it, my worrying is probably the most "Jewish" thing about me right now. :-)

This is the stickiest area to navigate and everyone has opinions. For instance, my husbands orthodox relatives have mentions more than once that an orthodox conversion is the only way I and my children will be seen as Jewish. Which is fine, I guess, except I'm not ready to cross over into that area and I don't like some of the things I saw when I lived in their community with them for over a month. So, I cannot even begin to consider the orthodox conversion at this point in my life.

Do I worry about my future children having their "Jewishness" questioned if I do anything less than an RCA conversion? Yes. Definitely. I grew up feeling out of place in my original religion I definitely don't want my children to experience that.

However, right now orthodoxy is not for me. It's a chance I'm going to take when I begin my conversion in another facet of Judaism. I hope that there is a middle ground for this bill in the near future. What I believe is most important is that converts to Judaism choose this religion, life and identity. We leave so much behind that is the "norm" to the people we grew up with. Why make an already difficult process even more difficult and controversial?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that according to a Halacha a convert is not allowed to be treated like trash either. Halacha says, in fact it's explicit in the Torah, that a convert must be loved!

Mama H said...

extremely well stated.

Daniel Saunders said...

You might also want to read Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits' essay Conversion and the Decline of the Oral Law (reprinted in Essential Essays on Judaism), which asks whether Orthodox rabbis could accept non-Orthodox conversions. Although note that Rabbi Berkovits remains an extremely controversial figure in Orthodoxy.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Eliezer's essay is fantastic but not many as you ay Daniel he is very controversial.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chavi, While I can see where you're coming from and what Rotem's ultimate goal w/ this legislation is, I am very concerned about the rammifications it will have for non-Orthodox converts into the future, particuarly those who would not otherwise qualify under the Law of Return where their conversions not to be accepted. I am very torn because although I personally hope the bill either doesn't pass or is seriously amended, I get that the conversion process for non-halakhically Jewish Russian Olim has been ridiculously difficult and that something has got to change. One question I have, however, is let's say this bill passes. As of now someone could convert through the Masorti or Reform streams in Israel and would be registered as Jewish by the dept of Interior but not the Chief Rabbinate. Would such orgs still have jurisdiction to perform conversions? I am all for religious pluralism/freedom in Israel which is what's got me really concerned.
Leah Elisheva

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Daniel I don't necessarily view Na'aman as a convert, but the Rabbis surely do. He's listed frequently with Yitro and Rahab, among others. I got lucky that my now-husband is a bar bat cohen! Lol.

@BakerGirl Kids are a huge consideration. They'll be in a sticky place without a "halakic" conversion. The problem is the acceptance of the 613 mitzvot, etc. as being the "right" way. Sigh. I hope my kids never have to deal with the repercussions of my conversion, as legit as it is. I went to every length to make sure they won't have to worry about anything; but nothing is completely secure. But inevitably, you can't do what you don't feel is right for you at this specific moment. You gotta own what you feel and make it happen. Kids will change how you view everything, I think, but right now? You gotta do what you gotta do.

@Anon I should post that stuff again ... oh yes. I've got some good stuff about how to treat converts.

@Mama H Thanks :)

@Daniel/Ilana I will read it with the consideration that it might be a little "radical" ... :)

@Anon I'm guessing that conversions would still take place, but whether the government would recognize them would be another story. Sort of how people leave the country to get hitched, knowing that when they move back to Israel it won't "count." Sort of a "fight the power" in a private, outside-the-country kind of way. Israel will feel the ramifications in no time.

Sophia said...

I support the bill.
It has been made clear that the bill will NOT override the 2002 Supreme Court ruling that Reform and Conservative converts from Israel and abroad have to be recognised as Jews for aliyah purposes.
Plus, I'm sure we can all agree that it was a very positive step for Rotem to have amended the bill to remove the absurd citizenship clause.

Chavi- it's not 'a few hundred' FSU olim. It's 350 000. A bit of a difference, no?

With the bill, it will be harder to revoke conversions, and they will only be able to be revoked by the Rabbi which performed your conversion, not the Chief Rabbinate. You can actually select the rabbi you like for your conversion - how good is that?

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