Faculty of Law, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Sukkot 2016: Prof. Pinchas Shiffman
Professor Pinchas Shiffman writes, "The problem facing stringent religious Judaism is whether to accept a person who lives among us and truly wants to be a Jew, but does intend to be religious. This person's rejection reinforces the split between Jews according to religion and Jews according to nationality."
Sukkot 2016: Prof. Pinchas Shiffman
It is widely claimed that the State of Israel's refusal to fully recognize non-Orthodox conversions is a violation of religious freedom, wherein one version of Judaism supersedes all the rest, whose principles of faith may differ. In order to attempt to analyze this, we must make a distinction between two questions, which are often conflated, but which must be discussed separately. One question concerns official recognition of one's conversion by the Government and civil society; the other concerns the enormous challenge of being accepted according to traditional Jewish religious law, which is faced by non-Jews who are part of Jewish society... whether they seek to convert without becoming fully Torah observant, or whether they have no interest in converting at all.
Regarding the first question: the controversy about the nature of conversion assumes that the government's standard of recognition of a person's Jewishness and the Jewishness of his conversion is correct. However, not enough thought is often given to the question of the necessity of establishing a definition of an ethnicity, which segregates some people from others, with elements of religious identity (or even without elements of religious identity) within Israeli society. Although multiple attempts to use the term "Israeli" as opposed to "Jewish" have come up, these efforts have not succeeded at creating an "Israeli" identity that is different than the "Jewish" identity. Indeed, the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs continues to maintain the ancient definitions, based upon ethnicities, making the belonging to an "Israeli" identity all the weaker.
Despite the dispute between the religious streams as to what version of Judaism the convert is joining, there is an overlooked common denominator among the streams... Is freedom from religion not damaged by all the religious streams to the same extent?
In any case the civil need for a Jewish identity that grants rights to those who take shelter under its wings inevitably results in a secular authority that decides religious matters. It is not superfluous to underscore that despite the dispute between the religious streams as to what version of Judaism the convert is joining, there is an overlooked common denominator among the streams. The convert joins the people of Israel by joining into the religion of Israel. Even though the various streams disagree as to what this religion actually is, all know that he who claims that he has no part in the God of Israel; he who claims that he is, thank God, an atheist; he is not accepted within the ranks of Israel... even though he can point to many Jews by birth who have no religious faith whatsoever. Is freedom from religion not damaged by all the religious streams to the same extent? This is a challenging question that should inspire much continued thought and debate.
And thus the second question: the ineffectiveness of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in dealing with the issue of conversion is a serious religious failure. The problem facing stringent religious Judaism is whether to accept into Judaism a person who lives among us and truly wants to be a Jew, but does intend to observe the Torah and its religious precepts. This person's rejection reinforces the split between those who are Jewish according to religion and those who are Jewish according to nationality. The chasm between "sociological conversion" and traditional religious conversion endangers the viability of religious law in societal reality.
It can be demonstrated from traditional Jewish source texts that conversion is not conditional upon a commitment to observe all of the religious precepts of the Torah. The intuitions of our religious decisors of past generations, given the phenomenon of secularization, led them to establish this condition of religious observance as a safeguard; this is not to be disparaged. However, while religious responsibility demands that we not place a stumbling block before a person who we know cannot observe the religious laws (i.e. to convert someone who does not intend to live a religiously observant life), it also requires us to defer to those who would join us in good faith. We must not ignore these problems by self-deception or willful blindness. Certainly, we must not accept the retroactive cancellation of a conversion in such case that the convert has not lived up to certain religious expectations. Such religious rulings are not only inhumane, but are actually perversions of Jewish religious law, which commands us to love the convert and avoid doing damage to his dignity and standing.