Yitro confronts us for the first time with a new phenomenon: to be a Jew by choice. By doing so, he presents all Jews with a major challenge: how to become a Jew by choice even when one has been born into the fold; how to feel the fire needed to live the life of an authentic Jew, as Yitro did. Such an undertaking is possible only if one is able to re-enact and experience Yitro’s journey to Judaism.
Today, Israel has many thousands of immigrants who are of Jewish descent, yet not halachically Jewish. Should we convert them even though we know that they will not live a fully committed Jewish life? Or should we abandon them, basically ignoring and excluding them as we do now? I believe there is a third way, a way of reconciling these difficulties.
Rather than waiting until a potential convert is ready to take on all of Jewish law, and only then converting them, we should first convert them, and then slowly introduce them to Jewish religious values and Halacha. This should be done by way of gentle persuasion and love, with no coercion whatsoever. We must give them the option of making their own choices, introducing them to a ladder of observance that they can climb at their own pace and within their own abilities.
Just as a human being who’s never had an encounter with classical music won’t know what he’s missing until he is introduced to Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, so it is with Judaism. But it all depends on who is playing the music.
As the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the new rabbinical initiative for an independent conversion court (which I fully support) are headed toward a major showdown, it is remarkable that neither side has considered a most crucial question: Is conversion even possible? This may sound like a rhetorical question, since the answer is in the affirmative. Yet it goes to the very core of the problem. And as long as we do not deal with it, all deliberations concerning this matter are more or less meaningless.