You see things; and you say “Why?”
But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”
“Back to Methuselah”
George Bernard Shaw
Some of you have asked me to elaborate on my earlier Thoughts to Ponder (215) concerning the serious problems which the State of Israel and the Jewish People encounter in relation to conversion. It is with pleasure that I respond:
Why, for the time being, mass conversions are not appropriate.
Israel has been confronted with the plight of tens of thousands of people who made aliyah, mostly from Russia, who are children of mixed marriages or who have other Jewish ancestry, such as Jewish grandparents. Most of them are not halachically Jewish since their mothers are not Jewish. Yet many of them would like to become Jewish. The problem, however, is that the majority do not want to commit themselves to a halachic way of life. (I am obviously not speaking about those Russians who came for purely financial or other reasons and have no interest in joining the Jewish people. I consider it to be a major mistake on the part of the Israeli government to allow them to immigrate without proper conditions.)
The government and some other organizations want to convert many of these people even if it means they will not be observing Shabbath, eating kosher etc. By encouraging them to convert, they believe that it is solving the problem of a massive number of mixed marriages in Israel between halachic Jews and those with a Jewish background but who are halachically non Jewish. In this way the government seeks to prevent a major split within the Jewish people and Israel. Indeed this is a most serious issue which should be prevented wherever possible.
Although important thinkers and halachists, such as Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1) and Chacham Ben Zion Uziel (2) would (reluctantly) support such an approach, I believe this to be highly problematic for two reasons. Conversion is not just a commitment to become part of the Jewish people but also to the spirit and practice of Judaism. Asking people to become Jews when there is either none or not enough commitment to Jewish spirit and practice is most troublesome. In religious terms it means that we are encouraging them to violate Jewish law. While there are many opinions as to what extent (3) Jewish Law requires a commitment to Halacha by the potential convert, it is fundamentally wrong to convert people when it is clear that the basics of Shabbath observance, kashruth, the laws of family purity, chesed and Jewish ethical behavior, are not going to be observed. Not only do most halachic authorities not agree with such a conversion, it is also important to emphasize that it is not in the spirit of Judaism either. What, after all, is the meaning of being Jewish if not for Judaism? So when the practice and Weltanschauung are not (yet) Jewish (enough) we do not do anyone a favor by signing people up as Jews.
As I have made clear in earlier writings, I also question the correctness of converting people when the candidates are not asked to identify with the great spiritual, moral and religious mission of the Jewish people even if they do commit to live according to Halacha. Religiosity, mission and spirit are not (solely) halachic issues but they are part of the great Jewish spiritual narrative. Jews are there to serve mankind, to inspire it and to be a moral example. There is much more to Judaism than just halachic living. This I believe is a problem with many of the orthodox conversions. There is too much emphasis on Halacha and too little on the spirit.
An other option instead of mass conversion
On the other hand there is a concept in Halachic thinking which states that children of mixed marriages (and similar cases) are from “zera yisrael”, from Jewish seed (4), and consequently cannot be viewed as complete gentiles. Still they are not halachically Jewish. They are somehow part of the family but not fully.
As such we have a moral religious duty to help these people, especially those who are living in Israel today. A lot of them mean well and would sincerely like to join us. Somehow they are part of us but are not (yet) prepared to go the whole way and convert properly. We need to realize that all these people are living in great emotional pain and confusion. Many came on aliyah thinking they were Jewish only to discover that they are not.
What could be done and what should not be done.
For this reason I propose that we create communities, outreach programs, religious services, “Tents of Abraham” (5) in the spirit of Judaism etc where they can choose their own style or degree of Judaism and adopt whatever they want without having to convert (yet). This is different from Israeli institutions for conversion which have, as their sole goal, proper conversion and often in a short amount of time.
This proposal has nothing to do with Reform Judaism which wants to be an authentic option for halachic Jews and would like to convert gentiles, or people of Jewish descent, according to Reform standards which are not in accordance with Halacha and definitely unacceptable to the orthodox.
I am pleading to create something before or instead of conversion with which the orthodox can also agree. My suggestion will solve a major problem without violating the halachic criteria and the basic requirements of conversion and, at the same time, will prevent thousands of well meaning converts from violating basic Halacha, which would be a tragedy.
I believe that when all those who are halachically not Jewish, yet have Jewish ancestors, start to taste the beauty of Judaism and grow closer to it on their own terms and at their own pace, they will feel more part of the Jewish people even though they may never make the final step of conversion. Additionally, as I mentioned in my earlier essay, many of them may then wish to convert properly at a later date whenever they feel ready. (6)
Any other solution, avoiding any middle ground, rejecting them as if they are complete gentiles or converting them without commitment, will lead to great problems. On the one side, rejecting them could create great animosity against Jews and Judaism which could undermine the State of Israel. (These feelings are already coming to the surface). After all, to be treated as complete gentiles when in fact one has a Jewish background, together with some (strong) Jewish feelings, is an unbearable situation and could easily lead to a great amount of resentment.
On the other side, trivializing Judaism makes Judaism cheap in the eyes of so many well meaning people. Judaism requires a strong commitment of its followers. As I mentioned before, on the minimum level this means observance of Shabbath, kashruth, family purity and ethical behavior. To ask anybody to convert without such a commitment could mean that many born Jews would not wish to marry them and they will ultimately feel betrayed. Even worse is the fact that many Jews will no longer take authentic Judaism seriously, thinking that nearly anything goes. It would also seriously undermine an important part of our tradition, i.e. the call to each one of us to keep striving for more and better observance, religiosity and ethical behavior.
Lets face it.
No doubt my suggestion will meet with opposition and is far from ideal but, in the course of time, people will realize that it may be the only option. To let the problem stay unresolved is much too dangerous. We will see a growing community of Israelis who will feel more and more hostile towards Judaism and the Jewish people. (Closely related is obviously the controversy between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular movements) Problems like these have brought havoc throughout Jewish history. One only needs to think of the previous era of Jewish autonomy within the land of Israel. The days of the Macabees ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and began and ended with a war of Jew against Jew, a war of zealots against Hellenizers. The parallels between the fractionalization of Jewish life at the time of the Macabean revolt of 166-164 B.C.E and the revolt against Rome, 66-70 C.E, and the divisions now evident in the Jewish world, are uncomfortably close.
Few people may see this danger at present but it is clearly looming and growing stronger and may explode within 50 years. If, instead of this, we make Judaism available to all those who have a keen interest in the Jewish People and Israel and love to be connected to some level with Judaism, we may then see the growth of constructive communities which can be of great help and an asset to our people and the State of Israel.
Most important to remember is that, for this to have any chance of succeeding, changes can only take place by a slow process and not through any sudden transformation. These kinds of concepts need to be nurtured until they slowly become acceptable and even desirable. Starting with one or two communities of this sort may pave the road for a much larger undertaking at a later date. As often is the case, once a small group of people enthusiastically opt for this alternative many may follow. In the event of more problems being created than solved, at least we will have tried.
Again my proposal is not without risk, but a wise man will turn a risk into a good fortune. (And an idea is made better by good reading and clearer by good opponents!) Those who seem to lose today may win tomorrow. There is no stronger enemy than an idea whose time has come but people have not yet realized it. Many great ideas have a dangerous side to them yet they may save us in the end.
The question is ultimately this: Is it better for those people to live in this country recognized as either strictly gentiles or strictly Jews, while they are in fact neither – or to be recognized as “brothers and sisters” “once removed”?
In my earlier writings I suggested calling them non-Jewish Jews, but many of my friends felt that this is too confusing and perhaps dangerous. This may be true. It only means that we have to look for other possibilities. (The fact that we cannot immediately find the right terminology should never mean that we should drop an idea!) Here are several suggestions that I received from different people: Jewish non-Jews (instead of Non-Jewish Jews), Jewish Noachides, Jewish Gentiles, Israelites, Hebrews or Abrahamists. All of them are problematic and it will, in all likelihood, be impossible to find the terminology which completely satisfies. It may quite well be for the best, in the mean time, not to give these communities any name. This, however, should not prevent us from looking for ways to help those people feel part of the Jewish nation without asking them to convert and thereby prevent a much larger and more dangerous situation in the days to come. By doing so, we do not only serve those who do not want to convert and yet want to be part of our nation, but also help the Jewish people and the Jewish State at large.
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves the question: what do we prefer? To create an opportunity for them to be in touch with Judaism on their own terms, or to have thousands of people convert without a basic commitment to Shabbath, kashruth etc., or to treat them as complete non-Jews thereby causing a lot of injustice and animosity.
There is a need to seize the chance to solve a major problem even if it takes courage given that we cannot be sure of all that will be required ahead of time. This is much preferred to taking a wrong turn (mass conversions) or doing nothing (rejecting them), both of which will surely foster a disaster. There is a time for everything, said Shlomo Hamelech, and the time to plant and build is now.
World Judaism in the making.
Beyond all this and on another plain we have to realize that the global scenario of mankind is slowly but radically changing. What is becoming more and more evident to those who are carefully following world history and looking beyond the here and now, is that another world is emerging in which Judaism is on the way to becoming a global movement. After a nearly 2000 year long Christian fiasco to enhance a better world, the increasing dangers of Islam fundamentalism, and the failure of secularism to give man any existential meaning, mankind is more and more looking towards Judaism for moral and spiritual support and meaning. While it is not explicitly there yet, it is happening on a global scope in the minds of many fine and influential gentiles who will shape the world of tomorrow. There will be an increasing thirst for the study of Judaism and an increasing number of gentiles will start to adopt Jewish rituals and ethics. We will see the opening of “gentile synagogues” throughout the entire world community, taking the place of churches and mosques. Classical Shabbath observance on Sundays will become common in many countries, adoption of some kind of dietary laws focusing more on the human soul instead of only on the body, will be accompanied by a revolution on matters related to sexuality, in which Jewish marital laws will start to play a major role.
No, there will be no need to convert and Jews will stay Jews and gentiles will remain gentiles. But this small unique people will increasingly become the focus of world attention, this time as a resource from which the gentile world will drink for the acquisition of its wisdom.
The leadership of the State of Israel, together with the religious establishment, will be dumbfounded and will not know what to do when the gentiles call for guidance. Only new creative voices within authentic Judaism, of which we are in desperate need, will show the way.
Conventional rabbis, not having the foresight to see all this will be incapable of standing up against these new winds blowing and will lose all their influence and become irrelevant. Just like email has become unstoppable today (forgive the comparison!) so too will this new spiritual trend towards world Judaism. There will be no escape. It is in the air and we are already able to smell its fragrance. (7)
May the Holy One be He give us wisdom.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
1. Eliezer Berkovits, Crisis and Faith, Sanhedrin Press, New York, 1976, chapter 8. See also his Not in Heaven, the Nature and Function of Halacha, Ktav, New York, pp 108-112.
2. Chacham Benzion Uziel, Mishpetei Uziel: 18 and 20. Chacham Uziel was the sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the most courageous halachists of our days. See Rabbi Marc Angel: Loving Truth and Peace, The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Jason Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1999.
3. What this practically entails is a major question of which I will write another time. All these matters require careful study. I believe that it is possible to make the conditions for conversion more attractive and spiritually uplifting by using altogether different criteria than those used by the standard rabbinical courts of today.
4. See for example: Mishpetei Uziel: 18
5. See my Thoughts To Ponder, No: www.cardozoschool.org
6. It is important to remember that this suggestion has nothing to do with halachic Jews who stay complete Jews even when they violate Jewish law. Just as American law will not allow a foreigner to become an American if it is known that he will violate American law or has made it clear that he has no intention of living according to American law, so it is with Halacha.
Still we know that many native Americans violate American law. Nobody claims that they are no longer allowed to be Americans and that they should be forced to leave the country, On the contrary they are Americans who violate American law but they stay Americans. This however does not apply to non Americans who want to “join”, they have to commit to American Law. It is the same with Halacha….
I have dealt with the intriguing question why Judaism continues to identify even an apostate Jew as a fully fledged Jew even when he denies his Jewishness or converts to another religion. See my book Between Silence and Speech, Jason Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1995, chapter 3
(7) I hope to write about all this in future Thoughts to Ponder and help Charles Bronfman to find his “Great Jewish Idea!”