We had a very lovely and interesting couple at our Shabbat table last week. The husband is a choir conductor– a really nice person. But his wife stole the show. She is a convert to Judaism from Holland. This is not the first time that converts have been our guests for Shabbat. As the Conversion Law has recently been in the headlines in Israel – and will presumably continue to be a topic of debate here – I would like to share my personal experience with you and discuss how the conversion process plays out in real life.
Back to this week’s Shabbat guest. She grew up as a Catholic in a small village in Holland, and had many questions. She had a burning desire to read the Jewish Tanach (Bible). Ultimately, her family drove her from home. She found her way to the Protestant church, which does allow its adherents to read the Jewish Bible. But there, too, she began to ask hard questions and was ultimately driven out.
From there her life turned upside down. After many hardships, she converted to Judaism, made Aliyah to Israel, married and now – after fertility treatments – is expecting a baby. This woman is 51 years old, but she is determined to realize her dream to give birth to a Jewish child.
I would also like to share with you the story of a different young woman, a convert to Judaism, who was our Shabbat guest some time ago. She is a cashier at our local supermarket. This woman was born in Spain and was a nun in a Catholic monastery there. She was a diligent student of her religion and at a certain point, there were things that did not make sense to her. She began asking questions and after a long process, converted to Judaism.
After she converted, her grandmother told her that she may not have had to convert at all, because the family is descended from Conversos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal from the 15th century and on. At that point, it became extremely important to her to discover her family’s roots. She once again donned her nun’s garments, returned to Madrid and gained access to the well-guarded offices of the Inquisition – yes, the entire archive of the Spanish Inquisition is preserved there. After going through reams of records, she discovered her own family: Jews who were tortured and persecuted by the Inquisition over 500 years ago.
Two truly wondrous stories.
So what does Zehut say about conversion and the entire topic of Religion and State?
Zehut advocates the almost complete separation of religion and state – except for conversion. (This is in keeping with our policy to separate between the state and almost everything except security. The state is responsible to provide its citizens with internal and external security. As for the rest, its main job should be not to get in the way.)
The role of the State Rabbinate should be streamlined to responsibility for conversion. For marriage and divorce or kosher certification –it should determine an Orthodox Standard. If someone claims to perform marriage ceremonies, he would have to state according to which standard. Today, in the marketplace of ideas and identities, apples are sold as oranges and bananas as strawberries. Just imagine that you went to the market to buy bananas and when you get home, you discover they are apples. You return to the vendor and he says, “No, for me, those are bananas.” Somebody must make a standard, which will help everyone to know what product they are receiving.
Every couple should be able to marry as they please. But if a couple wishes to marry according to Jewish Law, the rabbis who perform the marriages must prove that their ceremony is according to Jewish Law by providing the couple with their Rabbinate Standard certificate. This will prevent the charlatanism rampant today and will remove coercion from our lives.
So why should the Rabbinate be involved in conversion? Because of the Law of Return. The Law of Return is essentially the foundation upon which the State was established. The Law of Return states that any Jew is entitled to citizenship in the State of Israel. It is impossible to circumvent the interface between the determination of religion by an official religious body and citizenship in the State of Israel. That is the interface where the Rabbinate is crucial.
The actual conversion, however, must be performed as non-stringently as possible according to Jewish Law – from within the parameters of the vast body of Orthodox Jewish Law that makes it possible to accept converts with love. This is not the current situation. Today, the conversion process is rife with politics and power struggles between the Ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionism. This must end. The Rabbinate must be a public body that is as lax as possible on conversions within the framework of Orthodox Jewish Law.
There is a conversion seesaw in Israel. On one end is stringency in laws of conversion. The other end is laxity in the laws of assimilation. When the weight is on the stringency in the laws of conversion, assimilation sails upwards. There are many people who would like to convert to Judaism, but they are put off by the strict approach that presides today. When it turns out that the wonderful guy who was an officer in the IDF, completed his degree in an Israeli university, speaks Hebrew as his mother tongue and is Israeli in every way – but did not go through the stringent process of conversion and is not Jewish – will the Jewish woman who has fallen in love with him refuse to go ahead and marry him because he is not technically Jewish? And if it is the woman who has not converted? Her children will be totally Israeli, but not Jewish.
On the conversion-assimilation seesaw, Zehut weighs in on the side of preventing assimilation by easing up on conversion stringencies – and keeping as many Jews as possible within the fold within the broad parameter of Orthodox Jewish Law.