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Conversion To Judaism: A Discussion Of Standards

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The call for uniform standards with universal halachic acceptance leads to a constriction of halacha. Calling for universal acceptance essentially means adopting the most extreme position. This invalidates the range of legitimate halachic options and unfairly ties the hands of Orthodox rabbis who wish to help potential converts rather than drive them away.

Serious problems arise when the convert’s level of observance after conversion falls short of the standards of Rabbi Shmelkes and his followers. Thousands of people will have their Jewish status questioned or invalidated, causing confusion and suffering. Moreover, those who converted under halachic auspices and who are halachically Jewish according to the Talmud, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch and a great many poskim, are now told that they are not Jewish – e.g. that they may eat non-kosher food, violate Shabbat, marry a non-Jew etc.

Instead of solving problems, this sort of “uniform” standard creates chaos. Adopting the most extreme position and invalidating the range of legitimate halachic views is not only bad for halacha, but bad for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Whose “universal acceptance” are we talking about? A woman in the Midwest was studying for conversion for three years. The rabbis of the bet din all agreed she was qualified to convert. They wouldn’t convert her, though, because they thought her Jewish boyfriend was not religious enough. This bet din, thus, raised the bar for conversion beyond the convert him/herself to include the religious level of prospective spouses. This woman is in her forties; aside from the anguish caused by this inordinate delay in her conversion, she has probably lost the ability to produce a child. (How many Jewish children are not being born because batei din protract the conversion process of women in their childbearing years?)

In discussing this case with colleagues, I was told that some batei din insist that the convert be living entirely (or almost entirely) among Orthodox, religiously observant Jews. A bet din in Israel turned down a would-be convert because she enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and would be wearing pants. I was called by a rabbi in Latin America who thought he had to invalidate the halachic conversion of a generally observant woman (mother of three children) because she did not wear a head covering in public.

The point is: how can “universal acceptance of standards” ever be achieved when there is such a strong tendency to keep adding new layers of restrictions and to invalidate conversions that don’t achieve the particular standards of the most stringent batei din?

What may seem “universal” today will be trumped soon enough by a posek or bet din that adds even more restrictions. No convert is “safe,” since twenty or thirty years from now more layers of stringency may be added, leading to the retroactive invalidation of conversions. Is this the sort of “universally accepted” standard that halacha mandates or desires? Certainly not.

We must remember that we are dealing with real human beings, not chess pieces. It is far from a simple decision for a non-Jew to choose to convert to Judaism according to halacha.

We need to take the time to look into the eyes of potential converts, hear their stories, try to understand their concerns and needs. We need to consider their individual circumstances, whether they are married to (or plan to marry) a Jewish spouse, how we can best ensure the Jewishness of their children. Certainly, conversions should be performed responsibly and fully in accord with halacha; “conversion factories” where someone can buy a conversion are a reprehensible mockery of halacha and Judaism.

We must always do our utmost to inspire converts to be faithful to the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot. But we do not live in a perfect world, and we often have to deal with real people in less than ideal situations.

The Chief Rabbinate should not be imposing an extreme, monolithic “universal standard” that eliminates halachic options and contracts the ability of rabbis to cope responsibly with the many cases that come before them. It should not, wittingly or unwittingly, turn potential converts away from Orthodox rabbis, or increase intermarriage, or jeopardize the Jewish future of children of would-be converts, or be oblivious to the genuine pain caused to converts and potential converts.

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