The Israeli conversion crisis

June 14, 2008 at 3:39 pm 3 comments

Maybe by their own strict standards …

Even some of the rabbinic

judges aren’t really Jewish

By Ralph Dobrin

The High Rabbinical Court in Israel, headed by Rabbi Avraham Sherman, recently dropped a bombshell – they announced that the conversion of thousands of proselytes to Judaism might need to become nullified. It all started when a woman who had converted 15 years earlier, was going through divorce proceedings with the Rabbinical Council of Ashdod. Following a few questions by one of the rabbinic judges, it was deemed that she had not observed the Jewish laws, therefore she had forfeited her membership among the Jewish people.

This verdict, though extremely rare, might according to the High Rabbinical Court in Israel, have rendered the Jewish status of thousands of other converts who had undergone conversion through Rabbi Haim Druckman’s Conversion Authority, retroactively invalid. What a slap in the face for these people who opted to throw in their lot with the Jewish people, and who invested considerable time studying in order to prepare for their conversions. For the men, it also entailed painful circumcision!

Also, this could mean that their children, are not recognized as being Jewish in Israel, and therefore any religiously conducted marriages might be impossible for them in this country. They could be doomed to becoming less than second class citizens in Israel. Even those who served in Israel’s army, some of them with distinction and heroism.

The High Rabbinical Court is a department of the Israel Rabbinate. It is staffed mainly by Haredi rabbis with an even stricter view of Jewish observance than the Chief Rabbis themselves. The High Rabbinical Court’s seemingly extreme stand on conversion has deepened the rift between Haredi Ultra-Orthodoxy (usually non-Zionist) and the rest of the Jewish population, especially the religious Zionists, of which Rabbi Druckman is a highly respected and prominent figure.

Clearly, whether you’re a convert or a Hebrew with roots going back a hundred generations, being Jewish should be a serious status, because it implies an ancestry or affiliation stretching back to Mt. Sinai, through King David, Solomon, the Talmudic period, the Golden Age of Spain, the Enlightenment and Emancipation, weathering all the frightful challenges until the present day.

But taking note of the Rabbi Avraham Sherman’s drastic-sounding pronouncements against the conversions, I am prodded into asking myself: am I really a Jew by their standards? After all, I am just an agnostic (although I am nevertheless awe-struck by the wonder of life and I do have a deep gut-feeling that a totally unfathomable power is behind it all.)

Moreover, according to rabbinic law (halacha) it’s the mother’s religious affiliation that determines one’s Jewishness. It is the female lineage all down the line that determines one’s identity. Paternal lineage is not an issue. Your dad could have been the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Grand Mufti or even Adolph of the Schicklgruber line, but if your mom is bona fide Jewish that makes you Jewish in the eyes of the strictest rabbi.

Solomon’s women

But there’s a big problem here if you’re serious about halachically bona fide Jewishness. Indeed, here’s a challenge for the good Rabbi Sherman himself. The Bible tells us that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 mistresses, none of whom were Israelite. Probably the appetite for non-Israelite gals in those days wasn’t limited to Solomon. Therefore thousands upon thousands of their progeny were not halachically Jewish. Israelites – they might have become, but by today’s strict Orthodox standards none of them would have been considered Jewish. And by the laws of gender, a certain percentage of these women kept propagating girls who remained in the Jewish fold, but willy-nilly, kept turning out more non-Jewish girls right up to the present day.

By today’s stringent rabbinic standards Ruth would definitely not have been considered a convert. Indeed even King David would have had difficulty being recognized as a bona fide Jew? Preparing for marriage in present-day Israel, for instance, with his ruddy complexion, David would have been questioned about his parentage. “Show us your mother’s marriage certificate!” the rabbis would have demanded. “And show us her mother’s marriage certificate!” “Bring us a letter from the rabbi who officiated at her wedding.” And heaven forfend if the rabbi who had officiated at David’s grandmother’s wedding happened to have been of the Reform or even Conservative branch of Judaism. No chance buddy! Go through our lengthy conversion program or have a civil marriage in Cyprus.

In addition, over the ages there were always cases of gentile women coming into the Jewish fold, sometimes as wives, mistresses or a housekeeper or servant woman succumbing to infatuation or lust. Not all went through any kind of conversion. How many of their female progeny were subsequently accepted into the Jewish fold and begat halachically non-Jewish offspring who kept the disqualifying trend going?

If I’m asked, how far back I can trace the female lineage of my family, I would have to say that I might have difficulty even assessing my late mother’s biological lineage. Not all the Jews lived in an East European shtetl. My maternal grandfather was religiously-observant Jew. Most Jews were a hundred years ago. He had four daughters. Wonderful gals, I’m sure. From what I hear he was also a very fine, compassionate man. He was well-off, had a nice-sized store near Konigsberg, then East Prussia. His wife was very sick and died at an early age. He also had a fine looking housekeeper – a Christian lady who stayed with him and his family for twenty years after his wife died. I’m not saying that any hanky-panky took place, heaven forfend. But the guy was a guy after all and if I were a rabbinical judge sitting on the High Rabbinical Court of Israel, I could easily be suspicious of Ralph Dobrin’s kosher roots.

And maybe very, very few Jews today, including Rabbi Sherman himself and all the other venerable rabbis fastidiously making lists of persons disqualified from being counted as Jews, would find it quite impossible to show proof of a continuously untainted line of female ancestry, all the way back. Especially if you have blue eyes and fair hair. (Turn in your grave Schicklgruber).

Is all this as ridiculous as it sounds?

Now, to the average person – religiously observant or not – this is simply facetious rumination. And yet it should be a serious issue for the people running Israel’s High Rabbinical Court. After all, if they are so serious about Jewishness and religious observation that they are ready to nullify the hard-won conversion of thousands of good folks because of the perceived laxity of one convert, then they should be serious about themselves, too. Shouldn’t they be ferreting for their great great grandmothers’ ketubot (marriage certificates) to determine if they were indeed halachically Jewish? And if they can’t find the necessary documents, maybe they themselves and their zealous followers – might need to pursue conversion! I’m sure that Rabbi Druckman would know where to send them. Either that or be less fastidious regarding the Jewishness of others !!!

As a totally secular Israeli I am saddened by this rift because there seems to be so much ugly invective and hostility exchanged by Israel’s religious leaders, as well as pain meted out to the thousands of good people who converted to Judaism. Also, I am sure it can only weaken Israel. I would like to believe that the argument is based on what is really best for the Jewish people in the context of rabbinic law. So is it naïve to hope that the strenuous Ultra-Orthodox opposition to Rabbi Druckman’s conversions is based solely on what is halachically correct in the name of the Almighty and that it has absolutely nothing to do with clashes of personality, power play or plain nastiness? Sadly, it is often hard not to feel that that is the case.

Many special committees have been set up over the years to find a solution that could satisfy the strictest demands while facilitating a process that would not cause unnecessary prolongment for the prospective convert. None of the results of these committees satisfied everyone. But there has to be an end to the question of generally accepted conversion. It can only come through sensible, constructive debate at the highest rabbinic levels.

There is a way of deliberating wisely over any issue. At the outset there must be sincere resolve to find the best possible solution. Sectarian considerations must be subdued enough to be able to see the issue from an overall perspective. Each point must be viewed and discussed with total openness and honesty. Also personal feelings about others with whom the polemic is being conducted, must be set aside.

It is significant that after thousands of years of tradition, people in the loftiest clergical positions still haven’t learned how to conduct a meaningful discussion with others who might differ from them. One would have thought that all that endless study of holy texts and praying and observing of laws and mitzvot, said to enhance wisdom and spirituality, would have given the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis some compassion, humility and common sense. If they want to learn how to debate constructively they can visit the following site:





Entry filed under: Jewish survival, Religion and belief, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , .

Why argue? The new type of Jew in Israel

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. integrity2008  |  June 16, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Again, let us be sober about Torah, Judaism, etc.

    Just as tainted as all cults.

    Since Spinoza, new ideas circulate, and Israel is not the triumph of Judaism, but of the Enlightenment.

  • 2. Ken Besig  |  July 7, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    The ruling you are referring to was perhaps one of the most disgusting examples of supposedly religious Jews engaging in baseless hatred of the worst sort.
    The entire ruling by these rather strange and abusive hariedi rabbis and dayanim was pure spite and had and even now has, nothing to do with Rabbi Druckman’s converts or his conversion Beit Din.
    What is most appalling to me is that the hareidi rabbis who made this ruling are so unsocialized, so exclusive, and so out of touch with simple human courtesy and derek eretz, that they see nothing wrong with their actions.
    As a religious Jew I can only say that when the time comes for them to answer to the Almighty for their actions in this case, they better be prepared for some pretty stern punishments.

  • 3. Mark Bird  |  August 20, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    And while this goes on the Temple will remain unbuilt. The Ghost of Kochba Bar Kochba lives on. Well written well said Ralph.


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