The ongoing conflict between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinic Council of America regarding Israeli recognition of U.S. Orthodox conversions has rekindled the debate surrounding the question of giyyur. A central characteristic of this question in our time is that the dominant impetus for conversion is not religious, but cultural or communal. For many would-be converts, it is a sense of identification with the Jewish People and culture that fuels the desire to join the fold.
This is especially true in the case of intermarriage; while marrying out was once an expression of a Jew’s intent to abandon the Jewish tradition and adopt the lifestyle of his or her non-Jewish spouse, today it is often the non-Jewish spouse who seeks to become a part of the Jewish world.
Thus, it is common to meet people applying for giyyur who are already living in a Jewish household, raising their children as Jews, observing various Jewish customs and at times even playing an active role in the local Jewish community. In fact, some of the more prominent lay leaders and activists in Jewish communities across Europe and North America are not Jewish by any standard of halakha.
Over the past century, rabbis have found themselves faced by a growing number of applications for conversion by people who do not intend to lead a halakhic lifestyle, but who seek to be Jewish nonetheless. Attempting to formulate an appropriate halakhic response to this relatively new phenomenon, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment has divided itself into two basic factions.
The first faction claims that the Jewish People have no interest in adding non-Orthodox converts to their ranks, and that anything short of an unwavering commitment to halakha is not enough to validate giyyur.
Intermarriage, these rabbis argue, is at best a tragic mistake – and most probably an indication of the Jewish partner’s alienation from the Jewish tradition; it may only be remedied by severing all connections with the non-Jewish spouse (and, in some cases, children). If a Jew persists in living with a non-Jewish partner, it is not the task or mandate of rabbis to bend halakha to accommodate the situation.
The second faction, believing that rabbinic responsibility extends also toward intermarried Jews and their offspring, advocates a more constructive halakhic response. Maintaining that the halakhic validity of a conversion is not at all contingent upon the convert’s intent to lead an Orthodox lifestyle, rabbis in this faction argue that non-Jews who live with Jewish partners, identify with the Jewish community and wish to become its members can and ought to be warmly received.
A number of years ago, I set out with my colleague Prof. Avi Sagi to corroborate these conflicting positions with the textual sources of Jewish halakha. Surveying hundreds of halakhic sources, from the Talmud to contemporary responsa, we found – to our own surprise – that it is the second, more inclusive position that has greater ground within mainstream halakha (“Transforming Identity,” Continuum Press, 2007).
The majority of halakhic sources hold that giyyur is a rite of rebirth; the Talmud states in several places in Tractate Yevamot that “a convert is like a newborn child.” Just as a child born of Jewish parents will always be a Jew, regardless of its subsequent behavior, so a convert – reborn as a Jew – is irrevocably Jewish. Giyyur cannot be retracted any more than birth.
According to the Talmud, even if a convert later regrets having undergone conversion and reverts back to his or her former religion – s/he remains halakhically Jewish (Yevamot 47b). In this respect, the status of such a convert is no different from that of a renegade Jew-by-birth who, according to the Talmud, “despite having sinned – is still one of Israel” (Sanhedrin 44a).
This inclusive position, upheld in Medieval and early modern times, became all the more pertinent in the 20th century, when it was endorsed by several leading scholars as not only halakhically valid, but also in deep consonance with the central values of the Torah.
One such scholar was Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (Jerusalem, 1880-1953), the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. In a responsa composed in 1951, Rabbi Uziel ruled that in the case of intermarriage, if the non-Jewish spouse (and children) wish to convert, it is not at all incumbent upon the rabbis to investigate whether the family means to lead a halakhic lifestyle, or to elicit promises to that effect. Rather than worry about the religious intention of the spouse, he wrote, the rabbis ought to concern themselves with the future of the children; by sanctioning conversion, the rabbis can ensure that the children will be part of the Jewish People, and will receive a Jewish upbringing – whether religious, traditional or secular.
Hence, when one of the parents is not Jewish, and even when the children themselves are not (in the case of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Rabbi Uziel said, the children have a special status as “the Seed of Israel”), the rabbis must strive to bring the whole family into the Jewish fold, securing the children’s future “under the wings of the Shekhina (God)” (Piskei Uzziel responsum 65 = Mishpetei Uzziel [second series] Even Haezer responsum 20
Since Rabbi Uziel wrote these words, the rate of intermarriage has increased, and with it – the debate surrounding giyyur. While those calling for more stringent criteria claim to be speaking with the authentic voice of Judaism, our analysis of the halakhic literature reveals that it is the more inclusive position which is truer to the classic halakhic tradition. Today’s rabbis would be well advised to adopt this view, not only for the sake of halakhic consistency, but also for the future of the Jewish People.
Written with Gila Fine
(Editor’s Note: Shalom Hartman Institute’s Zvi Zohar is quoted extensively in a major New York Times article about Jewish identity published Sunday, March 2, 2008. Read the New York Times article here .)