Torah can be used to let new Jews in, not keep them out
At a time when the Jewish people face so many challenges, it is essential for all Jews to seek ways of forging a shared destiny in spite of the halakhic boundary lines that separate us.
“Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” So wrote the great American poet, Robert Frost. Walls divide us, separate us, block us from free contact with each other. And yet, we can’t live without walls. We need boundaries to maintain our individual selves, our communities, our nations. Just as we feel the need to resent walls, we also need to appreciate their value.
But where to draw boundaries and where to build walls are matters of great controversy.
The Jewish people is a case in point. Who belongs within the boundaries and who doesn't? Who is Jewish and who is not Jewish? Historically, a Jew is defined as someone born of a Jewish mother, or someone who converts to Judaism. Someone born of a Jewish mother is within the walls. Someone who wishes to convert must find a way to gain entry through the walls.
For the Haredim, and the Haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the walls are built to exclude and disenfranchise would-be converts, unless they wish to fully adopt an Orthodox lifestyle. Obstacles are placed in the way of those who wish to join the Jewish people; stringencies are added. In the Haredi view, one is Jewish according to the strictest interpretation of halakha, Jewish law, or one is not Jewish at all. There is no middle ground.
For the non-Orthodox, the walls are generally set at a much lower level. The goal is to include as many as possible who wish to cast their fates with the Jewish people. The strictures of halakha are set aside or minimized. In their view, once a person has undergone conversion—whether in conformity to Orthodox halakha or not—he or she is fully Jewish.
And then we have the dilemma of the Modern Orthodox community. The Modern Orthodox are deeply committed to halakha, which has requirements for conversion and for those who would perform conversions. The halakha has boundaries. There is a wall, but it need not be as restrictive or oppressive as that erected by the Haredi rabbinic establishment.
Indeed, the halakha provides a meaningful and accessible entry into Judaism and the Jewish people. The Talmud, Maimonides, the Shulhan Arukh—and so many other halakhic sources—are far more inclusive and compassionate than the prevailing views and policies within the Orthodox rabbinate today.
But what is the status of those who have converted under non-Orthodox/non-halakhic auspices? Can or should the Modern Orthodox community accept such individuals as fellow Jews?
The answer—keenly reflecting the dilemma—is no and yes.
No, such individuals have not followed the halakhic route; halakha, for all its kindness, has boundaries.
Yes, such individuals have abandoned their former religions and have willingly chosen to be part of the Jewish people. They cannot be considered simply as “non-Jews.” While they haven’t entirely entered the boundaries of the Jewish people according to halakha, they also no longer belong within the boundaries of their previous faiths.
We need to confront a serious reality. Many thousands of people identify themselves as Jews—even though they are not Jewish according to halakha. They may be children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers; or they may be non-halakhic converts to Judaism; or they may be individuals who have adopted Judaism/Jewishness in their own way. These individuals are deeply committed to Judaism/Jewishness, and rightly feel quite offended if their Jewish status is denied or belittled.
The “halakhic establishment,” though, tends to see such people simply as non-Jews. I know a person who had a Conservative conversion, who later went to an Orthodox beth din to arrange for an Orthodox conversion. A rabbi on the beth din, upon learning of her Conservative conversion, told her: “You are not Jewish. You can go to McDonald’s and eat a cheeseburger.” While this is a particularly grotesque example, it reflects a widespread attitude within the “halakhic community.” If you are a non-Orthodox convert, you simply are not Jewish.
The reality is that we have an Orthodox community deeply committed to its standards of halakha; and we have a large community of people who think of themselves as being Jewish, although they have not met the criteria of halakha even according to the most lenient halakhic opinions.
There is a boundary. There is a wall. No one should pretend the wall does not exist. There are, in fact, two communities of Jews: halakhic Jews, and non-halakhic Jews. We are all one people. We all share one destiny. But because of the halakhic wall between us, we can’t marry each other unless one side or the other agrees to change the boundary line.
The wall between the two communities of Jews would be less painful if the Orthodox rabbinic authorities presented a more appealing and inclusive halakhic road to conversion; and if it fostered a sense of respect and shared destiny with non-halakhic Jews. It is also necessary for non-halakhic Jews to take seriously the commitment of Orthodoxy to classic halakha, and not to assume that the conversion issue is merely a political power struggle. By studying the halakhic sources, they would gain deeper insight into the matters at stake.
At a time when the Jewish people face so many challenges, it is essential for all Jews to seek ways of forging a shared destiny in spite of the halakhic boundary lines that separate us. We can respect and appreciate each other’s Jewish commitments, even if we differ on where those boundary lines belong.
In fact, we are two Jewish communities. And yet, we must never forget that we are all part of one Jewish people.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel is Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and author of Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion. A former President of the Rabbinical Council of America, he is co-founder, with Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an association of Modern Orthodox Rabbis.