When Boaz Met Ruth

The impasse over conversions poses a risk of splitting the Jewish people .

As in any other biblical episode, both sides can find justification in the Book of Ruth, which will be read on Shavuot, this coming Monday. Those who are adamant that converts to Judaism must go through the most rigorous course can point to the tragic test of faith Ruth had to undergo before she was admitted to the tribe. The advocates of a more flexible attitude will note the willingness of Boaz, the senior judge of his day, to take a newcomer under his wing and then marry her.

But perhaps the best lesson we can draw from Ruth comes from the last part of the book, which places the son of Ruth and Boaz squarely in the dynasty that leads from Peretz, the son of Judah, to King David. Behind the names lies a transition from an enlarged family to an often disparate collection of tribes to unification as a nation under David.

The ongoing conversion fiasco, the government's inability to assist in the conversion of hundreds of thousand of immigrants who are not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law), is proof that we are rapidly going through an opposite process - splitting into feuding communities with little in common. This might seem unduly alarmist: After all, religious divides are nothing new to Judaism, and still, a degree of cohesion has somehow remained. People's ideals and lifestyles might have been at opposite poles, but there was still an underlying belief that we are all Jews and share a joint destiny.

So why is this dispute different? Because for the first time, there is the risk that one rapidly growing group will stop regarding other large groups as Jews at all. There is no way out of the conversion impasse. The hardline Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis, led by 98-year-old Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, have achieved a stranglehold on the batei din, the rabbinical courts that authorize conversions, and have even brought the courts in the United States and Europe into line.

Their philosophy is simple: Conversion should be discouraged and remain the preserve of a few privileged candidates who are prepared to confirm to the strictest standards of mitzvah (religious commandment) observance. But there is no way that these many thousands of essentially secular immigrants, many of whom believe they are Jewish anyway, will agree to undergo such a transformation.

The "moderate" Orthodox rabbis, who still believe that it is their duty to assist the applicants, lack both the political power and the self-confidence to challenge the ultra-Orthodox hegemony and create an open-minded religious conversion system. A recent Civil Service Commission study reveals that despite having received greatly enlarged funding and prime ministerial backing, the outgoing head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, failed to boost conversion: The number of converts actually went down during his four-year tenure. Blame the intransigence of many of the dayanim (rabbinical court judges), but Druckman did little to challenge them - and when he did do something, he was left in the lurch by the government.

This is not a problem that will go away or remain contained. The group of halakhically non-Jewish immigrants, now put at about 300,000, will grow, since many of their children, and the majority of the immigrants still arriving from the former Soviet Union, share the same status. But the more significant development is the linking up of secular Jewish Israelis with their non-Jewish fellow citizens, who they meet at work, in the army and in school.

A newly released survey by the Ministry of Immigration Absorption shows that 52 percent of secular Israelis have no problem with one of their family members marrying a non-Jewish immigrant. A generation from now, most of the younger generation of these immigrants will have started families with Jewish spouses. They will be 100 percent Israeli, and Jewish in their own view, but will be seen by the ultra-Orthodox as goyim (non-Jews).

A parallel development is taking place in the United States, where intermarried families are gaining new recognition and acceptance from many communities. This development does not alarm most ultra-Orthodox leaders. They believe that due to their much higher birthrates, in a couple of generations, Haredim will outnumber secular Jews, whose numbers will be decimated by intermarriage and assimilation.

It will be hard for anyone to avoid taking a stance one way or the other: Either accept that fact that the definition of Jewishness has changed, or join those who disqualify what could, in a generation, be millions of people. The emergence of two Jewish peoples is not so farfetched. Or perhaps even three.

Ironically, the Jewish community with the strongest Israel-Diaspora ties is the ultra-Orthodox. A Haredi in Jerusalem shares a similar lifestyle and concerns with his counterpart in Brooklyn. But there are fewer ties that bind a secular Jew from Israel and one from America. And young American Jews' estrangement from Israel can only grow if the country's political establishment proves ineffectual at facing down the rabbis.

Tens of thousands of young Jews who arrive in Israel every year on Taglit-Birthright Israel programs might return home filled with positive experiences, but that can change very quickly the moment they realize that the powers that be in Israel do not recognize them, or some of their relatives, as Jews at all. The three-way split between religious Orthodoxy, secular Israelis and the less-defined "cultural" or "international" Jews is becoming more pronounced, and the conversion issue will only exacerbate it further. Perhaps only the emergence of a Ruth and Boaz for our generation could do something to reverse this trend.

More Jewish World news and features