Must Conversion Be a Religious Action?

Should only religious people, or those with a religious or spiritual connection, or who masquerade as such, be able to become Jews? Why shouldn't a non-Jew who is completely secular be able to become a Jew?

The High Court ruling on Thursday, recognizing the conversions of those who study for conversion in Israel and undergo the process in overseas Jewish communities affiliated with any stream of Judaism, is another version of the old dispute over who is a Jew.

Behind this question there are other questions, such as: Which religious movement or stream in Judaism is authorized to perform conversions? Who is a true rabbi (male or female)? And which religious movement holds the keys for entering Israel and becoming a citizen under the Law of Return?

We've become so accustomed to asking these questions that we tend to ignore other questions that are much more fundamental: Must conversion be a religious action? And why is the decision about who is an Israeli citizen given to the religious streams and taken from the hands of the largest stream in Judaism - the secular Jews?

This absurdity developed in light of High Court rulings that gave overseas rabbis, including Reform and Conservative rabbis, the right to determine who is a Jew. But, meanwhile, the High Court has not given the same right to rabbis from the same streams of Judaism who perform conversions in Israel.

The underlying assumption in the conversion process in all of the streams is that joining the Jewish people is a religious act, or at least a spiritual one. Even Supreme Court President Aharon Barak wrote in Thursday's ruling that "conversion is a religious concept." But why? Why should only religious people, or those with a religious or spiritual connection, or who masquerade as such, be able to become Jews? Why shouldn't a non-Jew who is completely secular be able to become a Jew? There is no reason that conversion should not be a cultural and social act, devoid of any religious aspect. There is no reason, at least, that there should not also be the possibility of civil conversion.

One can learn to what extent the Israeli public disagrees with the assumption that conversion is a religious matter from the de facto "social conversion" of 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants who have become an integral part of Jewish Israeli society. From the public's perspective, what makes these immigrants Jews is the fact that they study in government schools, serve in the army, are loyal to the state and speak Hebrew. In other words, if someone acts like a Jew and an Israeli, and feels like a Jew and an Israeli, then he is apparently a Jew and an Israeli.

These immigrants ostensibly do not require any stamp of approval from the rabbinate. The State of Israel has an interest in their conversion and invests great efforts in this, but encounters countless obstacles placed by the rabbinate. The problem is even greater when the non-Jew is not a citizen but only a spouse or adopted child of a citizen. In such cases, he or she is required to undergo conversion to gain citizenship under the Law of Return and must seek the assistance of religious officials. In many of these cases, the candidates for conversion (or their parents) are compelled to be untrue to their own convictions.

The obvious solution is civil conversion that would be conducted by acceptance committees composed of public figures, spiritual leaders, educators and attorneys. On whose behalf would the committees operate? The state, apparently, will not take this mission upon itself due to concerns about the reactions of religious politicians. The simpler route is for existing secular communities, such as kibbutzim and community settlements, to form such committees. If they are not interested in doing this, the organizations of secular Judaism will have to do this.

What would be the conditions for civil conversion? Knowledge of Hebrew, Zionism, basic concepts in Judaism, loyalty to the state and readiness to fulfill the obligations of Israeli citizenship. For the purpose of civil conversions, Independence Day would be no less important than Passover, and adherence to the law would be much more important than observing the Sabbath. Those wishing to convert would have to present a convincing reason for joining Israeli society - a family connection to an Israeli citizen, residence in Israel for a long period, a family connection to a "righteous gentile," or contribution to the State of Israel.

Contrary to the religious belief that conversion is a type of mystic process that happens at a certain moment and is irreversible, a secular committee for acceptance to Judaism would have a big advantage. It could, like acceptance committees at kibbutzim, accept people for a trial period and check whether he or she is indeed a positive citizen. Of course, there would also be a legal battle and it would be necessary to convince the High Court that conversion can be a civil action.

Secular society must liberate itself from the feelings of inferiority that lead to the perception that only the religious can define what Judaism entails. An important step in this direction would be to clarify that secular people are also capable of determining who is a Jew.