When the people of Israel lived in peace and tranquility in their land, the conversion procedure was simple, symbolic; and the converts were welcomed with admiration: In the people’s eyes, the desire of the gentiles to be members of the covenant was a sign and testimony to the unique qualities and superiority of monotheism.
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The institutional and popular reservations from the gentiles joining the Jewish people started after the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of independence. Even though there were links between the spiritual leaders in various countries, the laws and customs of conversions developed as a result of different interests, customs and constraints based on the needs of the time and place.
Many communities may have acted according to the approach of Rabbi Helbo, who said “converts are as injurious to Israel as an open sore” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b). But even within the strictest approach to conversion, the self confidence of the community, which stemmed from its position among the society in which it lived, was what determined – to a rather large extent – the halakha, Jewish religious law.
Rabbi Helbo’s approach was a result of fear. Proselytes could very well have brought their customs with them, especially in the area of forbidden sexual relations – which were unsuitable for the Jewish customs of modesty. But even the most bitter disappointments from converts, and these were quite abundant, did not ever bring about a complete ban on conversion.
Today, the greatest problem of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and of most of the Orthodox Jews in Israel, is the copying of the religious laws of withdrawal unto oneself – the result of the long exile – to the sovereign State of Israel. It is actually in the Jewish state that paradoxically the strict exilic modes of thought have grown stronger, which express the inability to break free from the ancient fear.
Separation fences are being established with public money, sometimes even physical ones, which divide the members of Orthodoxy, including those who call themselves “religious Zionists,” from the rest of the Jewish people. Raising almost impenetrable obstacles in the face of converts symbolizes this withdrawal. These separation fences are the main cause for the harsh reactions against the rabbinic establishment. The result: an internal rebellion that threatens to shatter the community. The non-religious camp, it should be noted, does not fill a major role in this process.
Those wanting to convert to Judaism in Israel, most if not all of whom are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, do not intend at all – and are also unable – to “corrupt the Jewish people” or cause it to assimilate. Certainly not their children, whom the new rabbinic courts – unveiled to the public for the first time this week – intend to address.
The initiative of these new rabbinic conversion courts is being led by esteemed rabbis who will do this work for the sake of heaven. Even though I believe the declarations of these rabbis that they do not intend on harming the Chief Rabbinate, these alternative conversion courts truly herald the beginning of the end of the Chief Rabbinate in its present form. True, assemblies with hundreds of rabbis have been held recently, including rabbis from the religious Zionist movement, in order to preserve the status of the Rabbinate. But the process of its downfall is inevitable, because of its makeup and inability, or lack of desire, to deal with the challenges of life in a sovereign and modern country.
Neither fear nor withdrawal should determine the halakhic behavior of spiritual leaders – and certainly not the behavior of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. This institution, which operates based on the power of the law of the (secular!) state, must represent the entire Jewish public and not just the strictest wing of the Orthodox population.
The time has come for religious authorities and those who listen to their lessons to act out of the self-confidence that characterized their ancestors. Quite a few of the achievements of the people at present, including spiritual and religious accomplishments, are immeasurably greater than those of ancient times. Progress, not regression, will bring the public closer to religion and its concerns.