by Yoel Schaper
Conversion to Judaism is a hot topic. It addresses the question of 'who is a Jew’, but serves another purpose as well. In a way, converts serve as a reminder that there is more to being Jewish than ethnicity and culture. A person with no ethnic or cultural ties to Judaism can become part of the covenant with God and be a full member of the Jewish community. I myself am a convert to Judaism and hence the topic is close to my heart. I took the opportunity to interview Rabbi Chuck Davidson, a leading voice of reason in today's conversion controversies.
You have been described to me as an expert in the laws of conversion and one of the stronger voices on what some have labeled ‘the conversion crisis’ in Israel. What is your interest and what motivated you to become an activist?
My interest in the conversion crisis in Israel began more than 10 years ago as a result of my work at The Jewish Agency for Israel, which exposed me to the challenges faced by immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Following the lifting of the iron curtain, over 1 million of its former citizens made Aliyah. Israel's Law of Return grants the right of Aliyah to anyone having one Jewish grandparent, even if it be the paternal grandfather. Moreover, since the State of Israel will not break up families, the spouses and children (under age 18) of all such potential Olim also have the right to make Aliyah. As a result, approximately 400k of the Olim (and now their children, 20 years later) are not halakhically Jewish. The overwhelming majority of them identify as Jewish since, in general, Jewish status was defined paternally in the FSU, rather than maternally. A running "joke" among many of these Olim is, "I got on the plane in Russia as a Jew, and landed in Israel as a gentile."
As a result this cohort of what I term "non-Halakhically Jewish Jews" have faced a number of sociological challenges, prime of which is their inability to marry in their own country. This because Israel has no civil marriage. Christians marry through the Church, Moslems marry through their religious institutions, and Jews marry through Israel's Chief Rabbinate. These 400,000 citizens, however, are defined as "religionless" and are thus unable to marry, unless they and their fiancées fly abroad to attain a civil marriage. Moreover, since 1989, the rates of intermarriage have risen by tenfold, the entire growth deriving from native Israelis and citizens from this sector. This makes sense, given their successful integration into Israeli society. In fact, research conducted in 2014 showed that the second generation is completely indistinguishable from the average Israel. They have, in fact, already become Jewish from a cultural, national, sociological, and even religious (albeit not Halakhic) perspective.
My interest in the issue gained momentum after Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a rabbinical judge of the Chief Rabbinate's Supreme Rabbinical Court, overturned many thousands of conversions performed by none other than the Chief Rabbinate. It was following that ruling that I began to delve into the Halakhic aspects of conversion. What I discovered through this study refuted all of my preconceived notions about the Halakhic aspects of conversion. In fact, conversion for the vast majority of this sector should be at most a two-week process, certainly among the second generation, and even more so for children under the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
Following meetings with many leaders in the field - rabbinic, political and organizational - I came to the conclusion that there was no way to address the conversion crisis through the Chief Rabbinate, and not even in any way that the Chief Rabbinate would accept. About six or seven years ago, I created a vision and the outline of a strategic plan to launch a network of Orthodox conversion courts which would operate independently of the Chief Rabbinate. Following as many years of near Sisyphean work to advance the idea, it finally launched last August.
Strictly speaking from a perspective of Jewish law, what are the basic requirements for conversion? And have they met with universal agreement throughout the ages?
The three basic requirements for conversion according to Jewish law are kabbalat mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments), brit milah - circumcision (for a male), and immersion in a mikveh. At least ab initio, all three stages must take place in the presence of three rabbis. Regarding the first element, kabbalat mitzvot, there is debate in the Halakhic literature regarding how that is defined, and whether or not it is critical post facto, i.e., if the convert never accepted the commandments, is s/he nevertheless Halakhically Jewish.
It is my opinion that, at least post facto, if a convert had a brit milah and immersed in a mikveh for the purpose of becoming a convert and joining the Jewish religion, that person is in fact a Halakhically valid convert, even if the converting forum was not comprised of three rabbis but three religiously observant men. Your Hebrew readers can download a draft article I have written on this subject.
It is a common idea that the Beis Din [Jewish Court] must send away a potential convert three times. During my own conversion some people in the community even seemed to feel that this obligation fell not only on the Rabbis but also on the community itself. What is the basis for the idea of sending away a potential convert? And upon whom does that obligation fall?
The notion of turning away a convert three times appears in the Midrash Rabba, an Aggadic, rather than Halakhic, midrash. It is not recorded as a Halakhic requirement in any of the codices of Jewish law; not the Mishneh Torah, not the Tur, and not the Shulchan Arukh. In these codices, the rabbinic court is charged with informing the convert of the consequence of converting, theologically, Halakhically, and sociologically, in order to ensure that the convert makes an informed decision. But turning away the convert is not recorded. To the contrary, many leading Halakhic scholars maintain that the Torah's special commandment of "loving the convert" begins the very moment a proselyte expresses interest in converting.
When I converted, the first thing the Rav of the Beis Din said when I came out of the Mikvah was, in Yiddish: ‘You are now a Jew like any other Jew.’ But in recent times we have seen Rabbinic courts, especially in Israel, nullify conversions. Clearly some feel that converts are not ‘like other Jews,’ seeing that their Jewishness can be revoked. I know that you strongly oppose this. Who nullifies conversions? What justification do they give for this? What are your objections to this practice?
Regarding the finality of conversion, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef used to say, "Conversion to Judaism is a one-way ticket. You can enter but there is no way whatsoever to exit." There is, in fact, no Halakhically legitimate possibility of undoing a conversion or even call it into question based on non-observance, no matter how immediate and how extreme following the final stage of the conversion, immersion in the mikveh. The only way to legitimately call into question the legitimacy of the conversion is to prove that the converting forum was Halakhically unfit (an extremely difficult thing to do, certainly if the three members were themselves observant) or to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the convert never intended to join the Jewish people.
Extreme non-observance, no matter how immediate following the conversion, does not constitute sufficient evidence. I am aware of only two instances where an Orthodox conversion was reversed. In the first case, a gentile gentleman converted in order to marry a wealthy Jewess. Shortly after the wedding and following his gaining access to her liquid assets, the husband stole her assets and vanished. His conversion was ruled invalid based on the overwhelming evidence that his sole intent was to steal the woman's money, not to join the Jewish people, and in order to free his wife from being an agunah (chained woman). The second case was in Israel, where a Muslim man converted to Judaism to marry a Jewish woman. Shortly after the wedding, and during their first visit to the husband's village, the husband essentially kidnapped her, preventing her from leaving their home. Upon her successful escape, the husband's conversion was ruled invalid based on overwhelming evidence that his sole intent was to marry the woman and rejoin his Muslim community along with his new wife.
Within Orthodoxy, rejecting the conversions of any Orthodox rabbi in good standing (not one, for example, charged with a major crime) was unheard of. Only within the last two decades or so has the practice of questioning the validity of an Orthodox conversion become prevalent. Unfortunately, Israel's Chief Rabbinate, in an attempt to assert its control over conversion around the world, pressured rabbinical organizations such as the RCA to centralize and standardize conversion under the approval of the Chief Rabbinate. And even more unfortunately, the RCA abandoned a 2,000-year Halakhic tradition of radically decentralized conversion (empowering any three rabbis to perform conversions) and shamefully capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate. Over these past two decades, the notion of rejecting conversions has gained momentum such that it is virtually impossible to attain a hermetically sealed conversion anywhere in the world, a situation which causes untold angst for an untold number of converts worldwide that one day their Jewish status, or even the Jewish status of their children, will be called into question.
As an activist, what steps do you take to combat this problem? And how can others help?
As an activist, I was instrumental in establishing a network of Orthodox conversion courts in Israel that operate independently of Israel's Chief Rabbinate, implementing an approach vastly different from that of the Rabbinate, an approach which more closely follows the Halakha as it was traditionally practiced for 2,000 years.
I continue to work to establish more conversion courts, primarily in North America at this point, that operate independently of the long arm of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
And finally, I work to educate both Rabbis and laypeople as to the Halakhic parameters of conversion. To that end, I have put together a source book and an article.
There are any number of ways that others can help. I encourage those interested to contact me at email@example.com.
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is an activist and advocate for converts in Israel and around the world. Beginning in 2010, he envisioned an Orthodox conversion court in Israel which would operate independently of Israel's Chief Rabbinate. After more than 5 years of work advancing the idea and lobbying among individual rabbis and rabbinic organizations, Giyur KeHalakha was launched in August 2014. Chuck continues his work to advance conversion reform (small "r"), advocate on behalf of converts, and create alternative religious services in Israel outside of the framework of the Chief Rabbinate.