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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

בית ישראל" – בית הכנסת המסורתי בנתניה"

19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345
Email: office@betisrael.org

The Conversion Issue from a High Holy Day Perspective

Sermon delivered by Aiton Birnbaum on the first day of Rosh Hashana, 1st Tishrei 5776 – 14th September, 2015

Conversion or Giyur is a hot topic in Israel today, and it may determine the fate, the survival of the People of Israel.

Let me ask you a few questions:

  • According to the Bible, who was the first convert to Judaism?
  • Who was the next?
  • Who was the first child born to Jewish parents?
  • Did this nice Jewish boy have a nice Jewish girl to marry?

So the first Jewish wedding was of necessity an inter-marriage, but thank God, and thank Rebecca, because she was apparently willing to convert. And we could go on to Jacob at his Uncle Laban, falling in love with Rachel – was she Jewish? And all his kids, who became the 12 tribes, fathers of all the People of Israel?

So our matriarchs and patriarchs – they were all either converts themselves, married to converts, or both.

Now to the main issue: If there was even a specific process of conversion, who does the Torah say converted them?

Where was the Beit Din, and who sat on it as the presiding Dayanim? Was it an Orthodox conversion process sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate, or God-forbid, a Conservative or Reform conversion? How long did it take? Were they tested on their knowledge of Judaism? On their level of keeping Shabbat or overall religious observance?

For some reason, the patriarchs and matriarchs are usually ignored in discussions of conversion. Who is perhaps the most famous biblical convert, the very prototype of all converts to Judaism?

But the questions I raised above apply to Ruth as well, with the additional issue of her being a Moabite, since the Torah explicitly states that Moabites not be allowed to join the ranks of the Jewish people (even unto 10 generations)! So who allowed it? Who presided over her conversion? What tests did she take?

Well, in the case of Ruth, the text is actually rather explicit. The process entails Ruth’s self-initiated statement and definitive will to leave her people and join Naomi in a new and unknown land, as epitomized in her timeless declaration:

אל אשר תלכי אלך, ובאשר תליני אלין, עמך עמי ואלוהייך אלוהי

“Where you go and where you sleep, so shall I;
Your People is my People and your God–my God.”

That was enough for the wise and seasoned Naomi, and apparently it was enough for God. And the same line is still used in the Rabbinate’s conversions today. But let’s return to Ruth and Naomi, 3200 years ago.

They arrived back to Israel, and then came the process of Ruth’s absorption into Jewish society in biblical Bethlehem. This is depicted as a natural social process, much facilitated by Boaz, who recognizes her virtue. There was no merkaz klita, and no misrad hapnim. A traditional court of the elders is convened in the gate of the town, so there is ample opportunity to question Ruth’s conversion. But the only issue addressed is who will marry her, not whether she is Jewish and eligible to be married. So obviously, from both social and legal-halachic points of view, in the time of the Bible, Ruth and her conversion were entirely Kosher. Thank God, and thank Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, the society and the elders of Bethlehem 1200 BCE. Because if they hadn’t been open enough, liberal enough, flexible enough and rational enough to allow Ruth to join our people, you know who would never have been born: ___________, you know which town would never have been made the capital of Israel: ___________, and you know who would never have built the First Temple: ___________. We probably would not be sitting here at all, because without David, Goliath and the Philistines would probably have ruled the land, the Jewish People and the Bible would have been lost. In fact, the whole course of human history would have been gravely altered, and all monotheistic, Judeo-Christian civilization as we know it would not exist. For if Jews and Judaism would have vanished, Jesus would never have been born, and Mohammed would not have had inspiration from the People of the Book.

So once again we see the importance of the individual in the context of the people, and of the people in the context of the world. And we can also unfortunately see how far we have drifted from original Judaism when we see how it is now practiced in the modern State of Israel, how far removed we are from our roots. For there is no doubt that the conversions of Abraham and Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and the conversion of Ruth would never in a million years have been approved by any Orthodox Beit Din presiding in Israel today. No doubt at all. Read the stories of willing and motivated applicants and how they are humiliated and abused by the Rabbinate’s Batei Din.

Yediot Achronot reported recently the story of a potential convert who served as an officer in an elite patrol unit of the IDF. This young man adopted a dati-leumi, national-religious, kipa serugah lifestyle, began studies for conversion in the army’s Netiv program, and continued in an Orthodox program after completing his army service. It was at his second exam that they posed him the question: “Let’s say you are walking on a trail in the Carmel with a girl who is a potential shiduch, and climbing up a rock she suddenly falls. Do you reach out to help her up?” It was obvious that the ingenious Rabbis were testing this young man’s adherence to that central and eternal pillar of Judaism, Issur Negiah, prohibiting all touch between men and women, even shaking of hands. Well, our young veteran failed the test and was bounced out of Judaism because he thought it was more important to help an injured person in a simple act of humanity. He crossed borders into enemy territory to protect the Jewish State, to protect us, he overcame the challenges of his arduous training and legions of terrorists in the army, but he could not cross the border and enter the Jewish People; he fell before these 3 Rabbis who probably abhor service in the IDF.

Or how about the Beit Din’s refusing conversion of a child because the mother sends her to the wrong kindergarten, not a secular kindergarten mind you, a dati kindergarten — but not a Shas kindergarten! They have turned joining the Jewish People into a political power game! What a chillul hashem, an outright desecration of the Name of God!

And when level-headed Orthodox Rabbis like Shlomo Riskin in Efrat raise the flag of a more rational conversion process, they are threatened with being fired and ostracized by the Rabbinate!

Our founding fathers and mothers, David and his great-grandmother Ruth, all are either turning in their graves or looking on in amazement and disgust. Moses married the Midianite Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, Priest of Midian – no mention of a conversion. Zipporah had two sons with Moses while in Midian. Before Moses, Joseph was a great problem-solver in Egypt. He married Osnat, daughter of Poti-Pherah, Priest of On. No mention of any conversion. Their sons, Efraim and Menahse were born in Egypt, and became central tribes of Israel. The two Messiahs we are promised in Jewish tradition are the Son of David and the Son of Joseph, both directly descendant from converts, as it turns out are we all, via converts Abraham and Sarah! The Rabbis who today block conversions are similarly descendants of converts, and this is so even before we discuss the possibility that most Ashkenazi Jewry stems from later conversion of the Khazars in the Middle Ages.

So what do we see here? We read Torah on the two days of Rosh Hashana, and on both days the stars are the converts Abraham and Sarah. Chazal did not disqualify the readings because of it, perhaps just the opposite. One may go further: We can view the Orthodox Rabbinate in the role of a well-intended but very misguided, knife-wielding Abraham at the Akedah, whose action is threatening the very continued existence of his own line. For if the Orthodox persist on their path of increasing extremism and politicization of the rabbinate and of Judaism in Israel, we will be continuously and seriously weakened, and increasingly polarized and fractionalized. Eventually due to demographics our army will be a hollow shell depending on prayer than on bullets! Even now, some of the ultra-Orthodox have the chutzpah to threaten and physically attack Charedi boys who dare to join the fighting army! And this despite the continued threats from ISIS-Daesh, Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and our other friendly neighbors.

There are some 350,000 young people in Israel who entered based upon the Law of Return, because one of their parents or grandparents was Jewish. Hitler would have marched them into the gas chambers no questions asked, and they would have died as Jews. So we let them come here to live as Jews, to serve in our army and defend us, but not to marry our children?! Unless you go through a long and often degrading process in which you learn things that 80% of our children never learn, such as “What goes into the cup first on Shabbat: the hot water or the tea bag?” Or, “If a fly falls in your soup on Shabbat, are you permitted to remove the fly and eat the soup, or must you remove all the soup and leave the fly?”

Elazar Stern, MP, a high-ranking Orthodox reserve general, formerly head of Manpower and Education and Officer’s Training School of the IDF, has pleaded for simplification of conversion procedures. His argument is simple: our kosher kids work and serve and play together with those 350,000 unkosher kids. They will inevitably marry each other, and then what will we have? Hundreds of thousands of young people, eventually even a majority of marriages and families established outside the official framework of the Chief Rabbinate! The Charedi will not intermarry with them, and we will have a People divided.

A recent Jerusalem Post article describes how the Chief Rabbinate here doesn’t always ratify even Orthodox conversions by Orthodox Rabbis in the USA. And they don’t even provide the reason for their refusal, and don’t answer repeated appeals for explanation. Thus, on top of everything else, the Rabbinate drives a wedge between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

My intention is not to attack the Charedim per se. First, we need not over-generalize. And we need to seek common ground with all our brothers and sisters, not foster more conflict. This is just one more reason why the Conservative-Masorati Movement in Israel is so critical, as a potential bridge of compromise between the religious and the secular communities in Israel. But what are the Chief Rabbinate and Shas doing? To wield power and to have the final word, they are risking the destruction of our people by the application of halacha with greater rigidity than ever before in the history of our people! There needs to be a welling up of widespread social protest to stop this. But if you want to write to the Chief Rabbi, make sure he isn’t in jail. Actually, there needs to be pressure brought to bear upon our politicians; we can let them know that even if we support them and their party, we cannot in good conscience continue to vote for them if they will not sever their political ties with the ultraorthodox parties. We need to organize as I know members of Hod veHadar in Kfar Saba have tried to do. If enough of us here and abroad can get involved, perhaps we can make a difference before Charedi demographics sweep us away like a tsunami. All Zionist parties want the continued survival of the Jewish People and the Jewish State; they all need to be convinced that alliance with the ultra-Orthodox endangers these central priorities.

My friends, we must recognize that we are in a struggle for the future character and even the very survival of the Jewish People and the Sate of Israel. And the Torah says to choose life. Let us pray that this New Year shall bring the Rabbinate to its senses and to its sources in humanistic Jewish tradition as handed down by Beit Hillel, and informed by modern sensibilities. Let us pray that in the meantime we find the wherewithal to influence those who can make a difference and change our direction, for the survival and the increased glory of the Jewish People and of Israel, forever more, Amen.

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