One of the most concerning aspects of the future of Judaism is the undeniable fact that Jewish population is shrinking and getting older. When a Christian church’s membership decreases, they can always evangelize the neighbors or move to another part of town with more potential parishioners. When a shul is dying due to demographic changes, we often do not have these options, since the pool of Jewish residents in an area is usually very limited. This is the fate of synagogues in small town America, particularly in areas that used to be important hubs of business or industry but have since waned. When the newer generations move to bigger cities in search of opportunities, there is very little we can do to keep the shul open. We have lost millions to the Holocaust and to assimilation. We are loosing some thousands more due to demographic factors that are not in our hands.
It is my opinion that the future of Judaism demands us to reconstruct our approach to conversion seriously. Granted that it is unquestionably forbidden to force anybody to become a Jew, and that Jews have not been active proselytizers for thousands of years. However, I think that there is a big difference between knocking on somebody’s door Bible in hand (white shirt and tie included) and reaching out to non-Jews who are ready to explore Judaism. Most of the negative traditional attitudes towards candidates to conversion are fruit of the times and circumstances that surrounded the Jewish community in centuries past. According to some of these attitudes, a beit din is supposed to reject candidates up to three times before accepting them to the conversion process. Once accepted, a number of right-wing batei din will make practically impossible for the convert to succeed, demanding from the person a level of observance –always interpreted in the narrowest way possible– that they would never dare to demand from those who are born Jewish. While I am not advocating careless leniency on conversion processes, I think it is time to denounce the lack of humanity, understanding, and derekh erets of many a beit din.
Once a person is officially converted it is almost inevitable that s/he will not be universally recognized. For those of you who may not know, in principle Reconstructionists accept conversions effectuated by all other movements (caveat: it is the Reconstructionist congregation and not the rabbi who decides whom to recognize). Reform rabbis recognize all conversions, but Conservative rabbis only accept Orthodox or Conservative conversions. As for Orthodox, they only accept their own, and yet not universally: it is not uncommon for Orthodox rabbis to question batei din from other Orthodox trends. Although generalizations are never fair, I would say that the more insular a denomination is, the less welcoming to conversion candidates. When we talk about Israel, recognition also means the right of immigration, and unfortunately the Orthodox monopoly of legal institutions makes things very difficult for everybody else. If it wasn’t enough with the Israeli chief rabbis anathematizing non-Orthodox conversions, lately they are equally nullifying conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis. What is worse, when the beit din declares that a convert is not such, it creates a human drama that includes this person being denied aliyah, having his or her marriage nullified and his children declared mamzerim.
While I don’t think we should accept conversions that skip important steps (namely brit, mikveh, duly constituted beit din, etc.), in my opinion all demands should be reasonable. Even if one is so concerned for the fulfillment of all halakhic minutiae, I still do not see why conversion processes are not being evaluated case-by-case, and why –when there is a serious doubt– the batei din do not deploy all ways and means to “re-convert” expeditiously the person whose conversion is questioned. You are entitled to not consider a conversion valid according to your standards, but it is just not Jewish to leave the person out there and not help her regularize the situation.
The more astringent argumentation for the denial of recognition is as follows: according to SA Yoreh De’a 286:12, a convert must have the intention of keeping all commandments at the time of the bet din. Even if s/he doesn’t observe afterward, the conversion is still valid. However, there are rules as for who can act as a judge and witness of a conversion: any public transgressors of commandments are disqualified. And that is where Orthodox operate in the assumption than all non-Orthodox rabbis are by definition public transgressors. Do you see the problem? Nobody is really doing this for the sake of the convert, or even out of love for the Torah, but rather as a political game, because they cannot conceive the possibility of recognizing the authority of a rabbi that doesn’t belong to their denomination.
Lately, some other Jewish movements take an apparently more friendly approach to conversion and encourage non-Jews to observe the seven noachide laws. Their argument: why would anybody want to go through the hassle of conversion when they can become one of the benei Noach? Particularly in South America we are witnessing an explosion of websites, groups and even congregations that ascribe themselves to this category. The problem is that the renaissance of this halakhic concept is not exempt of an agenda. Most of what we know about the noachides is codified by Maimonides, who equals a noachide to a ger toshav, a hassid umot ha-olam. The Rambam did not understand this category of people as limited to the physical land of Israel. Anybody who accepts the seven mitzvot is a ger toshav, living among Jews in any of the lands of their dispersion. However, the Rambam says that until the days of the messiah we can only accept a full convert, not a ger toshav (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 10:6). Why does then Chabad –for instance– encourage non-Jews to accept the noachide commandments? Probably because they would have problems with their full conversion. Firstly, if Schnerson was the messiah, we are currently living in the messianic era and there is dispensation to accept noachides. The second reason is Chabad’s theology of the nature of non-Jews who, according to the second chapter of Tanya, have no neshamah: like Jews, they do have an animal soul, but do not possess that “extra” divine soul reserved for Jews. Jews have a spiritual purpose, gentiles a physical one (Likutei Sichot v. 25, p. 49). How can somebody become a Jew, if it is not in the person’s nature? Nobody can get himself a divine soul if he lacks one! Some Orthodox groups even think that teaching Torah to a non-Jew is prohibited, less the person uses it for idolatrous purposes. If you are not outraged, you should.
Without advocating careless leniency, and with all respect for our halakhah, I think we should all do teshuvah for making it difficult for potential converts to adopt Judaism fully. People should be well informed, study Judaism in depth and understand the process before being fully accepted as Jews. However, all demands should be reasonable and all care should be given to treat the person with sincere respect and acceptance. It is true that progressive shuls are a lot more welcoming for converts, but not totally exempt of prejudices. We should all do teshuvah for the way we have treated converts when questioning and “marking” them, which is against the halakhah. Think of the many times a person is casually reminded that they are converts, or a rabbi insists they should use ben Avraham avinu when called to the Torah (less somebody would think that his “real” father’s name was Abraham! I’ve seen this even in a few “progressive” synagogues). In the 1990s I was outraged to hear an important leader of liberal Judaism in Europe say that we should put a cap on conversions because too many converts in a shul would have pernicious effects in the congregation’s culture. Even in this day an age, we all have our own baggage of prejudice and insularism. We should particularly question our congregations’ attitudes toward converts of a different race, transgender persons or anybody who looks slightly different than your average American Ashkenazi. Even in the most liberal circles, some are suffering discrimination.
Finally, we should question our misconceptions about “proselytism,” and examine what is allowed when making outreach to non-Jews and what is not. According to the Rambam, proselytizing is actually one of the 613 commandments: the Responsa 149 says it is permitted to teach the commandments to non-Jews in order to drawn them close to our religion. In the Rambam’s Sefer ha mitsvot, the third commandment is to love G-d. He states that the way we fulfill this injunction is by sharing the knowledge of G-d with the world and drawing others close to HaShem. Maybe we will not knock on doors but I see no problem on organizing Judaism courses to target potential converts, or on informing mixed families that our clergy is open and willing to explore conversion studies. In the same context, the mitzvah no. 9 is to sanctify the Name of G-d. Its essence, for Maimonides, is to publicize the faith in HaShem without fear of any harm incurred by doing so. The verb used here is lefarsem, to publicize or proclaim. I cannot avoid to relate it to another proclamation, the so-called pirsuma de-nisa. This Aramaic expression, which contains the same root, is the one our rabbis use when talking about the commandment of lighting our chanukias in front of the window, so that we can proclaim and publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. My wish for this season is that we strive to make our Judaism shine out for whomever wants to see its light.