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Conversion: Joining a Religion or Joining a Nation?

The most conspicuous characteristic of Israel as the Jewish nation-state is the Law of Return, which permits not only Jews to enter the country, but also non-Jews who are related to them by specified family ties.

As a result, of the more than a million Aliya-eligible persons who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, about a third (350,000) are family members of Jews but are not themselves recognized as Jews. This group is growing by about 10,000 persons each year, as a result of natural population growth and continued Aliya. The fact that the State classifies them as non-Jews arouses severe problems. 

From an individual perspective, basic rights are being violated because of the ban on non-Jews marrying Jews in Israel. From a national perspective, exclusion from the Jewish collective is liable to weaken identification with the country and lead to an additional “tribal” split in Israeli society. And from a religious perspective, there are some, motivated by the ban on marriage with non-Jews, who would like to create genealogical lists that would distinguish, for the purpose of marriage, between Jews and everyone else. Doing so on a formal basis would likely produce a historic rift among the Jewish people, with far-reaching implications for Israel’s resiliency and future.

On the surface, the solution is clear: Judaism permits people to join its ranks by means of a religious procedure—conversion. But the fact is that conversions over the past decade account for only a disappointing 7% of all the non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The conversion process has not been successful because those wishing to convert are required to adhere to a religious lifestyle, and most are not interested in doing so. They are not willing to meet standards of observance that most Jews do not. The result is that in order to convert, they have to pretend. The path to Judaism and full integration into the Jewish nation passes through deceit, so many turn away from it. Is there any way to change this tragic situation?

The key question lies in defining the essence of conversion. Is it about adopting a new religion, or joining a new nation? If the former, it is perfectly natural to require a convert to observe the precepts of religion as a precondition for acceptance as a Jew. This was the opinion, for example, of Saadiah Gaon in the tenth century. He held that “our nation is a nation only by virtue of its religious laws”: Religion is the core component of the national identity. But there is also a halakhic tradition that Jewishness is a “people,” a primordial natural entity, and that a person is obligated to observe Jewish precepts only after joining the people. This is hinted at in the declaration by Ruth the Moabite, the paradigmatic convert whose descendants include King David and the messiah, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God”: First you join the Jewish people, and only after doing so—do you take on a religious commitment. 

The debate continues to the present day. The ultra-Orthodox and most rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement hold to the stringent approach, making it difficult to realize the potential for conversion in Israel. On the other hand, a significant group of rabbis (including three who served as Israel’s Chief Rabbi—Bakshi-Doron, Goren, and Uziel) held the view that conversion means joining the Jewish people, and that observance of the Jewish precepts is not a precondition for conversion. The rabbinic courts in Israel should consider adopting this more lenient stance.

In addition to the problems already mentioned—the infringement of human rights, the need to maintain the Jewish character of the state, and the fear of a split within the people—the rabbis must come to realize that the rigid halakhic position might make conversion irrelevant. The mass integration of “non-Jewish Jews” into Israeli society will soon legitimize the sociological path to becoming a Jew, outside the bounds of religion, and make conversion superfluous. Although some would welcome this development, we must understand that it would constitute a true revolution in the history of the Jewish people (at least since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, 2,500 years ago), whose implications and dangers are hard to predict.

Finally, a demographic consideration: Today, most Diaspora Jews marry non-Jews. Does it make sense to cut these families off from the Jewish people, even when the non-Jewish wife and mother wants to be Jewish? Does it make sense for a decision by one generation—the present generation—to chop off so many branches from the Jewish tree – and forever? The halakhic conversion policy— whether more lenient or more stringent —must deal with the question of whether the Jewish collective in our generation is interested in being insular or in opening its doors.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.