Shavuot’s Message of Acceptance

There has been quite a controversy in Israel recently surrounding the decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court to overturn the conversion of a woman who converted nearly fifteen years ago. The court said she had not lived up to her obligation to adhere to strict ritual Jewish law, so they retroactively stripped her of her chosen religion.

This episode is particularly painful as it took place so close to the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this Sunday night. On this holiday we read the Book of Ruth, a story about the first official convert to Judaism. Ruth became a Jew with the simple declaration to her mother-in-law: “Your people will be my people; your God, my God.” And in the eyes of God, that was enough.

In light of all this, JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky penned an article for the website On Faith, a joint venture of The Washington Post and Newsweek. The article makes the argument that, in a day and age when people are switching religions more than ever before, the legitimacy of a person’s conversion should not be defined solely by a supreme court, but more by the person’s life after they have converted. This woman in Israel had raised a Jewish family, lived a Jewish life, but because she was not as thorough in her belief as the strict orthodox council, they voided not just her religion, but also the religion of her children. Kerry writes:

It shouldn’t matter if a conversion ceremony was elaborate, or a simple declaration followed by righteous deeds. Religions should be open to everyone searching for meaning, and Shavuot is a good time for Jews to recognize and appreciate all those who have chosen to become part of the community.

Whether you celebrate the holiday with all night study groups or a plate of cheese blintzes, all of us at JOI want to wish you a happy and healthy Shavuot.


  1. I agree that Shavuot is a special time to appreciate the righteous and sincere converts to Judaism. Just wanted to point out, though, that the overturning of the woman in question’s conversion was precisely b/c the rabinic court looked at her life after she converted to Orthodox Judaism and saw that she was not living the life she had converted to.

    Really, the only question should be her sincerity at the time of conversion. How she lived thereafter may be probative evidence of that, and was used in this case. The court is in a difficult position. If she was never really observant, then her conversion was a sham. However, if she was observant, but found it too difficult and later stopped observing mitzvot, then her conversion might be fine. It’s an unfortunate situation and the Rabbi who performed the conversion should have been more thorough so it would not have to come to this.

    Shavuot, though, is also a time to celebrate the giving of the Torah which decrees our judges of Jewish law can make legally binding decisions. In celebration of Shavuot, we should also treat the rabbinic court’s decisions with some level of defference. Maybe they were right and she never really converted to Judaism.

    Comment by marc — June 6, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  2. Even if you were right, and I clearly disagree with you and stand behind Levi’s blog entry, for the Rabbinical Court to call into question all of the conversions of this particular rabbi is absurd. Why would people want to convert to a Judaism that treats them this way.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — June 6, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  3. Judaism itself isn’t doing anything to anyone. The highest rabbinic court is calling into question the conversions of the former head of the court who may have not been doing things correctly. It’s tragic for people to have to go through all this again, I agree. (And I hope it does not come to that).

    But we need to remember that conversion isn’t a matter to be taken lightly. When a righteous convert becomes a Jew, it is different from converting to another religion. They become a Jew in religion, in ethnicity, and in cultural heritage (including the right to Eretz Yisrael). They become a part of a people who have a direct covenant with G-d, which our ancestors (physical and spiritual) entered into directly with G-d at Mt. Sinai. The book of Ruth is instructive for us, indicating that we must discourage the convert until it is clear they are sincere (along with whatever formal rules may have developed over the course of time).

    If this rabbi was not converting people in the correct manner, then they never actually became Jewish in the first place. He is responsible for fooling them and has this on his cheshbon forever. If the court acts unjustly and overturns conversions when there is no need for it, then it will be on their cheshbon forever. This is a very serious matter, and I agree they should use leniency where permitted in order not to reopen all these conversions.

    However, regarding the one where they DO know the woman was insincere, then she was never actually Jewish in the first place. All the court is doing is publicizing it in order that others (and her own family) should not be misten into thinking they can fool the courts, the jewish people or G-d Himself.

    Comment by marc — June 11, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

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