Welcoming Jews-by-Choice to the Family?

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel just won’t stop, and it makes our work harder in trying to bring those on the periphery closer to the Jewish state. Recently, the Chief Rabbinate once again reared its ugly head. As reported in Israeli newspapers, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is proposing a bill in the name of “The Eternal Family” that would deny converts to Judaism equal access to the Law of Return. Aliyah to Israel is at an all-time low. Conversion rates are low - yet the chief rabbi is trying to make things worse! Moreover, it is the attitude that underlies his proposal that troubles me even more, an attitude that stresses exclusivity over outreach. Were Rabbi Amar not gaining followers, this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. But since there are people who are supporting his initiative, it is important for us to speak out against it as being simply unacceptable, immoral, and wholly inconsistent with the values of Judaism as well as the history of Zionism.


  1. How you can hold yourself up as being more in tune to the values of Judaism than the Chief Sefardic Rabbi of Israel??? What chutzpah! I found this posting very disrespectful and distasteful. The “reared its ugly head” comment only exacerbates what is already an unfair jab at Rabbi Amar who has thousands upon thousands of both secular and religious sefardic followers in Israel and has been one of the few people able to help bridge their differences.

    Comment by marc — February 22, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  2. While “rearing its ugly head” may have been a bit strong, and for that I apologize, I remain steadfast in my contention that the various proposals that have been emerging from both chief rabbis are totally inappropriate and inconsistent with the historic values of Judaism with regard to welcoming in the stranger, for example.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 22, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  3. The Torah talks about embracing those who want to join Israel, 17 times! “Because once you were foreigners in the land of Egypt”
    Our people are getting married with non Jews on a 50% rate! If that rate continues one day we’ll be gone!
    Our Patriarch Abraham himself was married to a non Jew! Isn’t that enough for us to embrace Jews by conviction?with the same rights and duties as somebody born jew?
    According to our laws once a person becomes Jewish, his or her pass is erased completely and is as if he/she has always being Jewish, that is why the adopt the name Ben Abraham or Bat Sarah
    If we close our doors to those Jewish souls that are seeking to return to the Home Land, we are closing the doors to our own survival.
    I am not a scholar or a rabbinical student, just a regular Jew who is “trying” to follow Torah

    Comment by David — February 26, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  4. Rabbi Olitsky,

    “Historical Jewish values,” if that term is to have meaning at all, must entail having a healthy respect for what “welcoming the stranger” or “welcoming the convert” (depending on your rendering of the word “ger” and which verse you are reading) has meant historically to the Jewish people. On this I think there are 2 points to be made.

    1. Historically, one needed a halachic conversion to be considered a Jew. The Chief rabbinate of Israel is a Torah-observant institution, and that too is has historical roots. We must respect its desire to preserve the historic definition of who is a Jew, even if we in a America have not had that same level of reverence for this historical defintion. There were few converts to Judaism 2 generations ago at the founding of the State of Israel, and thus most people wanting “in” to Israel were halachically Jewish, (with some exceptions being those of non-Jewish mothers who were considered Jewish under the Nazis Nuremburg Laws) but today this is not the case and the Rabbinate feels it has a duty to preserve our historically halachic matrilineal descent. I don’t think we are in a position to judge them for this.

    2. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is, unfortunately, a government body and, like all government bodies, it seeks to consoldiate power lest it be deemed irrelevent and disbanded (as one day it may be and, indeed, many on both sides of the isle argue it should be for different reasons). For this I beleive we are in a position to judge to see to it that the reasons for such legislation are rooted in the rabbibnate’s purpose, and not merely to consolidate power. I personally know people who have had their “orthodox” conversions not accepted in Israel b/c it was not performed in teh most careful way. Unfortunately, there are also many who suffer b/c of this, having had valid conversions, but by lesser-known rabbis who have not gained the trust of the Israeli rabbinate.

    Some middle ground must be found to protect the innocent and also to satisfy the Chief rabbinate, but the vindictive attitude of this posting is completely unhelpful, is polarizing, and is demeaning to the Torah-observant position, which has been the Jewish position since 3,300+ years ago at Mt. Sinai. Please have a little respect for these “Historical Jewish values.”

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  5. I respect historical values and historical Judaism. I apologized for what might have been an inappropriate phrase. Nevertheless, I differ with you with regard to your reading of history. The chief rabbinate is not a historic enterprise that is traced back to Sinai neither is its dominion over a community. Jewish law and forms of leadership have also evolved. It is part of the dynamism of Judaism. For the record, the form of conversion as we know it is not consistent throughout history. In the Torah itself, people took on Judaism and were welcomed by the community.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 27, 2007 @ 10:02 am

  6. Dear David,

    Your remarks are well taken. Please have confidence, though, that just as the Torah commands us to welcome the stranger, and the righteous convert, it also assures us that we will be an eternal nation, despite our exile. The Jewish people will never disappear. The rise in intermarriage has been parallelled by a rise in halachic conversion (not for marriage), as evidenced by a long article in the NY Times two weeks ago, as well as a return to tradition by thousands upon thousands of Jews in the younger generation. Your concern about our numbers is well-founded, though, and I agree we need to do a better job of convincing our young people that Judaism is an important enough part of their lives to at least choose a Jewish spouse, or for women who marry out, to raise Jewish children.

    On a biblical note, Avraham was not married to a non-Jew. Sarah was his cousin, and at that period of time there were no “Jews.” Avraham was the first to be called Ivri (”the other”). He was the first to come to monotheism on his own, through reason, and Sarah adopted these beleifs. It is only after Mt. Sinai that being a monotheist and being a Jew (one of the Children of Israel) became distinct enough to prevent intermarriage without conversion. [In a sense, Mt. Sinai was a mass conversion, and the converison process is meant to recreate this experience]

    Finally, we should also be mindful that “welcoming the stranger” is different from “marrying the stranger” or “calling the stranger a Jew” If someone actually converted, then I agree with you 100% they are a “brother” (or “sister”) and, as I wrote to Rabbi Olitsky, some compromise to protect these people must be reached with the Chief Rabbinate. If they have not, however, our only obligation is to treat then fairly and decently, and accord them the respect and dignity all humans deserve, having been made in the image of God.

    Until they are officially “Jewish souls,” they are not Jews. To call them such or to not care ourselves only because we are worried about our numbers, is to not truly believe the Torah when it tells us we will be an Eternal Nation.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  7. Rabbi Olitsky,

    I agree the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is not the Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish People (and I never meant to imply it was), but it is the chief religious authority of a sovereign nation, Israel, which does not have a complete separation of church and state. It has its own definition of who is a Jew (or valid convert), just as does the Vatican re: Catholics.

    I was wondering, however, how the method of halachic conversion changed from the time of the Judges (Book of Ruth for exmple, from whence we get many of our conversion rules), until the early 1700s. I had not heard of these changes before and would be interested to know of them.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 10:46 am

  8. There is more than one definition for “who is a Jew?” and just because the chief rabbinate sees it one way does not mean that it speaks for the rest of the Jewish community. it doesnt even speak for the Israeli community which is why organizations like the Israel Religious Action Center argue against a variety of positions that the chief rabbinate takes.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 27, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  9. That’s fine, but the Religious Action Center is affiliated with the Reform movement, and the Chief Rabbinate is an Orthodox establishment connected to and intertwined with the Israeli government. The RAC is also seen by the vast majority of even secular Israelis as a fringe group which wields disproportionate power because of American Reform Jewish money…a form of cultural imperialism if you will. Most Israelis are very traditional-minded even if they themselves are not religious. This is why the RAC’s victories are in the Israeli Supreme Court, which is undemocratically chosen and self-perpetuating, and not in the Knesset.

    I would still like to hear how the method of halachic conversion changed from the time of the Judges until the early 1700s. That is much more interesting to me, and I think much of what you are saying about “Historical Jewish values” hinges upon you being able to cite historical facts.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  10. Marc, where in the Book of Ruth does it mention that she studied for a year, got quized by a beit din, and then went to the mikvah?

    I spoke about this with an Orthodox Rabbi once who said “just because it’s not written down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Um…yeah. Assuming for a moment Ruth was a historic figure, she lived almost a full millenium before the first rabbis existed. Rabbinic Judaism is a major departure from Biblical Judaism, which by the way used patrilineal descent to determine who was a Jew. We’re not saying we should turn the clocks back on Rabbinic Judaism, we’re saying that we should recognize that Judaism has and will continue to evolve, and we’re advocating to examine some of the perhaps unnecessary barriers our community throws in the path of potential converts. If only it were as easy as Ruth’s conversion!

    And by the way, the chief rabbi is nullifying ALL conversions outside Israel, including those done by Orthodox rabbis. I think this is a totally obnoxious power-play that turns more people away from the State of Israel than it helps, and it is completely acceptable to critize it. This isn’t about halacha at all! It’s about greed and power, plain and simply.

    Comment by Paul Golin — February 27, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  11. Our perceptions about the IRAC which is different than the RAC are different, as are our perceptions about Israelis. By the way, while I take no offense about your characterization of those who fund the RAC, I would ask you to refrain from doing so just as you felt it inappropriate my remarks about the Chief Rabbinate.

    As for the history of conversion, I need not cite all of the details of the evolution of conversion here. The point is simply that many rites of passage have become ritualized in more concrete terms since the codes were fixed in the medieval period and beyond.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 27, 2007 @ 2:54 pm

  12. Welcome back Paul. I sort of missed you, in a weird way.

    As I stated above, to the extent this move is about consolidating power, we should sctrutinize it very carefully, and to the extent it is about what the rabbinate sees as its role in ensuring the purity of the conversion process, we should be deferential…the truth is probably somewhere between these 2 extremes.

    Paul, where does it say in the Torah what tefilin (phylacteries) look like? Nowhere! Then how is it that everyone’s tefilin across the globe look the same? And where does it say how to slaughter an animal so its kosher? Also, nowhere, but everyone agrees on the minimus standard to make it so (or at least they did until less than 100 years ago). The Tanach also does not tell us that Mordechai was one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Persia, but our tradition (and the Talmud and Midrash) testify that this was the case. Obviously, we have an oral tradition about that the Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible mean. That is what was eventually recorded in Talmud and Midrash…often the meanings are difficult to understand, but just as often they are clearly spelled out for us. The skewing of this oral tradition led to all sorts of splinter groups off of Judaism (the biggest one being Christianity), none of which remained within Judaism for more than a few hundred years.

    Besides, your point is sort of moot. Before the 1700s the entire Jewish world accepted only matrilineal descent (and given the amount of disagreement in the Jewish world that is really saying a lot!). Now if the Jewish people understood the Torah and Tanach to accept only patrilineal descent that would be impossible. Must be we already understood the that matrilinial descent was part of the Torah (see early commentaries to Devarim 7 if you like as well as commentaries to Ruth). Jewish history itself testifies to this.

    Of course, none of this was really the focus on my comments, which were really directed at the unfair treatment Rabbi Amar received on this site. But since you brought up some interesting points, I thought they should also be addressed.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

  13. Rabbi Olitsky, you wrote:

    “As for the history of conversion, I need not cite all of the details of the evolution of conversion here. The point is simply that many rites of passage have become ritualized in more concrete terms since the codes were fixed in the medieval period and beyond.”

    My point is that prior to the codification of the Shulchan Aruch, the standard for conversion was already fixed and had been for over 2500 years. Perhaps there were minor modifications, and some communities have become more strict fearing insincere converts, but I think it will be difficult for you to find serious concrete evidence that there were significant changes to the conversion ritual in 3100+ years, b/f the 1700s.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  14. My read and those of other scholars is that the purpose of the codification of even the mishnah and talmud was in fact determine what would be the majority approach since there were different approaches. This was not just in terms of conversion–but in terms of other issues too. So it is not 3100+ years at all. As much as I enjoy the back and forth on what I consider to be issues not particularly relevant or of interest to those who read our blog, I hope that you will understand that I will not be discussing this issue further in this context.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — February 27, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  15. What you write is only with regard to those issues upon which there was disagreement about where to draw the line. About many issues, thought, there was not this level of disagreement about the Torah’s intent. Further, the majority law was already clear in most cases to everyone, but since disagreements had begun to develop in the generations before the Mishna about application of certain laws, our sages saw fit to do what they could to hold us together. Sounds like a worthy purpose to me.

    Comment by marc — February 27, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

  16. The Torah informs us that Melchazedek was a priest of God to whom Abraham showed reverence. That statement illustrates that anyone who believes in the one God is to be respected and honored.
    Moses did not marry a Jewess.Kings David and Solomon had many wives who were not Jewish.God never stated that one was a follower depending on whether father or mother was Jewish. Males were considered the next in line, but that had nothing to do with being a Believer in God and God’s basic commandments. The Children of Israel,male and female , at the base of Mount Sinai, pledged to follow and believe in the one God. There are no rites of conversion anywhere in the Torah. When the Pharisees , later the Rabbis, took over Judaism, changes in Judaism began. The Laws of Conversion are just one illustration of their changes in Judaism. God’s Judaism was changed by men whose egos were so large that they decreed that every generation that followed would be further and further away from their cleverness. They had all the answers to all questions and their interpretation of what God meant was perfect. Halachic conversion is man’s version and has nothing to do with being a believer in God. God abhorred ritual as stated several times in the writings of the Prophets. Perforing a ritual can never replace the inner feelings of the heart and mind. Halachic tradition is said to include both. However, in practice, ritual takes preference. You are judged by Rabbis and their followers by your outward practice of ritual, not by your inner beliefs!

    Comment by Shel Haas — April 27, 2007 @ 4:39 pm

  17. Why can you NOT stun animals before slaughter you monsters? I used to have a high regard for Jews before gaining knowledge of some of your rituals, they are sickening

    Comment by Anita Pratt — January 8, 2009 @ 11:23 pm

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