Exclusive ExcerptBook of The Times

Pledges of Jewish Allegiance, by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis

Since the late 1700s, when the Jewish community ceased to be a semiautonomous political unit in Western Europe and the United States, questions surrounding Jewish status and identity have occupied a prominent and contentious place in Jewish legal discourse. This book examines a wide array of legal opinions by orthodox rabbis and argues that their divergent perspectives demonstrate that they were doing more than delivering legal opinions. Instead, they were crafting public policy for Jewish society

That [Rabbi Isaac] Herzog believed that the halakhah on conversion needed to respond to the times is evident from yet another of his responsa. This ruling, cited in the collected responsa of Rabbi Yaakov Breisch, was issued in reply to a responsum delivered by the Agudath Harabanim (Rabbinical Union) in Switzerland regarding a teacher whose wife’s father was a non-Jew and whose mother, though born a Jew, had apparently converted to Christianity prior to her marriage. Because the Agudah, as we noted above, considered itself to be engaged in milḥamah keveidah (intensive war) against conversion to Judaism in Switzerland (presumably because most were done for the purpose of intermarriage), it decreed that this Jewish man could not be accepted as a teacher in the Jewish community’s school. The Agudah wrote to Herzog, telling him of the decision and requesting his reaction.

Herzog responded: “You have done according to the Torah and the commandments. May your hands be strengthened as you have erected a fence against lawlessness. For this type of conversion, not conducted for the sake of heaven, is like a rot in the household of Israel. And the obligation is upon every beit din in every generation, and especially upon the beit din of an entire country, to fence in lawlessness against our holy faith and against the people of God.”

What is particularly interesting about Herzog’s corpus is the degree to which—in other responsa—he is conscious of the impact of Israeli statehood on some elements of conversion law. Herzog is sensitive to the difference between his own era and that of the tannaim and the Rambam; and he is also deeply sensitive to variations among places. He speaks of the differences in the worlds of Israel and the Diaspora and, in a number of situations, even allows those dissimilarities to affect his decisions.

What is particularly interesting about Herzog’s corpus is the degree to which—in other responsa—he is conscious of the impact of Israeli statehood on some elements of conversion law.

In a responsum regarding whether a kohein living with a non-Jewish woman should be allowed to marry her if she converts, Herzog concludes that although he could find halakhic justification for permitting this conversion, sociological conditions make such a step inadvisable. Herzog expresses his wariness of communicating to Jews at large that Jewish courts are willing to be lenient on the matter of kohanim marrying converts (even if she only converts, without actually marrying the kohein), and he fears that the court would also convey that it condones couples living together without having had a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. But these particular concerns, he suggests, are a Diaspora matter. “And after studying the matter, I inform [my colleague who asked the question] that in the Diaspora, in a place where such cases are prevalent,” this conversion should not be permitted. Would Rabbi Herzog have ruled differently had the same case arisen in Israel, where the number of such instances was dramatically smaller? We cannot be certain, but Herzog’s language suggests that this is, indeed, a possibility.

Herzog explicitly states that Israel’s existence can have profound implications for rulings in conversion cases.  The language of the question submitted to him by an anonymous rabbi in the Diaspora on December 23, 1948, is fascinating in itself:

Lately there has been an increase in the number of cases in which Jewish people of our country are married to non-Jewish women in their courts, and they now seek to convert them and marry them with ḥuppah and kiddushin because they wish to immigrate to Israel.

In general, these Gentile women have special rights, since they saved their husbands from death during the Holocaust by their refusal to obey the Nazis’ demands to divorce them; by doing so, they placed themselves in grave danger and were sent to concentration camps. . . .

Until now, I have refused to bring these people under the wings of the Jewish people because their intention is not [to convert] for the sake of heaven, but rather, for the sake of aliyah [immigration to Israel] and in this, I followed the ruling of the Shul<und>ḥan Arukh. . . . I see the magnitude of the horrific tragedy for hundreds of families who wish to make aliyah, but at the same time, my heart hesitates to take such responsibility upon myself.

… Herzog points out that these converts are also not converting for the sake of heaven. Rather, they are converting simply because they wish to immigrate to the Land of Israel. To solve this problem, he offers a redefinition of “for the sake of heaven” unlike anything we have seen thus far:

But here there is another concern—that their intention is [to convert] for the sake of making aliyah to Israel. But this depends on the situation in your country. If the conditions are such that as foreigners they could not stay in your country, then it is obvious that their intention is not for the sake of heaven. But if it were possible for them to remain in [their current] country, but they desire Eretz Yisrael, this can be seen as an intention “for the sake of heaven.” For they are uprooting their dwelling places and abandoning their sources of income to migrate to another land, and specifically, the Land of Israel. Thus, it becomes clear that their desire is to cling to the Jewish people, in its Land. . . . And this is a good intention, and there is no need to prevent their conversion.

Herzog was responding to the questioner’s sense that a human tragedy was unfolding. Herzog, of course, never said that the enormity of the human tragedy trumps the authority of the Shulḥan Arukh. Yet he seems moved by the human dimension of the problem and responded by radically reconceptualizing the concept of “for the sake of heaven” in light of Israel’s recent creation. To join the Zionist enterprise, Rabbi Herzog essentially says, is to serve heaven, whether or not the convert’s intention is to observe the commandments, as traditional definitions of the notion would ideally demand. Seemingly overwhelmed by the momentousness of Israel’s creation just a few months earlier, Herzog concludes the responsum almost poetically, by writing to his correspondent, “Signed with the blessing of Zion and Jerusalem, hoping to see him shortly in our holy city, may it be speedily rebuilt.”

Daring and creative language. Rabbi Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Israel National Photo Collection)
Daring and creative language. Rabbi Isaac Herzog (photo credit: Israel National Photo Collection)

The daring and creative language of this responsum is noteworthy. And Rabbi Herzog was not the only authority to address new issues regarding conversion and intermarriage after the creation of the State.  Nor was he the only modern posek who saw matters in this light. Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman (1886–1976), in an article in the early 1970s, wrote that as a rabbi in England, he had been strict in not accepting converts of dubious motivation.  However, Unterman believed that there were two reasons to distinguish the proper rabbinical response in the Diaspora from the response that would be appropriate in Israel: the sheer number of such cases in the Diaspora; and the fact that converts to Judaism in the Diaspora remained in a Christian setting and were thus less likely to make a full transition to committed Jewish life. Like Herzog, he seems to have believed that the profundity of the Jewish experience in the Land of Israel, and even the theological significance of living there, provided justification for being more lenient and welcoming than would otherwise have been the case.

Another authority whose pedigree is virtually unquestioned in Orthodox communities but who nonetheless issued some surprising rulings on conversion issues is Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917–94). Goren, born in Poland, immigrated to mandatory Palestine in 1925. As a yeshiva student in Hebron, he was quickly recognized for his brilliance, and he published his first work, a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, at the age of seventeen. A committed Zionist, Goren joined the Haganah in 1936 and was later appointed by then–Chief Rabbis Herzog and Uziel to be the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He became Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the State in 1972.

Goren addressed the issue of conversion in several celebrated cases. One of the most interesting for our purposes is the famed case involving Dr. Helen Seidman (1930–80). Seidman, a Unitarian, came to Israel in 1964 from Bethesda, Maryland, as a tourist. Accompanied by her daughter, Seidman was drawn to Israel and kibbutz life and settled in Kibbutz Naḥal Oz. Eventually, she met a Jewish man and married him in a proxy marriage in Mexico. 

Seidman later wished to convert to Judaism. However, as she was living in a nonreligious kibbutz where the laws of kashrut and Shabbat were not observed, it was obvious that she did not intend to become halakhically observant, so her conversion could not fit the traditional definition of “for the sake of heaven,” as Orthodox authorities would have required. Thus, Seidman decided to convert under Reform auspices.

Goren’s decision was surprising, given his general position that Reform conversion was not considered conversion at all.

After her conversion ceremony, which was performed by Rabbi Moshe Zemer of Tel Aviv, the Reform Movement’s leading halakhic spokesman in Israel, Seidman applied to register as a Jew with the Ministry of the Interior, which refused her request. A court battle ensued, with the country’s highest secular courts ruling that there was no legal basis for the Ministry’s actions. Ultimately, the Ministry was instructed to register Seidman as a Jew. The Orthodox establishment was unwilling to accede to this demand, and a political struggle erupted that threatened to topple a fragile governmental coalition between Orthodox and secular political parties. Against the background of this impending political crisis, Rabbi Goren, then chief chaplain of the IDF, met with Seidman for about three hours, after which he assembled a beit din and hastily converted her. As Goren was an Orthodox rabbi of unquestionable stature, Seidman’s conversion was now recognized by the Ministry of the Interior, and the political crisis was averted. Goren’s decision was surprising, given his general position that Reform conversion was not considered conversion at all.

Not surprisingly, the decision unleashed a storm of criticism from numerous Orthodox rabbinical colleagues. They claimed that Goren’s decision to convert Helen Seidman was virtually incomprehensible, given that Jewish law required kabalat ol mitzvot as a sine qua non for conversion. Some of Goren’s Orthodox critics suggested that behind the decision lay the belief that the standards for conversion could be different in Israel from what they were in the Diaspora. Rabbi J. David Bleich offers an explanation for Goren’s motivations:

A feature article appearing in the weekend supplement of Ha-Tzofeh, 15 Sivan 5730 [June 19, 1970], purports to give the rationale governing Rabbi Goren’s actions in this case. It is reported that Rabbi Goren is of the belief that in Israel, prospective proselytes are to be viewed differently from the way in which they are regarded in the Diaspora. . . . It is suggested that proselytization was frowned upon by the Sages in the Diaspora but welcome in Israel. It is reported that Rabbi Goren, going a step further, asserts that in Israel, sincerity of motivation may be dispensed with as a prior requirement for conversion.

In the Diaspora, converts motivated by reasons other than religious conviction cannot be accepted since doubts remain with regard to their future comportment; in Israel, where conversion entails not merely religious affiliation but national identification as well, such fears do not exist, contends Rabbi Goren. Hence, in his opinion, even converts prompted by self-serving motives may be accepted in Israel.

According to this interpretation, the decision that Rabbi Goren rendered in the Seidman case indicates that he believed residence in the State of Israel to be a decisive factor that allowed a prospective convert to be accepted into the Jewish fold, even when it appeared unlikely that the convert would observe the commandments following her conversion. Those explaining Goren’s actions in this way concluded that, like his predecessors Rabbis Herzog and Unterman, Rabbi Goren felt that the decision on the part of the convert to live in the Jewish State meant that she would be part of Jewish destiny. Her decision to live in Israel, a setting in which her identity as a Jew would be reinforced by her surroundings, was sufficient to justify her acceptance as a convert despite her level of observance.

Goren noted that while the Babylonian Talmud was negatively disposed toward conversion, the Jerusalem Talmud had nothing to say against ‘converts or those who converted them.’

How, then, shall we explain Goren’s actions? The perspective offered in Ha-Tzofeh—that Rabbi Goren viewed conversion differently in Israel from how he might in the Diaspora—finds support in his published views regarding another situation: that of Paula Cohen, a woman whom Rabbi Goren converted, despite the fact that she had married, in violation of Jewish law, a man of priestly descent who was a member of a nonreligious kibbutz. When, after a number of years in Israel, the Cohen family moved to Manchester and sought to register their children there in a school under Orthodox auspices, they were told that the conversion that Mrs. Cohen had received from Rabbi Goren was valid only in Israel. The British beit din based this ruling on the conversion certificate, which declared: “This document has no legal validity in the Diaspora.” Thus, ironically, and in contravention of the usual difficulties that people encounter, Mrs. Cohen was considered Jewish in Israel by the chief rabbinate but not outside of Israel.

In “Conversion in the Land of Israel and Outside the Land of Israel,” Goren explained the reasoning and sources supporting his decision. He said that during his tenure as chief rabbi, all certificates of conversion stated that these conversions were valid in Israel alone. He insisted that all conversions that occurred under his authority as chief rabbi required the convert to take up permanent residence in the State and asserted that this decision had a “significant halakhic foundation.” Goren noted that while the Babylonian Talmud was negatively disposed toward conversion, the Jerusalem Talmud had nothing to say against “converts or those who converted them”: “The Jerusalem Talmud adopts a positive and sympathetic approach to the institution of conversion,” even when the conversion is seemingly motivated by love for a Jewish man or a Jewish woman.

'A positive and sympathetic' approach to conversion. Rabbi Shlomo Goren as a young IDF officer (photo credit: Pinn Hans)
‘A positive and sympathetic’ approach to conversion. Rabbi Shlomo Goren as a young IDF officer (photo credit: Pinn Hans)

Goren claimed that the differences between the views of the Babylonian and Jerusalem talmudic traditions were logical. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud believed that when a conversion took place outside the Land of Israel, the “convert would still remain within the bosom of his Gentile family, and a serious fear existed that the male or female convert and their children would not sever themselves from their family, from their holidays, their festivals, and their ritual. They would continue to live as one family, and . . . [t]heir children would thus be raised in a Gentile atmosphere. Therefore, no conversion there could be regarded as authentic.”

In Israel, the situation was completely different. In contradistinction to the associational and kinship patterns that attached converts in the Diaspora to their family of origin, Rabbi Goren contended, converts to Judaism in Israel “were cut off completely from their Gentile family and from their Gentile existence. Their children did not even know that they came from a mixed family. Here the conversion is authentic and more certain from the standpoint of Judaism.” From this perspective, it is “easy to understand why Massekhet Geirim [the tractate on converts] 4 states, ‘Beloved is the Land of Israel, shemakhsheret geirim [as it legitimates converts].’ ” In Israel, it is certain that converts “will live as Jews in every way.”  It could not be clearer that Goren saw the Israeli context as a key factor in judging conversion cases.

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