Conversion in Israel Affects All of Us

VAs the final meeting of that course I took this year on the prophets, I took a tour of the Herodion. This was King Herod’s palace outside of Jerusalem and the place of his burial. We went there because the prophet Amos is from this area, but along the way, we also delved into the history of King Herod, most famously known for the grandeur of the 2nd Temple and the palace at Masada. For those who don’t know, Herod was the king of the ancient State of Israel (well, Judea) in the 1st Century BCE. He certainly had personal issues and was not known to be a gentle ruler, but he had an aesthetic eye and he was a master builder – even leaving the treasury at a plus when he died. He is thought to come from the Idumean tribe, a group that converted/joined the Jewish people.

During the tour, the question was asked, “Was Herod really a Jew?” And the answer given was, “Well, it depends on who you consider a Jew.” In one of the definitive books written about the period, The Beginnings of Jewishness by Professor Shaye Cohen, we learn that in this period there were a multiplicity of Jewish identities — there was a national identification as a “Judean” and there was a ethno-religious identification of accepting the G-d of Israel. And there were different groups that identified in various ways – some as a political affiliation, some as “fearers of G-d” and some as “converts.” And a convert in that time was simply a “gentile (who) becomes a Jew by being integrated into Jewish society.” (p. 168). And under whose authority these people became Jews? Well, it depended on by whom they wanted to be accepted. For example, if you want to make a sacrifice in the Temple, the priests have to accept you as a Jew. If you want to be accepted in a community, than the leaders need to accept you.

For anyone following the news this week, we can see that Ecclesiastes was right – There is nothing new under the sun.

This week, David Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing secular party that is part of the government coalition that includes other right-wing religious parties like Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, proposed a bill that wants to do some things that include:
1. To grant formal legal authority to the Chief Rabbinate for Conversions (while until now there was de facto recognition but it was unofficial) which would make it much more difficult for conversions to be performed by other rabbis (including Reform and Conservative conversions);
2. It would determine that anyone that who entered Israel as a non-Jew and then converted to Judaism-either in Israel or the Diaspora would not be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. It could even mean that if a person had visited Israel at any time, no matter when, their conversion would not be recognized for citizenship in the future. This is also the first time that Israel would officially make a distinction between one who is born a Jew and who is a righteous convert, something which is even unheard of from the standpoint of traditional Jewish law (halacha).

Who is a Jew in the State of Israel? And who gets to decide?
We read in this week’s Torah portion, VaYakhel-Pekudei, “And Moses spoke to the entire community of the children of Israel, saying: “This is the word that the Lord has commanded to say: ‘Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it.” (Exodus 35:4-5) This is the call for donations to build the Tabernacle. The interesting thing to note is that Moses called to the “entire community.” Why this wording?

The Bechor Shor (12th Century France) says that Moses called the entire community, “to be sure that individual Israelites could not object and say, ‘God commanded that a Tabernacle be built for Him but did not ask us to bring gifts as donations to it. So we didn’t know . . . and we did not have the privilege of contributing like others.’ Therefore, Moses announced to all of them as one.” Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz (JTS Weekly Torah Commentary 5770) claims that the Bechor Shor was calling for inclusion, so no one would feel left out. True leadership, therefore, is about involving the entire community. Rabbi Berkowitz says, “G-d does not and cannot dwell on the shoulders of the few.”

Judaism has always been, by and large, about inclusion. There was no selection when it came time to leave Egypt. In fact, it is written (Exodus 12:38), “And also a mixed multitude went up with them….” According to tradition, these included non-Jews, Egyptian spouses, and converts. When they met him in the desert, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro was welcomed immediately. When she stuck with Naomi and accompanied to her homeland, Ruth was accepted with open arms. In the entire Bible, no one is ever told he cannot be a Jew. And in the years of relative stability in the 2nd Temple period in Jerusalem – like that of our King Herod — it seems that the attitude was: the more Jews, the merrier. Only later in times of fear and ghetto-ization did it become so difficult to become a Jew – perhaps an act of self-protection against those gentiles who would infiltrate and break up the Jewish community.

So, we ask: What is the basis in Jewish tradition for the political leaders’ current effort to limit conversion? The proposed bill in the Knesset reflects an exclusionist and almost racist definition of Judaism – and this is not the Judaism of the Torah. Today, in the modern State of Israel, where Jews have never been freer to practice their religion and have never been more capable of ensuring the physical survival of the Jewish people, refusing people conversion or a right to be Israeli is part of a power play to protect special interests without consideration of individual lives.

That is why it is so important to join forces between the Reform Movement of North America and the Reform Movement of Israel. Our Judaism is an inclusive, accepting Judaism. It is a Judaism that welcomes those who wish to join their fate to the Jewish religion and to the Jewish people in any of its forms whether it be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or even a type of secular Israeli-ness. A Judaism that offers a broader definition of what it means to be a Jew, reflecting who most Jews in the world are today. A Judaism that also believes in democracy – a Judaism based on Torah that calls to “all the people,” just as Moses calls to all the people.

That’s what we are all about. So as we enjoy all of the miracles and the joys of the Modern State of Israel, let’s also stand together on this issue. We can start by clicking here to sign a petition to Israel’s political leaders.

Together, we will make certain that our Jewish values, based on Torah and Jewish tradition, will guide the State of Israel and truly ensure the future of the Jewish people.


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2 Responses to “Conversion in Israel Affects All of Us”

  1. Joel Katz Says:

    Thank you Rabbi for a very insightful post.

    Religion and State in Israel

  2. Clare Says:

    Dear Rabbi Blank,

    Imagine my happy surprise — I came across your recent entry on MK Rotem’s conversion bill, and was going to propose you write a similar post for our blog, when I found you’ve already linked back to IRAC’s online campaign to oppose the bill. Thank you so much for your support. Please let me know if you’d like to write something similar for our blog.

    All best,


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