Sermon: Our Attitude to Conversion

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 July 2009

I spoke from this Bimah last week about the broader implications of the recent Court of Appeal judgement concerning JFS admission criteria.

For those of you who have missed the story in the Jewish press, or indeed the widespread coverage in the national media, a very quick précis: In late June, the Court of Appeal ruled that JFS had contravened the Race Relations Act in refusing admission to the child of a non-orthodox convert.  The child had been rejected on the grounds that he was not recognised as Jewish by the United Synagogue, because his mother was not Jewish nor had had a conversion recognized by the US.  This was, the Court stated, a consideration that did not constitute a faith test as required by law, but a test of ethnicity.

Now this ruling has potentially very broad implications for our understanding of what it means to be a Jew in this country.  And it is this aspect of the case which has inevitably, been the focus of most of our attentions.  With the exception of our sister Liberal movement, it is this that is concerning most of our representatives, and, again with the exception of our Liberal colleagues, it is this concern which has unified the Jewish world in condemning the Court’s judgement.

While these wider ramifications mean that the ruling has not been welcomed, except perhaps as a rich goldmine for sermon givers, it is also important that we not lose sight of the personal aspect of the case, or of the narrower issues at its source.  In this respect the Court of Appeal has presented a more welcome challenge.

So I want, this morning, to explore the underlying issue at the heart of the case… the refusal of the United Synagogue to recognise the decisions of non Orthodox batei din – our courts, a position which creates confusion for many families and puts a constant strain on community relations in British Jewry.

Now to begin I feel I ought to recognise the truth of the Orthodox world’s main claim, which is this: That Reform conversions are not halachic conversions – that is, that our conversions do not contain all the elements of the conversion process.  Or at least not as it came to be set down in Halachah, in Jewish law, in the codification of Jewish law in the medieval period.  Our conversions do contain the key aspects of the process which would be recognizable to the Rabbis of the Talmudic period:  they contain instruction, a test of sincerity, they require milah – circumcision, and tevilah – immersion in a Mikveh, and they involve appearance before a court of three rabbis.

But one element which the Orthodox world now understands as essential is missing.  This is kabbalat Mitzvot – acceptance of the mitzvot.

Though our converts do undergo a process of instruction to ensure that they are not only willing but able to live a Jewish life, and there is an expectation that Jewish practice will be an enduring part of their lives after conversion, there is not, unlike in an Orthodox conversion, a requirement that they commit to keep the full spectrum of Jewish law throughout their lives.

Of course, in part the absence of this from our conversions reflects the fat that there are certain mitzvot that we no longer recognise as binding or indeed as ethically acceptable.  But our rejection of Kabbalat mitzvot is more than that – it is a statement of principle:  in fact, though it is certainly implied, there is also no formal commitment made in front of our Beit Din about future practice at all.  For it reflects our commitment to responsible personal autonomy.  This being the case, how could we ask more of those who choose to join us than we do of ourselves?  How could we, as is, in truth, the case in an Orthodox conversion, make it a requirement of someone who wishes to convert that their commitment to practice should be stronger than that of the people they might sit next to in Shul who happen to have been born to a Jewish mother.

So Kabbalat Mitzvot – a binding commitment to keeping the mitzvot is not part of our conversion process.  And this reflects not, as is the caricature from opponents of Progressive Judaism, because of some desire on our parts to provide an easy quick fix option but something very positive in our understanding of Jewish life.

In fact, that Kabbalat Mitzvot is part of the Orthodox requirement has actually been a source of great trouble and division within the Orthodox world.  Because such a commitment is not only undesirable but unenforceable.  And what does it then mean if someone who has converted chooses not to keep all of the mitzvot?  What if they no longer wish to only eat Kosher meat, or watch TV on Shabbat from time to time?  In traditional literature, and in our Judaism, this person is understood as being exactly like any other autonomous Jew who makes a lifestyle choice.

But in some parts of the Orthodox world, including in the British United Synagogue, this is now seen as retrospective proof that the convert was never sincere about their conversion in the first place.  And so parts of the Jewish world have fallen into a pattern of ex post facto annulment of conversions – something which incidentally has also been used as a reason not to let the child of an Orthodox convert into JFS.

In fact, to take this bizarre commitment about future behaviour to its logical extreme, some Israeli authorities have now gone as far as to annul all conversions carried out by other Orthodox courts because the failure of one ger, one convert, to keep the mitzvot is proof of that court’s inability to make judgements about the sincerity of all their candidates.

This reduction to madness is not only a reflection of what happens when authorities struggle for power, but also reflects a real dichotomy between our understanding of conversion and that in the Orthodox world.  We recognise that we can only meet people at one point in time – they may change –  their lives, their situations, their attitudes may change, and their relationship with Judaism may change with it.  The Beit Din is a step in a lifelong journey that does not end as the convert comes out from the mikveh.

The importance placed on kabbalat mitzvot as the defining feature of Orthodox conversion also, and I am not alone in making this observation, reflects a broader discomfort in many Orthodox circles with conversion in general.  Hence there is almost a need to make conversion possible only for those who will take on a very demanding set of expectations and attitudes and make an almost impossible lifelong commitment.

And this too is very much not our perspective.  Rather, we actively welcome those who wish to be part of our community, who choose to identify with us – whether they be associates who come and stand on this bimah with their families, without choosing to convert, or those who choose to make the transition of conversion.  We honestly believe that such people bring to this community and to the Jewish people a renewal and replenishment for which we, at least, are grateful.

And in feeling this way, we are not merely being wishy washy liberals, but are actually grounded in a strand of rabbinic literature which is exceptionally positive about those who choose to take on Jewish identity.  To give you the best example, from the midrash Tanchuma: Reish Lakish said: The ger who converts is more beloved than Israel when they stood before Mount Sinai. Why? Because had they not seen the thunder and the lightning and the mountains quaking and the sound of horns, they would not have accepted the Torah.  But this one, who saw none of these came, surrendered to the Holy One, and accepted the Kingdom of Heaven. Are there any more beloved than this?

– – – And so while we as a movement are rightly concerned by the recent Court of Appeal judgement, let no one think that it in any way implies respect for the United Synagogue’s school admission policy.  For this policy not only reflects halachic differences between our conversions but a fundamental difference in attitude.  To us a true convert is anyone who comes to us with sincerity and integrity.  Anyone who comes wishing to honestly and openly engage with Jewish life and culture, wanting to take upon him or her self both a new identity and a new set of obligations and commitments.  If someone comes to us with integrity, studies with us with integrity, comes before a Beit Din with integrity, goes to mikveh with integrity, then how can we possibly say that this person is anything other than a ger tzedek – a convert of righteousness? It is not a challenge to work with people who wish to make this step in their lives but a privilege and an honour – and in truth any school worth its salt should be clamouring to accept their children.