Since its inception, the State of Israel has invested the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate with legal authority over all matters of personal status for Jews. The right to be married or divorced as a Jew in Israel has been exclusively under the control of the Chief Rabbinate. While Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism have had certain rights extended to them as Jews under the secular Law of Return, the privilege of marriage in Israel is not one of them because the Chief Rabbinate has always refused to recognize conversion to Judaism conducted under non-Orthodox rabbinic auspices as legitimate.
Controversy has now flared up over the recent decision of the Chief Rabbinate to expand this policy by refusing to extend recognition of conversions conducted even under Orthodox auspices to all but a select few Orthodox rabbinical courts in the United States. While the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America has responded with alarm to this decision and has entered into discussion with the Chief Rabbinate for a reversal of this stance, the fervently Orthodox newspaper The Jewish Press has hailed the decision of the Chief Rabbinate as an attempt to establish a "gold standard" for conversion. Some observers might look upon this whole episode as nothing more than another chapter in the history of internecine struggles for hegemony within the Orthodox world.
After all, the stance of the Chief Rabbinate towards persons converted by Orthodox rabbis is hardly unprecedented in modern Jewish history. Early in the 20th century, Eastern and Central European Orthodox authorities ranging from Rabbis Nathan Widenfeld and Chaim Ozer Gordzinski to Rabbi Dov Baer Kahana Shapiro retroactively annulled the conversions of a number of individuals converted to Judaism under Orthodox rabbinical auspices. The rationale that supported this stance is reflected in a ruling that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issued in 1950 concerning the Jewish status of a woman converted under Orthodox auspices.
Rabbi Feinstein underscored the importance of classical Jewish law attached to the demand that all converts to Judaism affirm an "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments." This last requirement indicated that conversion to Judaism meant that a gentile who was formerly obligated to observe the Seven Noahide Commandments (basic laws of morality that Jewish tradition holds are incumbent upon all human beings) alone was now required to observe the 613 commandments imposed upon every Jew. For Rabbi Feinstein, this last stricture not only served as the sine qua non that defined the authenticity of a conversion; it constituted the sole substantive definition of conversion to Judaism.
Rabbi Feinstein therefore contended that the non-observance of the mitzvot by this woman subsequent to her conversion meant that she was insincere when she orally pledged to observe the commandments. Consequently, he stated that she was not a convert at all and that she remained a gentile. The fact that an Orthodox rabbinical court had presided over the conversion was irrelevant. Rather, what was crucial was a sincere acceptance of the "yoke of the commandments" as demonstrated by adherence to an Orthodox way of life. If the proselyte did not behave accordingly, even if she were converted under Orthodox auspices, "her conversion would be as nothing." Rabbi Feinstein was unwilling to accept any other standard for conversion.
The stance Rabbi Feinstein adopted is surely a defensible one from the viewpoint of Jewish law. However, it is hardly the only one that is acceptable and it does reflect a stringent expansion of Jewish law in an area where retroactive annulment of conversions has been rare. The predominant explanation for this stringent direction in Jewish law can be found in a sociological judgment that reflects an embattled position that Rabbi Feinstein and other rabbis felt they occupied as they struggled to preserve Judaism from the forces of dissolution that they regarded as threatening their view of Jewish tradition in the modern world.
Chaim Herzog, the late former Israeli Chief Ashkenazi rabbi, articulated the stance that motivated these men when he wrote, "In our day Jews are sinners. To our sorrow, many of these sinners among the people Israel are leaders of our community, even leaders of our nation. What therefore does it mean in an era such as ours for a gentile to pledge that he or she accepts the commandments of Judaism when so many born Jews do not observe. All conversions in our day fall in a category of doubt. Converts threaten to destroy the vineyard of the Lord — the household of Israel."
The recent decision of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to reject the acceptance of conversions performed under Modern Orthodox auspices — even if eventually reversed — must be seen as a further episode in this line of stringent fervently Orthodox response to the modern situation. This pronouncement reflects an ever-increasing polarity that exists between the Chief Rabbinate and fervently Orthodox Judaism on the one hand and the rest of the Jewish world on the other. These rabbis feel they must protect Judaism against the "destructive elements" these forces threaten to unleash, and they must be vigilant against these uncommitted Jews.
Due to the central role that Israel occupies in the life of world Jewry, such an increasingly restrictive policy direction on the part of the Chief Rabbinate constitutes more than an episode of Orthodox denominational infighting. Rather, this decision publicizes a state-sanctioned rabbinate that is increasingly out of touch with the broad diversity of Jewish life as it is lived by millions of Jews worldwide today.
The Talmud teaches that a decree should not be issued for the community that a majority of Jews cannot abide. The Chief Rabbinate has violated this dictum and in issuing this decision has presented a portrait of a state-supported constricted Judaism to the rest of the world. This is a disservice to us all.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Special Thanks to The Jewish Week