By David Ellenson
Recent months have witnessed a well publicized split between the Haredi and the Orthodox Religious Zionist camps over issues of conversion. Haredi Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the Israeli High Rabbinical Court has issued a ruling that potentially invalidates all conversions conducted by the Conversion Authority of the Chief Rabbinate under the supervision of Religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman, thus calling into question the Jewish status of 40,000 Israeli converts who have converted under Rabbi Druckman’s supervision. He has stated that Jewish status should be removed from those who, subsequent to conversion, violate Jewish law in any way — this, despite the fact that retroactive annulment of conversion on the basis of failure to observe all the commandments after a conversion ceremony has virtually no precedent in classical rabbinic tradition. Indeed, the dominant tradition in Jewish law has always held that once a conversion is performed it cannot be annulled retroactively. By issuing his ruling, Rabbi Sherman has demonstrated a tendency toward greater stringency in the area of conversion and he has also revealed the ever increasing differences among Orthodox rabbis in their approaches to conversion.
The reality of such divergence among Orthodox rabbis is not a novel phenomenon confined to our own century. As a representative sampling will demonstrate, such differences have been present since Jews began to acculturate and were enfranchised as individual citizens of modern nation states at the onset of the 19th century. The initial response of Orthodox rabbis such as Isaac Bernays of Hamburg and Jacob Ettlinger of Altona to a world where social relations between Jews and Gentiles led to unprecedented rates of Jewish-gentile intermarriage was negative. While Rabbi Ettlinger acknowledged that there were precedents in the tradition that allowed for “a lenient stance” on this matter, he stated that he was “uncomfortable” with applying them. His student Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer of Berlin concurred with the judgment of his teacher, and while he asserted that the issue of conversion in cases of intermarriage “was perhaps the most difficult issue of our age,” he ruled stringently and forbade conversion when such cases came before him. His colleague Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt echoed this stance in his own writings.
Modern-day Israeli scholars Avi Sagi of Tel Aviv University and Zvi Zohar of Bar Ilan (see essay on page XX) have contended that the trajectory represented by these rabbis found the apex of its expression in the 1876 ruling of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes, who ruled that conversion was to be permitted only when accompanied by an absolute commitment to observe all the commandments. While their claim that it was Rabbi Shmelkes who was the first to insist upon such commitment has been disputed by other scholars, there is no doubt that this rabbi as well as others felt that the only way to preserve Judaism from dissolution in the modern world was for the rabbinate to adopt a policy of complete stringency on the matter of conversion. These rabbis were clearly the predecessors of Rabbi Sherman.
However, other rabbis disagreed and adopted a different stance on the issue of conversion. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer of Thorn labeled children born of Gentile mothers and Jewish fathers as zera kodesh (holy seed) and observed that “great leaders among the people Israel might spring from among them.” His colleague, Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher of Grodzisk, cited Sanhedrin 99a where it states that because Timna, the daughter of Lotan, was rejected as a candidate for conversion, she became the concubine of Eliphaz the son of Esau and their union ultimately produced Amalek. (Genesis 36:12) He warned that rabbis who would restrict conversion do not act in the best interests of the Jewish people.
Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann of Berlin adopted a similar policy and ruled, in a case involving a pregnant Jewish woman who was civilly married to a non-Jewish man, that an Orthodox rabbinical court should convert this man to Judaism. He expressed special concern for the children who would be born from this union should their father not be converted. Finally, Rabbi Ben Zion Meier Uziel, the first Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, reflected this approach as well. He wrote that rabbis were obligated to offer conversion to Judaism to the non-Jewish partner of a Jewish spouse whenever possible for the sake of the children who would be born from such a union, stating “For the sake of their children, it is obvious that we are obligated to bring them close.”
In a world where Jewish identity and status is frequently the object of debate, the range of opinions expressed by the Orthodox rabbinate on the issue of conversion has never been monolithic. Their diverse pronouncements and rulings demonstrate the range of lenient as well as stringent policy positions available to Jewish leaders as they struggle to grapple with the challenges the reality of intermarriage has presented to our community in modern settings.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He and Daniel Gordis are completing a book about Orthodox rabbinic writings on conversion in the modern world. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma (shma.com) December 2008.