Coupling Issues

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, recently spoke out on a very important issue. I wanted to thank him for pushing the community to rethink our stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I want to share here. My response is less based on the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi and more based on my commitment to strive to treat people equally.This is both born out of my desire to treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated and because I see that every human being is created in the image of God. This klal gadol –great underlying principle in the entire Torah- of being egalitarian is not uniquely a value of liberal Judaism (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts? As I mentioned I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  This would deal with the sexism, but it might also present some other benefits. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment. Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative Judaism presents all of us with a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy humra – religious stringency. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs.   Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Echoing the sentiments of Rabbi Cosgove, this public policy humra seems like an interesting “muscular embrace” of future generations of Jews. 

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