Posts Tagged 'Conversion'

Beyond Just Right and Left: On the Authority of Law

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of the justice system. There we read:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:11

While we need to believe in the Torah, the Torah itself is asking us to follow the interpretation of the Judges. The rule of law is not limited to the given word, but rather predicated by following the Judges interpretation of the law. This idea continues from the Judges to the Rabbis as they become the interpreters of the law. This idea is echoed in one of three wonderful story about a non-Jew who wants to convert with a condition. There we read:

There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

Shabbat 31a

The would-be convert wants to accept the Torah but not the Rabbis’ interpretation. While Shammai is not having it at all, Hillel is willing to play. Just as in our Torah portion one would have to accept left as right and right as left, Hillel is pushing him to accept Alef as Taf and Taf as Alef. In this context the convert realizes that it is a package deal. To have access to the written Torah he will also need to trust the Rabbis and accept their interpretation for better and for worse. To become a Jew is predicated by accepting Rabbinic Authority. We see in the would-be convert a character that I often find in myself. I think I know what is right and what is wrong and I am not willing to trust an external authority. I often get stuck there. I have a feeling I am not the only one who gets stuck in this place.

This is profoundly similar to the Avraham’s situation at the Akedah, binding of his son Yitzhak. God told him to sacrifice his beloved son. Just as Avraham is about to go through with it an Angel tell him not to do it. Is this message the truth or just an interpretation. Should he go through with it? What is he to do? There we read:

When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Genesis 22:13
Genesis 22 vers 13. De ram op de berg Moria. | Genesis bible, Bible  pictures, Biblical art

Avraham did not know which authority to follow. He did not turn his head to “either to the right or to the left “. He lifts his head and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. In the ram he sees himself. Will he go to the right or to the left or will he lift his head and see another path through the situation? We all get stuck between A and B. We do not always find a way to back up, analyze, and make a plan C. To live a life within the law we cannot deviate from the path. The path itself demands that we trust our Rabbis AND think for ourselves.

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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