Since the late 1700s, when the Jewish community ceased to be a semiautonomous political unit in Western Europe and the United States and individual Jews became integratedculturally, socially, and politicallyinto broader society, questions surrounding Jewish status and identity have occupied a prominent and contentious place in Jewish legal discourse. This book examines a wide array of legal opinions written by nineteenth- and twentieth-century orthodox rabbis in Europe, the United States, and Israel. It argues that these rabbis' divergent positionsbased on the same legal precedentsdemonstrate that they were doing more than delivering legal opinions. Instead, they were crafting public policy for Jewish society in response to Jews' social and political interactions as equals with the non-Jewish persons in whose midst they dwelled.
Pledges of Jewish Allegiance prefaces its analysis of modern opinions with a discussion of the classical Jewish sources upon which they draw.
About the Author
David Ellenson, President and I. H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College–Jewish institute of Religion, is a distinguished rabbi, scholar, and leader of the Reform Movement.
Daniel Gordis is President of the Shalem Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
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Pledges of Jewish AllegianceConversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa
By David Ellenson Daniel Gordis
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConversion in Jewish Tradition An Introduction to the Classical Sources
To most modern Jews, the institution of conversion seems a natural part of Judaism. Conversion and converts are found in virtually all segments of Jewish society. Most Jewish communities welcome converts. In the United States alone, thousands of Gentiles convert to Judaism each year. The tradition itself seems to welcome converts, declaring that a convert is an Israelite in all respects1 and warning that one who derides the convert violates as many as forty-six negative commandments. The Mishnah in tractate Bava Metzia even forbids a Jew from reminding a convert that his ancestors were Gentiles.
Despite these positive views of conversion and converts, no formal institution of conversion or ceremony for such a purpose is mentioned in the Torah. Indeed, a careful reading of Jewish texts reveals that Jewish tradition has always been conflicted about conversion as a possibility and about converts as members of the Jewish community. This ambivalence stems, in all likelihood, from the fact that the Jewish people is not simply a theological community but a historical and ethnic one as well. One can adopt a theology, but it is much more difficult (and perhaps even impossible) to fully adopt a history or an ethnicity.
An interesting reflection of this ambivalence is found in the Mishnah, the statutory collection of Jewish laws compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince from the second century C.E. In its discussion of first-fruit offerings at the Temple, the Mishnah says that though a convert must bring first-fruit offerings, he may not say the words "which the Lord has sworn to our fathers, to give unto us" as part of his liturgical declaration because his ancestors were not part of that historical experience. Apparently, the convert can become Jewish enough to be obligated to bring the offering but not Jewish enough to claim to have the same history as other Jews.
The convert thus occupies a strange and somewhat conflicted role in Jewish life. Jewish tradition permits the convert to join the Jewish people but often makes it difficult for him to do so. Even the Bible's word for "convert," geir, reflects this conflict, for geir means not only "convert" but "stranger" as well. The Bible refers to the convert as a geir even after he has joined the Jewish people. In some sense, therefore, he remains a stranger forever. At the same time, reminding him of his past as a Gentile is forbidden.
This ambivalence about conversion is palpable even today. Contentious debates over the Law of Return in Israel, the status of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel and in the Diaspora, high-profile decisions of a few American Jewish communities to disallow conversions, and harrowing accounts of immigrants to Israel who can find no place to bury their children—all these might seem to point to crass politics but can be traced to conflicting undercurrents regarding what defines a person as Jewish. By implication, these disagreements as to what makes a person Jewish are actually debates over what Judaism is—and those discussions date back almost three thousand years. Any attempt to appreciate the confluence of conversion, law, and politics in the modern Jewish world must therefore begin with an examination of the ancient sources that reflect these competing attitudes.
In Orthodox Judaism, the arena in which conversion, law, and politics meet in modern Jewish life is halakhah, or Jewish law. Like all Jewish communities, the world of Orthodoxy grapples with issues of Jewish identity, social policy, and boundary maintenance. But it does so primarily through the halakhic, or Jewish legal, process and by engaging in legal discourse, because Orthodox Judaism in general and the Orthodox rabbinate in particular are theologically committed to the belief that God's will finds expression within the classical texts of the Jewish legal tradition and their ongoing interpretation. And because halakhah (like many other legal systems) is precedent-based, it is impossible to appreciate the subtleties of contemporary arguments without reference to the legal texts and cases to which they allude, whether explicitly or implicitly.
In the following pages, we lay the foundation for our discussion of conversion in the world of contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy by introducing the major texts, trends, and conflicts that have long undergirded Jewish legal discussions of this pivotal issue, particularly as they relate to the motivations of the convert. As we will see, when it comes to conversion, the conflicts of modernity have their roots in the ambivalences of antiquity.
The Biblical Period
As we suggested above, the mere notion that Judaism once had no institution of conversion seems unthinkable, but this is indeed the case. The conversion ceremony is essentially rabbinic, not biblical, in origin and apparently has its roots in postexilic Jewish history, sometime after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.
The English word "conversion" comes from the Latin convertere, which connotes a spiritual orientation. In most religious conversions, converts are those who come to see their way of life as fundamentally spiritually inadequate and who consciously choose a new system of spiritual belief and behavior.7 But the Hebrew Bible does not describe any process to promote such transformation and says nothing about the fundamental spiritual transformation that conversion ought to be reflecting.
At times, conversion in the Bible seems to be accomplished simply through marriage. By virtue of marrying an Israelite, at least in some instances, a wife joined her husband's community. Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph married an Egyptian, and Moses married both a Midianite and an Ethiopian. David wed a Philistine, and his son, Solomon, married numerous foreign women. Though figures in later rabbinic tradition struggled with (and, in some cases, sought to deny) these facts, nowhere does the Bible even hint at a ceremony in which the originally non-Israelite biblical figures become personally or religiously transformed in order to enter into these unions. Even Ruth, the paradigmatic symbol of conversion in later Jewish tradition, never actually converts. Her famous statement, "Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried," is obviously a statement of loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, not to some new theological system. Like others in the Bible who become part of the Israelite people through marriage or some other declaration, Ruth is adopting a family, not a religion. Shaye J. D. Cohen puts the matter succinctly: "The foreign woman who married an Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father's house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites. Since the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist ... it never occurred to anyone to demand that the foreign woman undergo some ritual to indicate her acceptance into the religion of Israel."
The same was apparently true in reverse. If an Israelite woman married a foreign man, it was she who was effectively joining his community, and the assumption was that her children would not be Israelites. In this, the biblical tradition echoes assumptions pervasive in the ancient world. People commonly switched their religious allegiances, but devoting their energies to a new god did not typically require their having to consciously repudiate their past religious attachments. To the extent that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) shares this characteristic of the ancient Near East, it differs radically from the rabbinic Jewish tradition that would later emerge.
Biblical tradition differs from contemporary Jewish practice in yet another significant way. For as we will shortly see, not only does the Bible not introduce a ritual for conversion or a theological construct that would accommodate it (whereas later Jewish tradition developed both), biblical terminology even suggests that the transformation from Gentile to Israelite could never eradicate all vestiges of the person's origins as a non-Israelite. This is radically different from the rabbinic tradition's claim that a convert is like a newborn child11 and from the Mishnah's reminder that "if he was a child of converts, one may not say to him, 'Remember the deeds of your ancestors [when they were Gentiles],' for it is said, 'You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him.'"
The most obvious evidence that the convert retains some of his or her status as at least a quasi-outsider to the Jewish community is that the Bible uses the same word, geir, for both "stranger" and "convert." Even after joining the Israelite community, the geir is still a stranger, an outsider, quintessentially "other" in some sense. That the geir remains a foreigner is clear from a variety of passages. Numerous verses in the Torah warn the Israelite not to oppress the stranger. The frequency of such warnings suggests that such oppression must have been a serious issue. The Torah warns: "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you"; "You shall not wrong a geir or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"; and "You and the geir shall be alike before the Lord." Indeed, the classic language of Deuteronomy associates the stranger with those most in need of protection: "You shall not subvert the rights of the geir or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn."
These warnings against oppressing the geir should not be construed to mean that the Torah believes that the stranger can ever be wholly incorporated into Israelite society. These warnings attest to what must have been an abiding sense of "otherness" for people such as these. Indeed, the Torah occasionally employs the "otherness" of the geir as an image of threat, a potential tool of God's wrath. In its famous section cursing the Israelite community, Deuteronomy warns: "The geir in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower: he shall be your creditor, but you shall not be his; he shall be the head and you the tail."
Numerous legal structures also pointed to the "convert's" abiding difference. The command regarding the Sabbath points to the marginal status of the geir, as the Torah admonishes: "Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed."
Despite the geir's otherness, he is no mere trespasser. The Torah permits the geir's participation in a variety of rituals that were clearly religious in nature—rituals in which someone with no relationship to the community would not have been permitted to participate. Consider the following passage on the paschal sacrifice from Exodus 12:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel shall offer it. If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.
The reference to the geir as distinct highlights his otherness. Permitting him to participate in the ritual suggests a degree of inclusiveness. The fact that the geir belonged to no tribe and did not own land rendered him socioeconomically vulnerable, leading the Torah to stipulate his treatment in the realm of charity and his eligibility for the gleanings of the farmer's fields. Requiring circumcision seems to be some form of what later generations might have called a conversion ceremony, but it is important to note that the geir was not required to renounce any religious attachments of his past or to make any declaration of fealty to Israel or its God. The combination of these factors suggests an ambivalence that, as we shall see in future chapters, endures to this day.
The biblical tradition thus describes no formal means of joining the Israelite community, and it employs a term for the person who does join this community that continues to point to his otherness. In a tradition deeply rooted in land, territory, and tribal affiliation, this was quite natural. But the destruction of the Bible's land-based, tribal Judaism in 586 B.C.E., combined with the emergence of a tradition in which religious practice was the chief defining characteristic of belonging to the Jewish community, altered this approach permanently. In its creation of a formal process of conversion, rabbinic Judaism was doing more than naturally developing its biblical antecedents; it was engaging in a powerful shift, perhaps even rebellion, in the way that it saw the whole notion of religious-ethnic identity and in the way that it construed what it meant to be a Jew.
The Emergence of a Rabbinic Conception of Conversion: The Tannaitic Period
Scholars seem to agree that what ultimately emerged as the rabbinic conversion ceremony had begun to take shape by the time that Ezra and Nehemiah led the return to Zion after several decades of Babylonian exile. However, there is no indication that Ezra even considered conversion as a possibility for the problem of foreign women having married into Israelite society. His decision to expel them without consideration of an alternative suggests that even if conversion as an institution had begun to emerge, it was still not fully accepted or developed at that point.
Yet it is understandable that the experience of exile would have opened the possibility of conversion. Dispersion and the destruction of the Temple marked a shift from Israelite religion to Judaism. Surrounded by foreign people, living as a small minority in Babylon with the Temple devastated and their tribal structure gone, the people formerly known as Israelites could no longer be defined exclusively by the place where they resided. Inevitably, the geographic basis of their self-definition had to subside (despite the enduring importance of Zion in their self-conceptions), while a series of new commitments would come to the fore, commitments that others could theoretically adopt. Gentiles could not have become Israelites; but now, they could become Jews.
The dispersion of the Jews from their land not only made conversion a possibility but also created a necessity for a ritual. The biblical system of a geir simply joining the community by residing in it now bore the potential for marked chaos and disorder. No longer, therefore, could conversion remain a personal and private affair. A Gentile could no longer join the community simply by claiming to be a convert and could no longer convert to Judaism on his own.
By the time the Mishnah was codified in 220 C.E., conversion as a concept and the details of its ritual had taken hold in Jewish life. The Mishnah itself does not mention the requirement of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) as part of conversion, but immersion figures prominently in several other rabbinic texts (called baraitot; sing., baraita) that were written during the same period as the texts of the Mishnah. The most commonly cited text on the subject is a baraita from the tractate Yevamot:
Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: "What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?"
Excerpted from Pledges of Jewish Allegiance by David Ellenson Daniel Gordis Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Who Is a Jew? What Is a Jew? Jewish Identity, Jewish Status, and the Challenge of Conversion....................1
1 Conversion in Jewish Tradition: An Introduction to the Classical Sources....................13
2 Trends in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century German Orthodox Responses to Conversion and Intermarriage....................38
3 Hungarian and Central European Writings on Conversion and Intermarriage....................70
4 Europe and the United States in the Modern Period....................90
5 Israel: Conversion to Judaism in a Jewish Society....................121