My Thirteen Principles of Faith
By Eliyahu Birnbaum | 17/12/2009
"I think that joining the State of Israel by force of the Law of Return cannot be totally equated with joining the people of Israel by force of conversion. Conversion is a halakhic, personal, category; the Law of Return is a category of national and civil affiliation." Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum sets forth his ideas as a conversion court judge
This article is an attempt to share with the readers the thoughts and musings of a conversion court judge. The task of a conversion court judge is not an easy one. He must cope with sensitive human, family, and psychological situations and try and provide a solution for the spiritual and emotional needs of those who come to the court to join the people of Israel. He often faces moral dilemmas and internal conflicts that impact on the continued existence of the Jewish people
For the purpose of writing this article, I asked myself what worldview guides me when I come to convert those wishing to become Jews.
I will attempt to write a personal confession, my credo on the issue of conversion.
1. Conversion is the only way for a person who is not Jewish to halakhically join the Jewish collective, the people of Israel.
Conversion is a one-directional act, that enables entry to the Jewish people for the person who comes to convert and the generations following him, without any possibility of retreat and retraction. The person undergoing conversion does not only join the Jewish religion, he is born within the Jewish collective. We learn of the essence of conversion from the declaration by Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1:16): "your people shall be my people, and your God my God." To convert means to be part of the people of Israel and to belong to the faith of Israel, to accept the belief and way of life of the Jewish people.
Conversion is joining the unique family of Israel, like entry to a family by marriage. And just as the character of the Jewish people is not solely biological, so, too, joining it - conversion - is not exclusively biological, but ideational, ideological.
Every person, without distinction of prior religion, race, color, or gender, is fit to be a candidate for conversion, if his intent is sincere and true.
2. Conversion is done willingly and out of identification, not under compulsion.
Conversion means choosing to be a part of the Jewish people, and therefore the responsibility of freely choosing this association is imposed on the person who wants to convert. A person cannot be converted against his will. Conversion is dependent upon the individual. Neither the court, as the emissary of the Jewish people, nor the Holy One, blessed be He, determine the applicability of conversion, but the individual himself, his strength, his will, his intent, and his personal efforts. There is a need of active choice and deed for entry to the covenant; there is no sharing in the covenant without entry to the covenant. There seems to be a great deal of logic in demanding that a new member of a community prove himself more than an existing member of the community. This is correct for receiving citizenship in the country, and also for acceptance within the Jewish people.
3. Conversion effects change in a person.
The change in the past century in the manner of Jewish existence in history led to a new situation in the world of conversion. Recently, we encounter a new type of the need for conversion: not out of desire to join the Jewish people, but within the reality in which a person lives in the people and the state after having assumed a Jewish identity. In the past, conversion was an identity-establishing act; in the new situation, conversion is an act that confirms the Jewishness of the person undergoing conversion, who thinks, believes, and at times even lives as a Jew in every respect. Until now conversion created a reality, and now conversion is a way to cope with a new social reality.
In this complex situation we must find the balance and the proper way in which, on the one hand, we can accept and even respect the entire emotional, familial, and cultural baggage that a person brings with him to conversion, while on the other, we will not function merely as the validators of citizenship and Jewishness. Conversion is not a ceremony that ends with immersion in a ritual bath. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, "Conversion is a radical, decisive change of the convert's entire identity, and immersion is merely a sign meant to symbolize this transformation" (Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, "On Repentance" [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1975], p. 252 [Hebrew]).
Conversion is effected by the manner of acceptance of the Jewish religion and the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, the absorption of the spirit of Judaism in one's spirit and soul, the acceptance of the values of Judaism, and the adoption of its way of life. Conversion is not based solely on a declaration or on speech, but on a spiritual transformation that is founded in the faith of Israel.
4. In order to convert, one must abandon the non-Jewish faith and accept the Jewish faith.
In the postmodern world a person can have more than a single identity, and the concept of "a multitude of identities" has become the norm. This is not the case as regards the act of conversion. Conversion puts before a person the trenchant question: "Where are you?" In what do you believe? (and in what do you not believe?) How do you define your identity? It seems to me that the need to leave behind the prior belief for the purpose of conversion is simple and accepted, and that we do not need halakhic teachings to explain it, but only simple and basic logic. The formulators of the Law of Return, too, understood this, when they wrote: "a person who was born of a Jewish mother [...] and who is not a member of another religion."
5. The person undergoing conversion becomes identical to a Jew from birth.
Conversion turns the one undergoing conversion into a Jew "in every respect," identical to a Jew born to a Jewish mother, and the fact of his belonging to the Jewish people can be changed only in exceptional cases.
A person born as a Jew does not choose his connection to the Jewish people; although a person who decides to convert chooses affiliation to the Jewish people and his commitment to it, after the first choice there is no difference between them. The halakhah relates to both equally.
Our sages defined the situation of the convert at the end of the process: "Once he immersed and came up, then he is deemed to be an Israelite" (Yevamot 47b).
6. Conversion is a personal act, and not a public, mass one.
Conversion, by its very nature, is a personal and individual process, that entails a mental experience and personal commitment. A collection of different factors fashions the conversion. There is a need for normative commitment, on the one hand, and, on the other, a subjective believing consciousness.
7. Conversion is a national challenge and need.
In recent years we have witnessed a real change in the social composition of the immigrants. A new situation has come about, in which hundreds of thousands of olim (immigrants) who are not Jews according to the halakhah live in Israel. This situation marks the beginning of Israeli assimilation, and demands that we relate to it in a comprehensive manner in both the state realm and the halakhic-rabbinic sphere.
The large number of non-Jewish olim who immigrated to Israel presents the Chief Rabbinate and the conversion courts with a halakhic problem of unprecedented scope. One of the central components of the halakhic and educational attitude to the situation that has been created is the national aspect of conversion: the need to continue to maintain a Jewish state.
Consequently, conversion is unquestionably one of the issues on the agenda of Israeli society. Although conversion has its origins in the holy corpus of the world of halakhah and Jewish thought, today, in the State of Israel, this issue also has a social, psychological, national, and Zionist dimension, and is a quite sensitive matter.
It is not clear that conversion could solve the demographic problem in its entirety, but we may not refrain from taking steps and devoting thought and action in order to preserve the future and internal strength of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.If we do not do so, we are liable, Heaven forbid, to find ourselves in a state that is not a Jewish one, as a result of internal demographic change. The conversion courts, together with the conversion courses, the rabbis, schools, and synagogues, supportive communities, and accompanying families, are entrusted with the effort to bring into the bosom of Judaism all the immigrants who are interested in undergoing the process of preparation for halakhic conversion. In this manner we will be able to strengthen Jewish existence, both spiritually and demographically.
8. Conversion must be conducted in accordance with the time-honored halakhah, in order to preserve the unity of the people.
Conversion must be a factor that preserves the unity of the Jewish people, and not a divisive element.
I am certain that the problem of the non-Jewish immigrants who came to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return must be addressed both by the halakhah and by the rabbinical courts. It must be resolved, however, while carefully maintaining unity. We must not create different types of conversion, which will legitimize some of those undergoing conversion, and harm others. Conversion must be "conversion for all," that is, accepted by all; it must not create a tribal, ethnic, and group division.
Unfortunately, the State of Israel is divided into different groups and sectors. On the one hand, conversion will likely solve this problem by the creation of an infrastructure shared by all those desirous of converting; on the other, we must take care that conversion not create different groups, but will be accepted by the entire public. I am of the opinion that without conversion of this type, the immigrants will not be motivated to convert.
9. The person undergoing conversion is not only a "file," but a human being.
We are commanded to love converts, to forget their past, to accept then as new members joining our people and society, and to facilitate the reception process to the greatest degree possible: both their absorption in the State of Israel, and their spiritual absorption within the Jewish people.
Our sages teach us: "Even a single person in Israel, who learned words of Torah and departed for other places, is not ashamed to return, for he says, I am returning to my fathers' heritage. To what is this comparable? To the son of kings who went to a distant land: even after a hundred years, he is not ashamed to return, for he says: I am returning to my fathers' kingdom" (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, para. 345).
Love of the convert is undoubtedly a result of special esteem for the convert's spiritual heroism. The convert demonstrates impressive inner strength, mental valor, and personal effort, that are necessary to undergo a process of wrestling with spiritual and social challenges.
Judaism receives the convert with open arms, so that he will be partner to the Jewish past and future, history, and fate.
10. Conversion is a process that requires preparation.
Due to the importance and significance of conversion and its consequences, it is not a one-time act (not even for a person with a Jewish background). It requires a process, preparation, and willingness. There is a need for a learning-mental process in order to feel and experience what Judaism is, and what Jewish tradition is. Just as biological birth or a psychological change need time and preparation, so, too, conversion. The conversion process consists of three stages:
1. the period of study in a conversion course; 2. the court session; 3. the act of conversion: circumcision and immersion.
11. Conversion requires a court of three members who will accept the conversion candidate.
The act of conversion is not unilateral: it requires the desire to be accepted to the Jewish people, by the conversion candidate; and the desire to accept him, by those sharing in the covenant, that is, the Jewish people. The court serves as the agent of all Israel to accept into its midst the one who seeks to be part of the covenant. It does not execute a purely judicial action, but that of "acceptance," that is, the expression of fundamental consent that the person standing before it will be joined to the collective of the Jewish people. The court confirms that person's sincere willingness to be part of the covenant, and the desire of the Jewish people to join him to the covenant.
One who comes to convert seeks "to enter under the wings of the Divine Presence" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 13:4), and the court "receive him" (the term "acceptance of converts" appears many times in the Talmud: Yevamot 16a; 24b; 46b, teaching of the need for an act of acceptance).
The court session is not a test of knowledge, but an attempt to get to know the candidate personally: the degree of his sincerity, his feelings, the efforts that he invested in preparation for conversion, and his commitment for the future. The court session is conducted as a conversation with the conversion candidate, and revolves around family, personal, philosophical, historical, and halakhic matters.
The courts make every effort to turn the appearance before the court and the decision to join the Jewish people into a moving ceremony of significance for the life of the candidate.
12. Conversion is a religious act with national consequences.
Throughout Jewish history the decision regarding joining the Jewish collective and community rested with sages and prophets. They defined and fashioned the nature of membership in the Jewish community, according to the way in which they interpreted the halakhic sources. In recent years the State of Israel and its institutions have added a new dimension to the traditional manner of conversion. The Law of Return and the registration of nationality and religion in identification cards have made the Knesset and the general court [in contrast with the religious courts that constitute conversion courts - trans.] factors in determining Jewish identity and the proper manner of joining the State of Israel, and thus, the people of Israel.
Anyone occupied with conversion in the State of Israel cannot do so divorced from the social condition in the state, nor can he ignore the tens of thousands of people of Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship who live in Israel after coming here by force of the Law of Return. But nor can conversion be turned into a social or civil instrument for the solution of the situation created by the application of the amended Law of Return.
I think that joining the State of Israel by force of the Law of Return cannot be totally equated with joining the people of Israel by force of conversion. These are two parallel tracks, with unquestionable mutual linkages between them. Conversion is a halakhic, personal, category; the Law of Return is a category of national and civil affiliation, that follows the principles of immigration and aliyah.
Those engaged in conversion cannot ignore the data resulting from the application of the Law of Return, but we can hardly assume that the rabbinical judges could totally resolve the situation created in Israel due to the decisions taken here in the realm of aliyah.
Today there are different types of conversion: civil conversion, social conversion, national conversion, secular conversion. But only Jewish-religious conversion is decisive regarding the question of who is a Jew.
Actually, religious conversion contains a great innovation: this is also the process of joining the Jewish nation. Jewish identity, by its very nature, is not divided between religious identity and national identity. Both compose Jewish identity; and therefore both are acquired by force of the act of conversion.
Other peoples have the concept of "changing one's religion," but not that of "changing one's nationality." Every person may change his religion as he wishes, but he cannot exchange his nationality. National affiliation is genetic, and cannot be changed. Conversion of this "dual" nature in an innovation that was produced in the study hall of Judaism.
13. I believe in conversion, and in the need to increase converts in the State of Israel.
In the situation in which conversion is a national need and its goal is to strengthen and unify Jewish existence in the State of Israel, its goal is not to raise in the convert's path obstacles that are liable to distance, and even deter many from coming to convert. We try to act in accordance with the wonderful words of Rabbi Unterman: "We await a tremendous movement among the Jews to immigrate to Israel, and this obligates us to make preparations for the great mission [...] to this end, we must take care that those requiring conversion by Torah law will be treated gently and with understanding, while paying attention to what our brothers underwent in their spiritual distress" ("Laws of Conversion and the Manner of Their Implementation," Torah shebe'al Peh 13, p. 13 [Hebrew]).
Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum is a judge in the special rabbinical court for conversion in Jerusalem, and chairs the informational committee of the conversion courts. He also heads the Strauss-Amiel Program for Practical Rabbinics, that trains rabbis and spiritual leadership for the Diaspora.
translated by Ed Levin