February 26, 2020

The Argument for Lenient Conversion in Israel

“Judaism has been described as many things: a culture, a people, a religion, a nationality, and more (including, according to answers given to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, a culinary disposition for bagels and smoked salmon or the possession of a good sense of humor). Let me here propose an existential minimum of what being Jewish should mean. It should mean that one’s Jewish affiliation not only forms a central part of one’s identity but also defines much of one’s actual way of life—one’s practice.

Although, sadly, the second half of this two-part premise is not shared by many Jews themselves, it has wide implications for how we think about the mass phenomenon that Haivry describes—that is, the expressed desire of untold numbers of newcomers somehow to attach themselves to the Jewish people—and about the response to that phenomenon by the rabbinic gatekeepers who in Israel determine the standards of religious conversion to Judaism.

Haivry begins by describing the two “circles” (as he calls them) of the world’s core Jewish population: namely, Israeli Jews and their counterparts in the Diaspora. Demographically, Israel is largely thriving, with a robust birthrate; by contrast, the Diaspora is suffering a numerical decline that will lead it to lose half of its numbers within the coming generation. Although Haivry does not state the fact openly, it must be acknowledged that by far the majority of those falling away are either members of one of the non-Orthodox religious denominations or, even likelier, those unaffiliated with any denomination or communal structure.”

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