Can Childhood Conversion Solve Israel’s “Who Is a Jew” Problems?

July 5, 2018 | Shlomo Brody
About the author: Rabbi Shlomo Brody is the executive director of Ematai, an organization dedicated to helping Jews think about aging, end-of-life care, and organ donation. His book A Guide to the Complex won a 2014 National Jewish Book Award. His next book, Ethics of Our Fighters, will be released in February 2024.

Some 400,000 Israelis who consider themselves Jewish are not recognized as such by the country’s chief rabbinate, and are thus unable to marry other Jews legally. Of these, many—often immigrants from the former Soviet Union—are of partial Jewish descent and thus halakhically non-Jews, even if they came to Israel under the state’s law of return. Others are Ethiopian Jews whose status is uncertain, or converts whose conversions are not recognized by the chief rabbinate. Shlomo Brody suggests a halakhic solution:

The problem [from a halakhic perspective] is that many of these Israelis [of ambiguous status] have no interest in meeting the standards of observance required for conversion according to the majority of Orthodox rabbis, which includes [a] sincere commitment to abide by Jewish religious law [halakhah].

To prevent intermarriage in the early 20th century, such prominent rabbis as Ḥayyim Ozer Grodzinsky, David Tzvi Hoffman, and Benzion Uziel ruled it permissible to convert those who generally intend to observe the basic facets of Jewish law, even if their performance will be lackluster in certain areas. Yet most prominent halakhic authorities . . . have argued that Jewish law requires sincere intent to observe Jewish law in toto, which is the position of the current Israeli chief rabbinate.

[This requirement] raises an issue with converting children, who are presumed not to have sufficient maturity to take on such responsibility. The Talmud states that a rabbinic court, serving as their guardian, can accept [this responsibility] on their behalf. Once reaching the age of majority, the child can theoretically repudiate his or her Jewishness, but is presumed to consent unless otherwise stated.

This approach has been challenged [specifically in the case of] children of intermarried couples, since the child would be raised in a non-observant home and thus set up to sin. . . . Yet others . . . allowed such conversions. . . . Rabbi Naḥum Eliezer Rabinovitch, one of the most senior religious Zionist rabbinic jurists, has advocated converting any minors when so requested by their Israeli parents. He asserts that in contrast to the stringent positions taken in the diaspora, leniency on this matter today will prevent the scourge of intermarriage in the state of Israel. Moreover, Jewish Israelis, especially if committed to a basic modicum of religiosity, live by default with kosher food from the supermarkets, a national Jewish calendar, and a blossoming religious culture.

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