Israel’s Never-Ending Conversion Dilemma

January 14, 2020 | 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 newest book, Ethics of Our Fighters, was released at the end of 2023.

According to Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with even a single Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate and become naturalized as a citizen. The result is that there are now as many as 400,000 non-Arab Israelis who are not Jewish by the far stricter standards of the chief rabbinate, which has sole legal authority over conversion, marriage, and divorce. Thus these citizens cannot marry Jews, and, if men, their children will not be considered Jewish. To convert they must undergo a rigorous process that involves convincing a rabbinic tribunal of their commitment to scrupulous halakhic observance. In When the State Winks, the anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi examines the way the rabbinate balances pressures to convert these Israelis to Judaism with its religious standards. Shlomo Brody writes in his review:

Using a term deployed by a prominent Religious Zionist educator, Kravel-Tovi calls the system a “wink-wink” form of conversion. In her depiction, the well-rehearsed conversion candidates learn to dress and to speak in a way that will allow the rabbinic judges to ignore the fact that these are generally Israelis who are seeking the social benefits of recognized Jewish identity without undergoing any major internal transformation. “Both sides,” she writes of the convert and the court, “shoulder the burden of constructing believable performances.”

Kravel-Tovi insists, however, that she is not depicting either converts or rabbis as sophisticated deceivers. Instead, each side is balancing a complex set of desires while aiming for a win-win resolution. While primarily seeking acceptance and a greater sense of belonging, the candidates who successfully completed the process often did deepen their appreciation of Jewish culture, history, and even ritual. The rabbis, in turn, could justify their lower conversion standards by citing legal loopholes while taking comfort in the fact that they had strengthened the Jewish identities of Israelis who do not regularly interact with religious society.

A weakness in Kravel-Tovi’s study is that it adopts an entirely external perspective, . . . without paying sufficient attention to the ideological battle over the impact of nationalism on Jewish law in general and conversion standards in particular. To understand this debate, we should first note an important insight of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog: Jewish law (halakhah) has no mechanism for legal naturalization except the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.

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