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What is the Masorti attitude to conversion?

The subject of conversion occupies a key place on the Jewish communal agenda, and appears to be set to remain there for the foreseeable future.

By Rabbi Chaim Weiner

It is an arena in which the battle between the different sectors of the Jewish community is frequently fought. It is an example of an important challenge facing the Jewish world today and, as such, is a good example of how the different movements in modem Judaism put their beliefs into practice.

Jewish law, as spelled out in the Talmud and the codes, allows for conversion, setting a number of requirements to be met by the potential convert before appearing before a Beth Din (Jewish court) and being accepted. These requirements include ritual immersion in a mikvah, circumcision (in the case of men) and accepting the yoke of the commandments. The sources also talk of a period of study. We are also warned not to make the process so difficult as to put off those candidates who are sincere.

The attitude to conversion has changed over history. In the ancient world conversion was a common occurrence. Throughout much of the middle ages, Jews were forbidden to practice conversion in most countries, and it was a rarity. In the modem age, in those countries where Jews were emancipated and established contact with the surrounding society, the number of people who seek to convert to Judaism greatly increased.

The Orthodox community in Britain demands that those who wish to convert under its auspices adopt the lifestyle and beliefs of an ideal Orthodox Jew. Candidates go through a rigorous period of instruction and testing before they are accepted. While this position is coherent, in practice it means that the lifestyle expected of the potential convert is much more demanding than that of the majority of Jews, even the majority of Jews who are affiliated with Orthodox synagogues. It means that conversion is impossible for most candidates. Many couples who would have wished to remain in the Jewish community as involved and productive members are forced out of the community or to its fringes. Masorti views this position as both unnecessary and undesirable.

The Masorti policy is to enable those who wish to join the Jewish community to do so on condition than the demands of Jewish law have been met. We provide a serious period of study, and expect our candidates for conversion to adopt a lifestyles of an observant Masorti Jew. The standard is within reach of members of our communities and, although challenging, is also within reach of most candidates for conversion. Those going through the conversion process are provided with encouragement and support in going through a major change in their lives. All the ritual requirements of Jewish law are observed.

The orthodox establishment refuses to recognise as valid any conversion that has not taken place under its own auspices. Masorti regret this position. We reject the notion that the only way one can be a Jew is to be an Orthodox Jew. We reject the assumption that the orthodox rabbinate have the authority to decide who is Jewish and who isn’t. That authority lies solely in Jewish law. When a candidate has fulfilled the requirements of that law then he or she is Jewish, and one who refuses to recognise that fact is denying a Jew the right of synagogue participation, Jewish education as well as many other services of the Jewish community.

In recent years the orthodox community in Israel has put its efforts into trying to introduce legislation which would only recognise orthodox conversions. Given the huge influx of Russian immigrants into the country, many of whom have problems of status, such legislation would create great difficulties for thousands who have come home and wish to return to their roots. The position of the Masorti movement world-wide has to push for the adoption of reasonable and reachable standards of conversion to be agreed and practised throughout the Jewish world. We wish to take conversion out of the political arena. We believe that co-operation between all sectors of the community, through a compassionate application of the requirements of Jewish law, would best serve our people as a whole.

The way one thinks about conversion reflects how you understand being a Jew in the modem world. The Masorti attitude, which encourages a critical understanding of Jewish history, requires a serious period of study which endorses traditional practice, which sees us as part of our surrounding society and demands that we provide workable solutions to its challenges, and which enables those who wish to draw closer to the Jewish tradition rather than setting up barriers in their way, is a good reflection of what Masorti Judaism is all about.

Posted on 3 January 2012

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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