A Sober Assessment of Conversion in Israel

[Before I begin I want to apologize for the delay of my next installment in the guide to non-observant Jews. It should be up next Thursday, God willing. – AIWAC]

MK Rav Haim Amsalem’s book on conversion ‘Zera Israel‘ has garnered quite a bit of attention here in Israel, though apparently not much abroad (I haven’t seen a single discussion of it in the O-blogosphere). This is a shame, because whether one agrees with his arguments or not, his is a serious source that cannot be easily dismissed.

I present, with permission, a translation of comments made by Rav Tzair, one of the few Hebrew-language Orthodox bloggers out there (but very interesting nonetheless), on Rav Amsalem’s book. They are a must-read for anyone who wants to discuss the issue.

Note: I don’t necessarily agree with everything said here. Please do not assume otherwise.

Commenting rules: Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, I ask that anyone who comments remain civil and argue on substance. Any comment containing personal attacks (or insulting attacks on groups) will be deleted immediately. You have been warned.

Conversion and ‘Zera Israel’ by Rav Tzair

Translated by: Avi Woolf AKA AIWAC

Part I

I recently received MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem’s book on conversion ‘Zera Israel’. Over the next few weeks we will write on various points raised in the book.

The haskama given by the author’s Rabbi Hagaon Rav Meir Mazoz contains the following:

“But an adult who converted from their own free will even if he went back and worshipped idols he is considered a Jewish heretic as is known. Indeed, 37 years ago Rav Goren z”l wanted to clear the “brother and sister” [this is the Israeli term for the Langer case – AIWAC] from a safek of mamzerut, by arguing that their mother’s first marriage was to a doubtful convert who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvot and therefore the kiddushin is retroactively annulled, and the entire world protested this as is well known.”

Ostensibly there is a new shitta here (at least to me). Up until now I knew the Lithuanian-Charedi shitta that said that one must differentiate: in the case of Rav Goren it was forbidden to “annul” the conversion but in cases we face today it is different and the conversions must be annulled because we know that the Beth Din that converted them had no right to do so. I also knew the religious-Zionist shitta (on which Rav Goren apparently relied) which claimed that there is no comparison. Rav Goren faced a reality of mamzerim where there was room to add sefekot and there were other details in this specific case to put a question mark over the whole conversion, as opposed to conversion today which cannot be annulled because there is no reason to assume that the Beth Din was not completely aware of the intentions of those who came before it.

Rabbi Mazoz presents a middle shitta which says that one must never under any circumstances annul a conversion, not in the case of the brother and sister (to which the whole world protested, as we know) and not in the cases which have been discussed in the public discourse in the past few years.

Part II

My teachers in high school would always stress to us students, in different variations, that at least fifty percent of solving a problem lies in a correct understanding of the question. As far as I am concerned Rabbi MK Haim Amsalem has understood the problem correctly. If a true and honest presentation of the problem is the only thing ‘Zera Israel’ has to offer – it is enough.

For the past few decades a debate has taken place regarding conversions, a debate which has intensified in the last five years, while most of the parties to the debate do not present the information truthfully. This is true for both sides of the debate. We will bring a few examples.

Over the generations a great many conversions were done by Batei Din of Hedyotot (and for some of them this is a compliment) in all manner of out of the way villages, to ‘solve’ problems of intermarriage. Some of these conversions are dicussed in tens if not hundreds of responsa, where it is pretty clear that neither the Jewish spouse nor the non-Jewish spouse who converted kept Torah and Mitzvot according to the accepted meaning of the term (not now and not then). More than once one could find in responsa cases where the Jewish spouse threatened to leave Judaism if his spouse’s conversion is not recognized. There is no reason to assume that a person who lives with a non-Jewish woman and threatens to stop being Jewish intends to live his life according to the Shulchan Aruch once his spouse’s conversion is recognized.

In general, in all the discussion throughout the generations regarding converts who wanted to convert for reasons of marriage (who are called gerei arayot [with an ayin, not an aleph – AIWAC]), [it is clear that] we are not talking about people who recognize Judaism as the true faith and simply arrived at this conclusion because they met a Jewish spouse. Rather, we are talking about people for whom almost the only reason they want to convert is their Jewish spouse (and from their point of view if their spouse was an idol worshiper there is a chance they would convert to being an idol worshipper).

These conversions and similar ones were recognized as legitimate conversions for all intents and purposes, even though there wasn’t a serious and honest acceptance of the obligation of Miztvot on the part of the converts. Although we find here and there in the response literature a pashkvil brought in support of the halachic position…it is best not to build too much on pashkvilim that were published thirty years ago.

The argument that recognition of “problematic” conversions will increase intermarriage in Israel, is an argument that has no truth to it. The reality is that in another generation or two there will be no way to prevent these intermarriages whether they convert or not.

All the religious parties were part of the government while thousands of non-Jews came to this country. Not a single religious MK resigned because of this. No religious MK proposed offering non-Jews an ’emigration package’ to leave the country.

Over the past few years, in the framework of the special Batei Din of conversion, tens and perhaps even hundreds and thousands of non-Jews converted who never considered keeping Shabbat. This is a fact that is almost impossible to debate. Did the dayanim think or believe that they will keep Shabbat? We don’t know, simply because almost none of the dayanim was willing to place the numbers on the table. Even if we say that there was room to believe that those who were converting at the time, today there is almost an umdena demuchach [halachically relevant proven assumption – AIWAC] and it is very difficult to debate the reality in the field. Nevertheless, voices in the religious-Zionist community continue the call to be lenient in conversion and to continue to operate the special Batei Din for conversion. This is even though no-one is willing to get up and openly declare that we have de-facto given up the acceptance of the obligation of Miztvot [as a condition of conversion – AIWAC].

Among the activists on conversion there are stories of dayanim who give interviews to the media regarding the need to be lenient to potential converts but once these candidates come before them while they sit as dayanim, these same dayanim keep tabs on both the candidates and the converts (even after the immersion in the mikva!) to insure that they keep Torah and Mitzvot. How can such a thing be, you ask? Does such a dayan not realize they are living in a contradiction? Of course he notices, but all of reality is one big contradiction!

Rabbi Haim Amsalem, in his book ‘Zera Israel’ deals with the real data. We are talking about a large population who if they undergo a process of conversion will act, de-facto, as traditional Jews [masortiyim – see my post on the subject – AIWAC]. In other words, they will mark (but not keep [in the Orthodox manner – AIWAC]) Shabbat and Holidays, they’ll come to shul when they need to, keep kashrut and perhaps family purity laws to one extent or another but not much more than that. The question he deals with is this: Is it possible, and should we accept and encourage such people to undergo a process of conversion?


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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