אוי מימיני, אוי לי משמאלי (Woe am I from my right, Woe am I from my left): Intermarriage and the Dilemma of the Committed Modern Orthodox Jew (Part One: The Right)

[Introduction]

The Right

Aside from being against intermarriage in general as a serious violation of halacha and a betrayal of the Jewish people, the RW has a very extreme and rigid (and completely ahistorical) view of conversion. While many non-observant and even secular Jews object to intermarriage if the spouse does not convert in some way, they part ways when it comes to the increasingly high standard and onus placed on the potential convert. Once it was sufficient to join the Jewish community after mila, tevilah and declaring before a beit din. Now, converts are on permanent probation, their status as Jews always subject to retroactive revocation if they cross the ever-changing lines in the sand dictated by Reb Nachum.

Now, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I certainly agree that conversion is the sine qua non for joining the Jewish people, and I understand the concerns regarding fraud &c. I most certainly do not subscribe to the notion that anyone who simply declares themselves “Jewish” gets to join the club (more on this later). However, I cannot agree with the stringent attitude of the Rav Elyashivs of the world (that’s the later Rav Elyashiv, not the Rav Elyashiv who confirmed a clearly fraudulent conversion in the Langer case) for a number of reasons.

The first is that the ideal halachic concept of conversion, for “pure reasons” and accepting the most stringent criteria, is utterly a-historical. Only a small minority of converts went that route. The most superficial survey of the subject, from the First and Second Temple period through the time of the diaspora to Modern times, would reveal that most converts did not do so solely because of a “road to Damascus” moment.

For all the yelling and screaming about the illegitimacy of conversion for reasons of love, it happened quite frequently and was always accepted post-facto. This is confirmed not only in the stories in the Tanach (Esther, Ezra &c) as well as responsa, but also Jewish genetic research which demonstrated that there was a great deal of foreign female genetic material, which bespoke many unions for romance. There are many responsa which describe how Jews insisted that their non-Jewish spouse be converted, otherwise they would leave Judaism. The idea that such conversions-under-duress involved genuine commitments to the letter of the Shulchan Aruch is naïve in the extreme.

No Rabbi endorsed such a policy lechatchila, but all recognized it bedi’avad (post-facto). They understood that faced with a situation of assimilation or a conversion that barely qualified, they preferred the latter. It’s called making tough decisions in a bad situation, something the detached Roshei Yeshiva not in the field would know nothing about. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski were true Gedolim in that they were willing to bite that particular bullet to prevent to total collapse, even if it meant heavy criticism. We face just such a situation today – those who are machmir on conversion are dooming tens of thousands to non-halachic Jewish status and causing further, incredibly serious rifts in our already fractured nation.

The second reason I cannot side with the machmirim is that I feel there is a powerful undercurrent of anti-goyish (non-Jewish) xenophobia about the constantly raised standards. Of course, officially everyone will deny this, but read their words closely and you’ll be able to “hear” it between the lines. Statements like “strangers have come to the vineyard of Israel” or “the increase in violence in Israel is due exclusively or primarily to the non-halachically Jewish population” are simply unacceptable to me. They bespeak an essentialist, borderline racist attitude that does not befit us in the 21st century. I am aware that there are sources that support this contention, but I respectfully submit that just as we have neutralized other sources, so must we deal with them.

On occasion, this essentialist anti-goy attitude comes out openly. The Syrian community does not accept converts at all. Then there is the famous story of Amram Bloi, leader of Neturei Karta in the 50s and 60s, who married a perfectly sincere and even religiously extreme convert – she was publicly and frequently humiliated as a ‘chutzpedike, shmutedike giyoret’ (a rude, dirty convert).

Most people are not so blatant. However, for me, the constant raising of standards far beyond what was once necessary speaks volumes. A professor of mine once laid down the following rule of deduction: if a sign says ‘Keep Off the Grass’, you can be sure that people walked, and probably still walk, on the grass. In much the same way, constantly raising hurdles and requiring an idealized, utopian kind of conversion sends the clear message that we want as few non-Jews as possible, and then only perfect paragons of virtue. At least the Syrian community is honest and doesn’t hold out the usually false hope that converts will be accepted. Even if it happens halachically (and there are Charedi courts and authorities who have conducted far more lenient conversions than the Rabbinate), it will never happen socially.

Next: The Left

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About AIWAC

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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3 Responses to אוי מימיני, אוי לי משמאלי (Woe am I from my right, Woe am I from my left): Intermarriage and the Dilemma of the Committed Modern Orthodox Jew (Part One: The Right)

  1. Pingback: אוי לי מימיני, אוי לי משמאלי (Woe am I from my right, Woe am I from my left): Intermarriage and the Dilemma of the Committed Modern Orthodox Jew (Part Two: The Left)) | QED

  2. S. says:

    To play devil’s advocate, why isn’t choosing to make the path narrow not a tough decision in a bad situation?

    • AIWAC says:

      It depends on context. If the authority views himself as responsible for all of Am Israel, then it can be seen as a tough decision. If, however, like most authorities who bash giyur today, it is made by people who are thoroughly sectarian Orthodox, then it is an easy decision made by a leader of a community which will not be affected anyway.

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