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On several occasions rabbis in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism worked to heal rifts in the Jewish community. If more people know about these hopeful enterprises, it may inspire our own generation to restore Jewish unity
For over 2,000 years Jews have been unified by identify: One is a Jew if their mother is a Jew, or if they convert to Judaism. Basic conversion requirements are that a bet din (court of 3) witness that a convert has been instructed in the basics of Jewish faith and practice, and then:
- Immersion (t’vilah) in a mikveh (ritual bath)
- For men, circumcision (Brit milah, or a Brit-dam)
- Understanding and acceptance of the Jewish faith.
The beth din then issues a Shtar Giur (“Certificate of Conversion”), certifying that the person is now part of the Jewish people. Also see The mikveh as a way to solve conversion problems
“It is thus the Halakhah dealing with ‘personal status’ which guarantees the underlying unity of the ‘holy community’…They must be prepared to conform to law at least in this respect. For, only if the ‘holy community’ remains undivided on the basic level of its existence…there can be an unqualified acceptance of one another as fellow Jews.”
Judaism “Plural Models within the Halakha”, Volume 19, No.1 (Winter, 1970) p.85-86. Reform Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski
1940’s to 1950’s, Israel
During times of great need, many Orthodox rabbis in Israel put the needs of the Jewish people over legal stringencies. As Israel is a majority-Jewish country, if a person who is only part Jewish emigrates there, and marries a Jewish person there, within a couple of generations their descendants would be halakhically Jewish anyways.
That’s one of the reasons behind the halakhic principle of משפחה שנטמעה נטמעה. Rabbi Chuck Davidsom writes “here in Israel, assimilation works in the opposite direction versus chu”l [ חוץ לארץ, chutz la’aretz, outside of Israel]. When a person moves here and wishes to be part of the vast majority of Israeli society, they become Jewish sociologically, culturally, nationally, and even in terms of basic Judaism, without even trying.”
The Jewish legal principle is משפחה שנטמעה נטמעה – “Whoever is publicly accepted as a Jew is a Jew de-facto”, and allowed to integrate in the greater Jewish community. This is codified in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 71a and 73a,) in Rambam;s Mishneh Torah (Melachim) and in Even Haezer 2, 5.
Until the 1990s, the official policy of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel was that it would accept ordinary testimony, including people’s own word, that they were Jewish.
Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Gershom Gorenberg writes
Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did. The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (the Hazon Ish) held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, “even if nothing is known of his family,” Karlitz wrote.
…Several trends have combined to change that. In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs to the family, or on what the word “Jew” means…. In the United States, the Reform movement responded to rising intermarriage by deciding in 1983 to accept children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews if they were raised within the faith…” –How Do You Prove You’re a Jew? The New York Times Magazine, 3/2/2008
1950s, America, Joint Bet Din
In the 1950s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Modern Orthodox) and other members of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) engaged in negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, including Rabbi Saul Lieberman. Their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative national beth din for America. It would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. It was to be modelled after the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, where all the judges would have been Orthodox, while it would have been accepted by the larger Conservative movement as legitimate. Conservative rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly worked created a Joint Conference on Jewish Law, devoting a year to this effort.
According to Modern Orthodox Rabbi Bernstein, the major reason for its failure was the Orthodox rabbis insisted that the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly (RA) expel Conservative rabbis for actions they took before this new Beit Din was formed, and the RA refused to do so. (Bernstein, 1977) According to Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former president of the RCA, the major reason for its failure was pressure from right-wing Orthodox rabbis, who held that any cooperation between Orthodoxy and Conservatism was forbidden.
In 1956, Rabbi Harry Halpen, of the Joint Conference wrote a report on the demise of this beit din. He writes that negotiations between the Orthodox and Conservative were completed and agreed upon, but then a new requirement was demanded by the RCA: The RA must “impose severe sanctions” upon Conservative rabbis for actions they took before this new Beit Din was formed. Halpern writes that the RA “could not assent to rigorously disciplining our members at the behest of an outside group.” He writes that although subsequent efforts were made to cooperate with the Orthodox, a letter from eleven Rosh Yeshivas was circulated declaring that Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to cooperate with Conservative rabbis. (Proceedings of the CJLS of the Conservative Movement 1927-1970 Vol. II, p.850-852.)
The plan may have been doomed from the beginning, as some within the Orthodox community stated that not a single Conservative rabbi is qualified to sit on such a joint beit din. This view thus made it an Orthodox attempt to control Conservative Judaism; as such, few Conservative rabbis were willing to accept this delegitimization. See http://www.joshyuter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Saul-Lieberman-and-the-Orthodox-41.pdf
1978–1983: America, Denver joint rabbinic program & patrilineal descent
In Denver, Colorado, a joint Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative and Reform Bet Din was formed to promote uniform standards for conversion to Judaism. A number of Orthodox rabbis participated from Orthodox synagogues, in a hold over from a more moderate period in the 1950s, from Orthodox synagogues that still did not have a mechitzah.
Over a five-year period this inter-denominational group performed some 750 conversions to Judaism. However, in 1983 the joint Beth Din was dissolved, due to the unilateral decision by Reform Judaism to change the definition of Jewishness. 
The move was precipitated by the resolution on patrilineality adopted that year by Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). This decision, as well as the designation of Denver as a pilot community for a new Reform conversion program, convinced the Traditional and Conservative rabbis that they could no longer participate in the joint board…the national decision of the Reform rabbinate placed the Traditional and Conservative rabbis in an untenable position. They could not cooperate in a conversion program with rabbis who held so different a conception of Jewish identity. And furthermore, they could not supervise conversions that would occur with increasing frequency due to a Reform outreach effort that was inconsistent with their own understanding of how to relate to potential proselytes. (Wertheimer, A People Divided)
Background: In 1983, Reform’s CCAR passed a resolution waiving the need for formal conversion for anyone with at least one Jewish parent who has made affirmative acts of Jewish identity. This departed from the traditional position requiring formal conversion to Judaism for children without a Jewish mother. This had a mixed reception in Reform Jewish communities outside of the United States. Most notably, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism rejected patrilineal descent and requires formal conversion for anyone without a Jewish mother. However, in 2015 the majority of Britain’s Assembly of Reform Rabbis voted in favor of a position paper proposing “that individuals who live a Jewish life, and who are patrilineally Jewish, can be welcomed into the Jewish community and confirmed as Jewish through an individual process.” Britain’s Assembly of Reform Rabbis stated that rabbis “would be able to take local decisions – ratified by the Beit Din – confirming Jewish status.”
The end of the joint Beth Din program was welcomed by Haredi Orthodox groups, who saw the program as illegitimate. Further, Haredi groups attempted to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis from following the traditional requirements of converts using a mikvah. In the Haredi view, it is better to have no conversion at all than a non-Orthodox conversion, as all non-Orthodox conversions are not true conversions at all according to them.
1980s/90s, Israel, the Rubenstein plan
In the 1980s Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, along with other American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis, worked with Conservative and Reform rabbis for a solution to the “Who is a Jew?” issue. In 1989 and 1990 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir speaheaded an effort to create a solution to the “Who is a Jew?” issue.
A plan was developed by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubenstein, who negotiated secretly for many months with rabbis from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, including faculty at Yeshiva University, with Lamm as Rosh Yeshiva. They planned a joint panel to interviewed people converting to Judaism and considering making aliyah (moving to the State of Israel). This panel would refer them to a bet din that would convert the candidate following traditional halakha. All parties came to agreement:
(1) Conversions must be carried out according to halakha
(2) the bet din (rabbinic court) overseeing the conversion would be Orthodox, perhaps appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and
(3) there would be three-way dialogue throughout the process.
Many Reform rabbis took offense at the notion that the bet din must be halakhic and Orthodox, but they acquiesced. However, when word about this project became public, a number of leading haredi rabbis issued a statement denouncing the project, condemning it as a “travesty of halakha. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Chairman of Agudath Israel World Organization, stated that “Yes we played a role in putting an end to that farce, and I’m proud we did.”
Orthodox leader, Rabbi Norman Lamm, condemned this interference by Sherer, stating that this was “the most damaging thing that he [Sherer] ever did in his forty year career.” (Landau, p.320) Lamm wanted this to be only the beginning of a solution to Jewish disunity. He stated that had this unified conversion plan not been destroyed, he wanted to extend this program to the area of halakhic Jewish divorces, thus ending the problem of mamzerut. (Landau, p.320)
1997, Israel, Neeman commission plan
In 1997 the issue of “Who is a Jew?” again arose in the State of Israel, and Orthodox leaders such as Lamm publicly backed the Neeman commission, a group of Orthodox, Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) rabbis working to develop joint programs for conversion to Judaism. In 1997 Lamm gave a speech at the World Council of Orthodox Leadership, in Glen Springs, N.Y., urging Orthodox Jews to support this effort. Lamm told his listeners that they should value and encourage the efforts of non-Orthodox leaders to more seriously integrate traditional Jewish practices into the lives of their followers.
They should welcome the creation of Reform and Conservative day schools and not see them as a threat to their own, Lamm said. In many communities, Orthodox day schools, or Orthodox-oriented community day schools, have large numbers of students from non-Orthodox families. The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said. “What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing,” he said in his speech. “I’m very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better'” than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview. (Debra N. Cohen, 1997)
The plan was demolished by denunciations from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbinical leaders, and the other Orthodox rabbis and the Israeli Chief rabbinate caved in to the Haredi demands.
Reform Jewish views
One impediment to unity is that most of Reform Judaism rejects the concept that any rules are necessary: In the late 1800s, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (American Reform) formally resolved to permit the admission of converts “without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever.” (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 73-95; American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 68, at 236-237.)
Although this resolution has often been examined critically by many Reform rabbis, the resolution still remains the official policy of American Reform Judaism (CCAR Responsa “Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert” 5756.13 and Solomon Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.)
Thus, American Reform Judaism does not require ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision, or acceptance of mitzvot as normative. Appearance before a Bet Din is recommended, but is not considered necessary. Converts are asked to commit to religious standards set by the local Reform community. As such, they are are rejected by Orthodox Judaism. However, many Reform Jews work to maintain Jewish unity. Many Reform/Progressive rabbis in the USA, Canada England and Israel hold that it is necessary for a man to have a brit milah or brit dam, that both men and women require immersion in a mikveh, and that the conversion must only be allowed at the end of a formal course of study, before a Bet Din.
As such, Conservative Judaism has a nuanced approach on Reform conversions. Reform conversions may be accepted as valid when they include:
* the halachic requirements of milah and t’vilah,
* appearance before a Bet Din,
* a course of study.
(Proceedings of Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: 1980-1985, p.77-101.)
Consequences of conversion
Once undergone, a religious conversion to Judaism is irreversible, unless there are convincing grounds to believe that the convert was insincere or deceptive during the conversion process. In such cases—which are exceedingly rare—a beth din may determine that the conversion was void.
A public and clear violation of Jewish law immediately following the formal conversion may give grounds for considering such an annulment, if it shows that the conversion was fraudulent to begin with. A few isolated cases of annulments have been vigorously debated within the Jewish community, with several rabbinical authorities holding the practice to be in violation of halakha.
- Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces: Divided we stand, but its time to try an idea that might help us stand taller, Moment Vol. II, No. 6, June 1986 – Sivan 5746
- Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Orthodox leader speaks out on Jewish unity, breaking long silence, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 5, 1997
- David Landau Piety & Power, 1993, Hill & Wang, NY
- Rabbi Mayer E. Rabinowitz Comments to the Agunot Conference in Jerusalem, July 1998, and on the Learn@JTS website.
- Rabbi Louis Bernstein The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate, 1977, Yeshiva University
- Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, letter in Jewish Week May 8, 1997, page 28.
- Joseph Soloveitchik Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, 1954
- Jack Wertheimer, Ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Vol. II, p.450, 474, JTS, NY, 1997
- Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927-1970, Vol. II, Ed. David Golinkin, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1997
Responsa on conversion to Judaism, detailed complete papers with footnotes, are available here. They are from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee for Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS.)
הלכות גרים – Conversion
- Joel Roth, Akiba Lubow, “A Standard of Rabbinic Practice Regarding Determination of Jewish Identity” YD 268.1986
- Ben Zion Bergman, “The Case of the Unconverted Spouse” YD 268.1993
- Herbert J. Mandl, “Conversion to Judaism Without Circumcision Due to Medical Complications” YD 268:1.1994
- David Novak, “The Status of Non-Halakhic Conversions” YD 268:3.1982
- Aaron L. Mackler, “Maternal Identity and the Religious Status of Children Born to a Surrogate Mother” YD 268:6.1997
- Avram Israel Reisner, “On the Conversion of Adopted and Patrilineal Children” YD 268:7.1988
- Joel Roth, “Should the Kashrut of Conversions Be Investigated?” YD 268:10.1984a
- David Novak, “A Teshuvah on the Subject of the Investigations of Conversions Today (Hebrew)” YD 268:10.1984b
- Steven Saltzman, “The Status of Ethiopian Jews” YD 268:10.1986
- Reuven Hammer, “On Proving Jewish Identity” YD 268:10.2011
- Steven Saltzman, “May a Conversion Obtained Through Deceit Be Annulled?” YD 268:12.1989a
- Avram Israel Reisner, “On Annulling a Conversion Obtained by Deceit: A Concurring Opinion” YD 268:12.1989b
- Morris Shapiro, “Addendum I On: May a Conversion Obtained by Deceit be Annulled” YD 268:12.1989c (part 1)
- Morris Shapiro, “Addendum 2 On: May a Conversion Obtained by Deceit be Annulled” YD 268:12.1989d (part 2)
- Gerald Zelizer, “The Return of Second Generation Apostates” YD 268:12.1995
- Kassel Abelson and Reuven Hammer, “The Status of ‘Messianic Jews’” YD 268:12.2012a
- Aaron Alexander and Elie Kaplan Spitz, “A Concurring Abstention to “The Status of ‘Messianic Jews’ “” YD 268:12.2012b
- Barry Leff, “May a Convert Use a Name other than “Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu?”” YD 269:1.2010a
- Elliot Dorff, “May a Convert Use a Name other than “Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu?” a Concurring Opinion ” YD 269:1.2010b
- Miriam Berkowitz, “May a Convert Use a Name other than “Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu?” A Dissenting Opinion” YD 269:1.2010c
- Gail Labovitz, “May a Convert Use a Name other than “Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu?” A Concurring Opinion” YD 269:1.2010d