Paper written in 1976.
This communication does not deal with the wider question of intermarriage or of Judaism as a missionary religion. Its concern is with the severely practical and immediate problem facing a would-be convert to Judaism or a Jewish couple who have adopted a child whose natural mother is not Jewish and who therefore requires formal conversion.
The procedures for conversion to Judaism are clearly laid down in the traditional sources. A male requires milah and tevillah; a female tevillah. Milah is circumcision, tevillah is immersion (from the root taval, ‘to dip’) in a kosher mikveh. Milah is, of course, the physical sign of the Abrahamic covenant while tevillah is the ritual purification that precedes admission into the ranks of the covenant people. The convert must declare his or her readiness to practise the Jewish religion and to affirm the basic principles of the Jewish faith. There must be evidence of complete sincerity in the desire to follow the Jewish way of life. Strictly speaking there should be no ulterior motive, only the unqualified wish to ‘enter under the wings of Shechinah’ i.e. to share in the glory that is Judaism. Nevertheless, the famous mediaeval French authorities, the Tosafists (to tractate Yevamot 24b, No. 6) prove from the Talmud that where the presiding Bet Din is convinced that the less pure motive will eventually lead to a complete and sincere avowal of the Jewish faith the conversion can be proceeded with and is perfectly valid. The Talmud (tractate Ketubot 11a) rules that a minor can be converted by the Bet Din, it being assumed that, Judaism being a great privilege, to which to belong, he will acquiesce in the conversion when he becomes an adult (at the age of thirteen for a boy and twelve for a girl). He does have the right to revoke the conversion when he reaches his majority but if he does not do so the conversion is valid retrospectively. It is important to appreciate that all references to a Bet Din in this context are to a ‘Court’ of any three Jews. They do not have to be Rabbis, though at least one should be a qualified Rabbi who can arrange for all the procedures to be carried out correctly. The Reform movement has generally abandoned the tevillah requirement and some Reformers have abandoned, too, the milah requirement for a male convert. Instead a new feature has been introduced in Reform procedure: the would-be convert is to engage in a period of detailed study of Judaism, usually for a year. It is odd that the London Bet Din, professing strict Orthodoxy, should have followed the Reform innovation. There is nothing in the sources about the need for a prolonged course of study (the study of Judaism is a life-long task for all Jews), only the demand for complete sincerity, study coming after the conversion. Indeed, many of the foremost traditional Halachists positively forbid a prior course of study on the grounds that it is forbidden to teach the Torah to a Gentile (see e.g. The Responsum of Rabbi Malkiel Tannenbaum of Lomzha to the Rabbi of Abertillery in Wales, Divrey Malkiel, Vol. IV, Jerusalem, 1970, No. 19, p. 40).
Once the prospective converts’ sincerity has been ascertained, it is the practice of Batay Din in the U.S.A., Israel and most other centres of Jewish life to expedite matters. The Talmud (tractate Yevamot 47b) states its explicitly: ‘We do not postpone the mitzvah’ i.e. of accepting the convert into the Jewish fold. In the days of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler and his son and later in the days of Chief Rabbi Hertz this was the practice in Anglo-Jewry, too, it then being considered to be a mitzvah to do everything possible to prevent Jews being lost to the community. It is notorious that now, however, the London Bet Din consciously engages in strong delaying tactics so that it is rare to find acceptance of converts in less than three years from the time of their first application to the Bet Din. It is not unknown for some to be kept in a state of uncertainty for five or even more years. Moreover, such heavy demands, in terms of strict Orthodox observance, are made on the would-be convert that it is well-nigh impossible for him or her to accept them, demands far in excess of those made on members of the United Synagogue or even of its Hon. Officers. It must be repeated that this intransigence is virtually unknown elsewhere in the Jewish world even among the most Orthodox communities. Most tragic of all, when a Jewish couple adopt a child and wish to have the child converted by a London Bet Din, the latter does not only require a guarantee that the child will be brought up as a Jew (which the Bet Din is, indeed, duty bound to demand) but requires the adopting parents to allow themselves to be treated as original applicants for conversion, so that promises are demanded of them that they, too, will be more observant than 99 per cent of the membership of the United Synagogue. The people involved, victims of this inhuman attitude, generally become so frustrated that in desperation they turn to the Reform or Liberal movements. The trouble here is that, for the present, at least, the Reform Rabbis have dispensed with tevillah. From the Orthodox point of view this means that all Reform conversions are invalid, not because they are Reform conversions but, since the din does consider tevillah to be essential, because they are not conversions at all. If the children of a woman who had been converted by a Reform Rabbi wish to marry in an Orthodox synagogue they are refused. This would not matter so much, perhaps, if the London Bet Din were prepared to arrange forthwith for the position to be regularised by an Orthodox conversion before the wedding ceremony takes place. The London Bet Din, in fact, in all such cases, refuse to consider the matter at all until the wedding arrangements have been postponed indefinitely and the poor young man or woman, brought up from birth as loyal Jews, are treated as original applicants for conversion. Among other things, they are obliged to leave home to live with an ‘observant’ family in Golders Green or Stamford Hill.
Here are one or two cases that have come my way. A Jewish surgeon and his wife adopted a baby girl, bringing her up without informing her that she was not their child and not Jewish. When the girl reached marriageable age they decided to tell her. This was so traumatic an experience that the girl left home and went to Israel where she lived for a year or so in the home of a very observant couple and where she was eventually formally converted to Judaism by the Bet Din of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, now the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. On her return to London, armed with Rabbi Yosef’s certificate, the girl became engaged to be married to a young man whose parents belonged to the United Synagogue. When the wedding was booked, the young lady, in accord with the new procedures adopted by the office of the Chief Rabbi, presented her certificate, whereupon she was informed that the London Bet Din only recognises its own conversions and, if she wished to be married in a synagogue under the authority of the Chief Rabbi, she would have to be re-converted and that this would involve, among other things, her leaving home and the cancellation of the marriage until the Bet Din had accepted her. Naturally the girl was indignant both for the slur cast on her own status and for that cast on the distinguished Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. She came to see me and although her parents had no connection with the New London Synagogue I felt duty bound, purely on humanitarian grounds, to officiate at her wedding in our synagogue.
A Jewish couple adopted a little boy. This boy was sent to a good Jewish school and was a prominent member of the Jewish Study Group Movement. He was told by his adopted parents that his natural mother was Jewish and always looked upon himself as thoroughly Jewish. He met a young lady of a strong Orthodox background and they booked their wedding at a synagogue under the authority of the Chief Rabbi. It should be mentioned that both the young man and his fiancee were so observant that they did not carry a handkerchief on the Sabbath. When the Office of the Chief Rabbi came to register the marriage, it emerged that there was some slight doubt whether, in fact, the boy’s natural mother was Jewish. The young man and his parents were quite prepared to have him undergo a conversion ceremony just to make sure, but the London Bet Din solemnly declared that they could make no exceptions to their ‘normal’ procedure and the young man would be obliged to leave home, postpone the wedding indefinitely and wait until the Bet Din had made him go through his paces. In this particular case, the Chief Rabbi’s Secretary, the Rev. Moshe Davis, got in touch with me unofficially, urging me to do the decent thing and arrange for the young man’s ‘conversion’ and marriage. I agreed, again purely because it seemed right to help, but suggested that Mr. Davis should use his influence to obtain a mikveh for the purpose. Mr. Davis was unable to do this so the young man bravely plunged into the sea in mid-November (according to the din, immersion in the sea is the equivalent of immersion in a mikveh). The young couple were duly married at the New London Synagogue and at the wedding dinner Mr. Davis recited the sheva berachot but in his ‘private’ capacity.
A young woman died leaving a husband and three children. The husband married again, his second wife having a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother. After about three years the second wife decided, having in mind her Jewish father, her own increasing fondness for Judaism and what she considered to be her duty to her step-children, she would apply to the London Bet Din for conversion. She was told that before going any further she would have to see that her step-son, a boy of 16, be taken away from Pollack’s House at Clifton College because it was not sufficiently kosher. Despite her protestations that the boy’s Jewish status was not in doubt, she was informed categorically that this was one of the demands made on her before the Bet Din would even begin to consider her case. It should be noted that here the motive was not for the purpose of matrimony. The couple had been happily married for over three years. There can be no doubt at all that the majority of Orthodox Rabbis in the Jewish world would consider such a case to be one of sincere acceptance of Judaism.
The daughter of a congregant of the New London Synagogue fell in love with a non-Jewish young man. For over a year this young man, of high intelligence, came regularly to our services and eventually applied to me for conversion. He was duly circumcised, no small matter for an adult, and attended the mikveh. He took a Jewish name and was duly married in the synagogue. The couple are both devoted to the synagogue and to Judaism generally. Recently a little boy was born to them. A mohel was recommended by a doctor friend. When the mohel came to make the arrangements for the brit, his first query was whether the father or mother of the child were converts to Judaism. He was told that the mother was born a Jewess, so that, in any event, the status of the infant was unaffected, but that the father had been converted by me. On learning this the mohel declared that he had been given instructions by the London Bet Din not to officiate where the mother had been converted by any other body than the London Bet Din and that while here it was not the mother’s status that was at all in question he could only officiate if the father of the child would not recite the berachot normally recited by the father of the infant to be circumcised. This monstrous suggestion was vehemently rejected by the whole family. Fortunately a more reasonable mohel was discovered and all was well.
But why go on. It must by now be clear that sincere, innocent people are being victimised and all in the name of a religion which, it is elementary to observe, is based on justice and compassion. The Viennese preacher Adolf Jellinnek once said: ‘Judaism is a wonderful religion. It is a pity that the Jews spoil it’. In our instance it is not the Jews who do the spoiling but the obscurantism of the London Bet Din. I know of no other Bet Din in the world which behaves so stupidly and so blind to justice to say nothing of mercy.
On the occasions when members of our Synagogue apply for their children to be converted this is the procedure I adopt. An ad hoc Bet Din is formed, consisting of Mr. George Rothschild, Mr. Alfred Shields and myself, or, occasionally other people who qualify, and the conversion procedures, as above are carried out according to the din. The chief difficulty we have had to face is that a mikveh is mandatory and we are refused access to any of the London mikvot for this purpose. Fortunately, Rabbi S. Rosenblum, the Rabbi of the Reform Synagogue in Brighton, has access to the Brighton mikveh. Rabbi Rosenblum is an old Yeshiva fellow-student of mine and he is very traditionally minded. We now have the conversions done in Brighton and Rabbi Rosenblum usually participates, coming in as the third member of the Bet Din. A certificate is given to the people concerned stating that the conversion took place on such-and-such a date, duly signed by the three members of the ad hoc Bet Din. A copy is kept in the New London Synagogue archives.
Since all the necessary procedures are followed and everything is done in accordance with the din, there are no grounds whatsoever on which our conversions can be invalidated. Those converted by us in this way are full Jews in every respect. I feel duty bound nonetheless to inform our converts that I cannot give them a guarantee that when their children come to marry in a Synagogue under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi the conversion will not be challenged. The point is, however, that if our conversions are ever challenged it is hard to see on what grounds and if it ever arises that they are we must be prepared to fight for our rights and convictions.
So much for our own members. But as the word gets around that conversions according to the din and the tradition are carried out by the New London Synagogue, hardly a week goes by without a request for conversion from members of the general Orthodox Community. The stock plea is: ‘Please help me. I am not Reform. My background is Orthodox and I want everything to be done in accordance with traditional Judaism’.
The arguments are cogent against the New London Synagogue becoming a kind of clearing-house for conversions. Since our inception we have rightly refused to become in any way sectarian. The problem is not ours but depends squarely for its solution on the Chief Rabbi who cannot abdicate his responsibilities by pretending that he can exercise no effective control on his Bet Din. If we did begin to undertake conversions on a far more general scale I have no doubt that we shall be attacked. I am not afraid of controversy and I do not suppose for one moment that our Hon. Officers and our members are too much bothered by our ‘image’. Certainly this ought not to deflect us from pursuing aims we believe to be just and right. Yet there is a real danger that the result may be the casting of aspersions on the Jewish status of all our members. Even now there is a subtle smear campaign on the part of those who should know better, difficult to refute because it never comes out into the open. All this is to say nothing of the administrative difficulties; of the time, effort and energy that would have to be expended when, in fact, they are needed to further our own aims and to continue to build as successfully in the future as, thank God, we have been able to build in the past thirteen years of our existence as a non-fundamentalist, traditional community.
Yet how can we turn a deaf ear to human beings in distress, forced to suffer where Judaism advocates sympathy and provides the remedy, because the ways of the Torah are ‘ways of pleasantness’? How can we be indifferent to what, not to put too fine a point on it, can only be termed oppression? This is our dilemma. We must now give the matter the most serious thought.