Meeting originally held on 27 July 1989 at The Montagu Centre.
THE ISRAEL DIASPORA TRUST WORKING PARTY ON JEWISH STATUS
27 July 1989
Present: Judge Israel Finestein QC, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, Dr Lionel Kopelowitz, Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, Jeremy Schonfield, Rabbi Dr Nisson Shulman
Judge Finestein invited the group to consider the nature of current disputes on conversion, marriage and divorce, whose effects threaten to divide the Jewish people into two or even three “peoples”. These disputes have an alienating influence on ordinary people who expect their spiritual leaders to set an example of maturity, proportion and a sober conduct of public debate.
Approaches to possible solutions have been proposed by David Hartman in Israel and Irving Greenberg in America, among others. They are in themselves controversial. He reminded the group that the IDT exists in order to try to bring together proponents of conflicting views, and hoped that the discussion could examine the consequences of the disputes and the impact of the different current practices, explore the roots of divergences, search for any common ground and consider whether and how the disputes can be contained.
Rabbi Dr Jacobs recalled a meeting in London 20 years ago convened by the Bnai Brith, attended among others by Fred Worms, Rabbi Rayner, Rabbi Dr Gaon and Rabbi Dr Jakobovitz to discuss the conversion issue. The Chief Rabbi had recalled the Berlin Einheitsgemeinde. He declined Rabbi Rayner’s proposal for recognition and the coexistence of a diversity of procedures and requirements for conversions. The prohibiting of conversions for purposes of marriage goes against Tosephot, said Dr Jacobs, and yet the Talmud (Yebamoth 47b) urges all speed in completing conversions. The extended period of study required in some instances by the Beth Din is ironically a Reform innovation, and contravenes a Talmudic ban on teaching Torah to non-Jews. In view of the sources, he was in favour of recognizing all conversions in which the desire to convert had been expressed and immersion had taken place. He recalled that it used to be thought a Mitzvah to convert somebody.
Rabbi Dr Shulman, who represented the Chief Rabbi, pointed out that the Talmud endows each Beth Din with autonomous authority, and that Maimonides requires ‘some’ but not ‘too many’ impediments. In London, as elsewhere, candidates are treated individually, according to their degree of sincerity and without standardization of approach. If a mixed couple finds it too difficult to conform to the Beth Din’s standards, they could not be prevented from living together. He cited the Chief Rabbi’s comparison with naturalization.
Rabbi Dr. Jacobs protested that this attitude is inhumane and shortsighted, drives away the Jewish partners and damages the goodwill of the other. Jewish parents are also deeply hurt by their failure to have Jewish grandchildren. The London Beth Din is the strictest in the world, although 60 years ago it was much like others today. He suggested returning to the principle that conversions be based on the expression of desire.
Dr. Kopelowitz argued that Reform conversions require considerable work and commitment from candidates, but are clearly defined in terms of time. The Beth Din can delay the completion almost indefinitely, so many prefer to avoid it altogether.
Rabbi Dr. Shulman pointed out that a fixed curriculum and timescale fails to take account of individual needs. The period of study is necessary to enable the convert to accept both the ‘yoke of heaven’ and the ‘yoke of commandments’.
Rabbi Dr Jacobs continued to question the Beth Din’s approach, arguing that a court of three rabbis is not necessary for a conversion, that the exact status of a modern rabbi, and therefore of a Beth Din, is unclear, and that the rabbinic sources suggest quite a different approach. For instance, there is no Talmudic suggestion that a desire to marry a Jew is an improper motive for conversion. Indeed, the absence of such a motive would arouse his suspicion. Candidates should be informed of Jewish law, and the penalties for breaking it, perhaps analogous to the officers of the United Synagogue, who until very recently were far less observant than converts are expected to be. He hoped that the next Chief Rabbi would appoint a Beth Din that will function more as did Hertz’s in the 1930s. It is vital, he argued, to focus on the humanitarian issues raised by the desire of parents to see their Jewishness passed on, and on the community’s need to retain the allegiance of young couples.
Judge Finestein suggested that the change in approach might be traced to an increasing anxiety over the advance of secularization in Jewish life and communal erosion. The rate of intermarriage continues to grow. Some see such factors as imposing serious vulnerability upon the community, threatening the viability of sections thereof. He was aware that Professor Goldscheider and others, especially in America, see converts as valued additions to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Dr Shulman argued that intermarriage is essentially undesirable, and felt that the need to discourage it outweighed the potential benefits of making it easier. He also pointed out the danger to Jewish unity posed by Rabbi Schindler’s defence of patrilinear descent.
Dr Kopelowitz remarked that, irrespective of its desirability, intermarriage is a direct and natural side effect of living in a free society, and that attention must be paid to the humanitarian issues.
Rabbi Dr Jacobs challenged the Beth Din’s policy of checking Ketubot, as investigations inevitably uncover cases of Mamzeruth, and this is prohibited by the Shulchan Aruch. Adoptions are similarly made extremely difficult (as the Chief Rabbi has conceded). Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz ruled against investigations 20 years ago, but the assumption still survives that Jewish status must be proven, and cannot be assumed.
Rabbi Gryn regretted the number of times he has been asked to restore the confidence of people harshly rejected by the Beth Din. He mentioned the falling birthrate as a contributor to communal decline, besides intermarriage. But he felt that disillusion is the greatest cause of outflow, and that people are repelled by the implied message that the harsher, less caring and more disruptive the Judaism, the ‘better’ it is. The preparedness to accept inconvenience is not necessarily a relevant indication of commitment to Judaism.
Rabbi Dr. Jacobs pointed out that commitment is halachically irrelevant, and that a correctly performed conversion is considered irrevocable, even if the convert returns to his original faith.
Rabbi Dr Shulman pointed out that the formal conversions described in the Talmud were intended for all-Jewish societies, and that Israel is the nearest approximation to this today. The Jewish setting is almost completely lacking elsewhere, and if, for instance, the 80 per cent intermarriage rate at one US university produced a flood of converts, the nature of the Judaism being transmitted would be seriously compromised.
Rabbi Gryn stated that cultural transmission, through shared assumptions and memories, was critical, and that his emphasis would lie in that direction rather than in the concern for meticulous observance, that in many cases the Jewish partners do not follow.
Judge Finestein summed up by reflecting on the change in attitudes since Claude Montefiore could remain an honorary officer of the Jewish Religious Education Board, of which Rabbi Dr Hertz was the Head, and Israel Abrahams could remain a tutor at Jews’ College. Today’s open antagonisms produce serious disaffection, especially in younger people. He thought that a series of wide-ranging discussions, held at regular intervals over the next few years, might help to overcome the fortress-like attitudes prevalent in Anglo- Jewry. The IDT could usefully invite a Dayan of the London Beth Din to take part in a discussion of some of the issues raised at this meeting, perhaps at one of the fuller social events. The privacy offered by the IDT would avoid open controversy, while encouraging mutually respectful attitudes. It is important to bear in mind that this must be a two-way process. Deeply held principles are involved.
Dr Kopelowitz proposed that the confidence of young people would be strengthened if joint chaplaincies were set up in universities, instead of the present three separate elements. Forces chaplains regularly covered the followers of other religions.
Rabbi Dr Levy added that there is no Jewish chaplain in Oxford, although there are many Christian ones.