Why are there so few converts among Russian immigrants? Some say that it is due to the converts themselves, who come from an atheist society and do not see why they need to be halachically Jewish, especially since so many Israelis are non-observant . Others, like this writer, a former MK who left the Shas party, claim that the requirements, the process, the judges and the Chief Rabbinate are to blame.
The Israeli Rabbinate has undergone significant internal changes over the last 35 years. These changes have had practical halachic repercussions way beyond the borders of the State of Israel and have influenced the lives of Orthodox Jewish congregations worldwide.
Israel's Chief Rabbinate, established by Religious Zionism's iconic leader and first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook and backed by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Benzion Uziel, was created as a Zionist, moderate and authoritative source of inspiration for the entire Israeli public and Jewish world, but has turned into an essentially non-Zionist Rabbinate with a hareidi worldview. The formation of the Shas party added an element of politicization to the Chief Rabbinate and led to the Sephardi public's adopting extremist Lithuanian hareidi stringencies, especially with regard to conversion. While this was happening, much of the religious Zionist world became Hareidi-Zionist (known in Israel by the acronym chardal) as well, in full agreement with the hareidi way of looking at conversion.
The result? Israel's population is now caught in a stranglehold, and is unable to solve a steadily growing problem.
Intermarriage, once a Diaspora problem, has become a pressing issue within the Land of Israel due to the Law of Return and the waves of aliyah that allowed the arrival of hundreds of thousands whose fathers or grandfather were Jewish, but who themselves are not halachically Jewish. They now live in Israel, have Jewish family names, serve in the IDF, study in the state's educational system – and it is impossible to identify them because they act like every other Israeli. Being Israeli, however, does not make them Jewish and as they grow into adulthood, intermarriage will become an urgent and terrible problem.
Rabbinic Court policy on conversion in Israel expects the convert to become an observant Jew immediately – a hareidi observant Jew, that is. In practice, this is nothing short of impossible. Our Sages understood the heart of the convert and although they said "Converts are difficult for Israel," that did not prevent Torah scholars from accepting converts throughout Jewish history, even when they knew that the conversion was not always for the sake of Heaven.
There are multiple considerations guiding Rabbinic Judges (Dayanim) when they approach a specific conversion, with the final decision solely in the hands of the court, according to Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the seminal Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch). Later rabbis adopted his view that "Everything is [decided] according to the way the court sees it (Yoreh Deah 268)."
An integral component of the conversion process is "accepting mitzvah observance." Those who seek stringencies believe that in order to qualify as having "accepted mitzvahs," the convert must immediately show that he is intensely G-d fearing and highly observant. However, a look at the responsa literature on the subject, makes it obvious that the greatest halachic decisors did not see it that way. The accepted interpretation of that expression was sincere agreement and willingness on the convert's part to turn into a Jew, entering the world of mitzvah observance and tradition by keeping a significant number of commandments and practices. Those include buying only from a kosher butcher, keeping basic dietary laws at home, refraining from work on the Sabbath, lighting Sabbath candles and reciting the Kiddush, placing mezuzahs on the doors at home, fasting on Yom Kippur, not eating hametz on Passover, keeping the Jewish holidays, trying to keep the laws of family purity, all the while allowing true faith in the G-d of Israel and its Torah to embrace his entire life. There must be an honest and easily discernible change in the convert's life after conversion, in comparison to his prior life as a non-Jew. That is what was demanded in the past and that was what was left up to the courts to decide.
Those who approach the Israeli conversion courts nowadays are, for the most part, the offspring of Jews – in some way – who wish to legitimize their status. They are known as Zera Yisrael, people with Jewish roots, and it is a mitzvah to help them return to their origins, as halachic arbiters have written. Outside of Israel, there are also many potential converts who have Jewish antecedents, without doubt hundreds of thousands and possibly millions.
What do we have to do? Return to the conversion policy that was the norm in the past, the one held by Rabbi Uziel and the rabbis of his generation, and put aside the stringent policy. Stringency in conversion today is equivalent to facilitating assimilation. The Jewish people cannot allow itself the luxury of intermarriage and assimilation.
When we ignore the issue of returning people with Jewish roots to our fold, we commit the sin the Prophet Ezekiel had in mind when he cried out "You have failed to return the abandoned and have not searched for the lost (Ezekiel, chap. 34)."
Unfortunately, all that has been accomplished in the last three decades under the aegis of most of the stringent Orthodox Rabbinic Courts, is to push away many who would otherwise apply for conversion, while increasing assimilation and distorting the Torah.
May the dry bones of our nation be brought back to life, may a new spirit motivate us to work to bring back our lost sons to the Jewish people.
Former MK Rabbi Amsalem is head of the Am Shalem Movement and of the Keter Chaim Halachic Institute in Jerusalem, Rabbi Emeritus of the Heichal HaNes Sephardic congregation of Geneva, and author of the book "Scions of Israel" on conversion. He left the Shas party, claiming that it did not reflect authentic Sephardi tradition when it came to working, joining the IDF and conversion.