Bintel Blog

The Rabbis Said Choose: You Can Be an Olympian or a Jew — But Not Both

By Daniel Treiman

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Benjamin Ish-Shalom, head of Israel’s Joint Conversion Institute, recently gave an interview to The Jewish Week that should makes one’s blood boil.

Ish-Shalom’s institute is the product of a collaboration between different streams of Judaism that has worked to help facilitate the conversion of the large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered to be Jews under halacha because their mothers aren’t Jewish.

Unfortunately, even though the Joint Conversion Institute has backing from Orthodox rabbis, its students have had a hard time passing muster with the official Orthodox rabbinic courts. The courts’ obstructionism has been so great that Ish-Shalom (who is himself Orthodox) is threatening to set up independent conversion courts. Ish-Shalom says that the existing courts often make demands on converts that have no basis in Jewish law.

Here’s a particularly maddening bit from Ish-Shalom about the behavior of the rabbinic courts:

Many of these obstacles are unrelated to underlying halachic demands. It’s a question of approach, of rabbinic policy. They are not willing to convert a woman who wears trousers. They want her to dress like a religious Orthodox woman. I know of a policewoman, who has to wear a uniform. They recommended that she switch jobs. There was another woman who represented the State of Israel at the Olympics. They demanded that she leave the sport and switch to another occupation. She did it because she wanted to be converted. But this is not a halachic demand.

Read the rest of the interview, in which Ish-Shalom also says that the rabbinic courts will refuse to convert candidates who live on secular kibbutzim.



Comments
Jennifer Sun. Dec 30, 2007

What makes my blood boil is that these holier-than-thou rabbis - who are getting paid per meeting rather than per month, according to this interview - are making it so difficult for eager converts to be accepted. I think it's wrong for anyone who has accepted the responsibilities of Judaism to be treated like a lower life form. Sounds like the Haredi rabbis need to be cut down a notch, if not completely dismissed. Their attitude is nothing but snobbishness, combined with a denial of how the real world works today. Women wearing trousers? Who gives a rip? At least their bodies are covered, right?

Caute Mon. Dec 31, 2007

I don't think the Ish Shalom interview compares to the Ha'aretz editorial cited in a previous Bintel Blog entry. The latter uses rhetoric in a controlled way in order to obtain a political objective. The former betrays hints of the anger and hostility of someone who has yet to overcome his belief in the authority of the rabbis. It isn't only pious people who believe that their authority is as real as God's.

Eric Mon. Dec 31, 2007

Three cheers for the Rabbis. They have a standard they must uphold and protect, regardless of what the public at large wants. They have every right, and indeed, an obligation, to be very strict, very exacting and extremely careful about who they let in. Their responsibility is to protect what has been entrusted to them, not to make other people's lives easier. Evidently Mr Ish-Shalom is unhappy because the courts won't convert people who live on secular kibbutzim. Well, the Rabbis are right. A secular kibbutz is the antithesis of Jewish religious belief and is not a proper environment for someone who converts. The chances of such a person either acting from insincere motive or quickly backsliding owing to their non-religious environment and expectations are very high.

Jennifer Tue. Jan 1, 2008

Eric, I disagree with your view. To make Judaism in Israel something akin to a "private club" is not what it's supposed to be about. Judaism has welcomed converts throughout most of our history; it's only more recently that such standards were applied. Remember, Ruth simply declared she would follow; no formal process, training or ceremony was needed. There were no rabbis to decide she wouldn't be "Jewish enough." I see the current situation as being similar to some Southern US towns, where a "good-old-boy" network pretty much runs the show, & you're either with 'em or against 'em. Having a handful of rabbis deciding who is Jewish enough to be accepted as Jewish is repulsive to me, & contrary to everything I believe Judaism is about. Judaism isn't a clique, it's a belief system which should welcome everyone willing to accept it.

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