Sunday, January 16, 2022

Conversion: Joining a Religion or Joining a Nation? Rav Goren versus most rabbinical authorities

The key question lies in defining the essence of conversion. Is it about adopting a new religion, or joining a new nation? If the former, it is perfectly natural to require a convert to observe the precepts of religion as a precondition for acceptance as a Jew. This was the opinion, for example, of Saadiah Gaon in the tenth century. He held that “our nation is a nation only by virtue of its religious laws”: Religion is the core component of the national identity. But there is also a halakhic tradition that Jewishness is a “people,” a primordial natural entity, and that a person is obligated to observe Jewish precepts only after joining the people. This is hinted at in the declaration by Ruth the Moabite, the paradigmatic convert whose descendants include King David and the messiah, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God”: First you join the Jewish people, and only after doing so—do you take on a religious commitment. 

The debate continues to the present day. The ultra-Orthodox and most rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement hold to the stringent approach, making it difficult to realize the potential for conversion in Israel. On the other hand, a significant group of rabbis (including three who served as Israel’s Chief Rabbi—Bakshi-Doron, Goren, and Uziel) held the view that conversion means joining the Jewish people, and that observance of the Jewish precepts is not a precondition for conversion. The rabbinic courts in Israel should consider adopting this more lenient stance.


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