An Immodest Proposal

February 23, 2013
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat T’tzavveh/Shabbat Zakhor/Erev Purim

Generally speaking, the festival of Purim is not meant to be the starting point for delicate discussions concerning Jewish practice and identity. It is a joyous holiday, celebrating Esther and Mordechai’s courage in the face of Haman’s wickedness. This evening, there will be a Purim spiel and hamentaschen, and tomorrow the children’s costume parade and carnival. It is a commandment, after all, to laugh a little harder, lighten up a little, and yes, even have a few drinks. But before tonight's revelry, this morning I want to draw your attention to one of the most provocative and overlooked verses of the entire megillah, a passage that is the source text for one of the longest standing and most contentious spheres of Jewish law – a topic, that, I promise, if you follow what I say today to its conclusion, could plant a seed for a dramatic reconsideration of our assumptions and approach regarding Jewish life and living today.

The verse is Esther Chapter 8:17. The drama has concluded; Haman is dead and Mordechai has gone forth from the presence of the King in royal apparel. The Jews of Shushan enjoyed light and gladness, joy and honor. And then, just as the chapter concludes, the text relates, “And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell on them.”

The key word is mityahadim, “to become Jewish,” and it is the first and actually, only time, the word appears in the Bible – what scholars call a hapax legomenon. But more significant than the rarity of the word is the debate it has generated over the past thousand years on the subject of conversion, specifically on the question of “to what degree do the motivations of a would-be convert validate or invalidate the kashrut of the conversion?” On the one hand, as argued in Tractates Gerim and Yebamot, because the conversion of those Persians seems to have been motivated by fear or some other instrumental reason, those converts, then and now, are not to be accepted as Jews. On the other hand, as other Talmudic texts state, (J.T. Kiddushin 4:1), important as proper motivation may be, no matter what the convert’s reasons, their conversion is accepted as valid ex post facto, and in some texts, even ab initio – the proselyte’s motivation is entirely irrelevant to the ultimate status of his or her conversion.

These questions, picayune as they may appear, are of serious import to the Jewish world. In this day and age, it is simply inconceivable that anyone interested in the Jewish future not have an articulated position on interfaith relationships, conversion and the status of the non-Jewish family member in our Jewish families. I could cite statistics, but I suspect that at this point in Jewish history, it is unnecessary to do so. I imagine that every one of our extended families includes a family member who has converted to Judaism, or one who has never actually converted, but is nevertheless part of our Jewish family. And I suspect that even if you are one of those few individuals who can claim that the inevitability of sociology has yet to penetrate your family, then let me tell you, it is inevitable. It is just a matter of time before a child or grandchild comes home with a non-Jewish partner. As we learned last month from Robert Putnam, never before have Jews been so comfortable, so loved by their gentile neighbors, so engaged in secular society and so committed to universal values. We send our children off to college to aspire to worldly success, immerse themselves in western thought and values and create meaningful relationships with a diverse humanity. And then we act surprised when they come home with a non-Jewish partner? Really?! How could it be otherwise? Education is important, the signals we communicate as parents are critical and there is nothing wrong with raising children to prize endogamy, marrying within the faith. But you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that love is a powerful thing. It is just a matter of time before we hear, as I hear from your children in my office on a regular basis, “I never imagined myself falling in love with a non-Jew, but here I am. Rabbi, what do I do?”

Given this reality – and on the assumption that nobody in this room is about to move to Borough Park or Bnei Brak – it seems to me that the only constructive question to ask is one of policy, namely, “So what do we do about it?” On this front, for better and for worse, let me offer a back-of-the-napkin sketch of what is going on, stated or implied. Setting aside the fiasco called the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the Orthodox have taken a prohibitive stance against intermarriage, set a high bar for conversions independent of the motivating factors, and at least explicitly, not welcomed the non-Jewish family member into the Jewish family. The Reform movement, at the opposite end, declared in 1983 that if a child is born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, as long as the home is Jewish, the child is to be considered Jewish. And while some of my Reform colleagues do not perform intermarriages, the unintended consequence of this patrilineal resolution, as you can imagine, is dis-incentivizing the act of conversion altogether. After all, if a rabbi will marry you and the kids are Jewish anyway, why go through the whole rigmarole at all? As for us Conservative Jews, we are – not surprisingly – somewhere in the middle. We preach endogamy. Neither I, nor any clergy of Park Avenue Synagogue, will officiate at an interfaith wedding. Under Rabbi Rein’s leadership we have an active conversion program in which the non-Jewish partner in a couple must complete a year of study before being eligible for conversion and a Jewish wedding. But, should an interfaith family seek to get involved in synagogue life, with very few exceptions we actively engage the non-Jewish partner. In other words, while children of this congregation who marry a non-Jewish partner are not served by me or my colleagues through the wedding processional, from the wedding recessional onwards they are encouraged to connect to the Jewish community.

While I have my thoughts on the policies of my co-religionists in Reform and Orthodoxy, for the moment, I will limit my opinions to my immediate circle of concern – this community. Simply put, I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating. The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple. Rabbis are extended a terribly small window to connect to a couple planning to build a home, a window that needs to be widened, not narrowed. Moreover, by reaching out to the intermarried couple the moment after they are married, are we not, as did our Reform colleagues years ago, just playing with the goal posts in a manner that will ultimately yield more interfaith marriages and fewer conversions? As ostrich-like as my Orthodox colleagues may be, at least I understand the clarity of their position: treif is treif, and the day after the wedding, it is still treif. But I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.

The most significant reason I don’t like our policy is that it doesn’t make sense in my gut. When I decided to join a gym, the membership guy did not tell me to go exercise, get in shape and then come back and he would let me join. Right there, that day, there was a limited time special on gym membership, a special that mysteriously was still there the next day. But that is the very point! If someone is willing to join – let’s get you through the door! Come as you are, we’ll work with you, we’ll take you through the process! Probably the most famous narrative about conversion in the Talmud is the story of the would-be-convert who approaches first Shammai and then Hillel, asking to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai hits him with a stick – effectively telling him to get lost. Hillel, famously, converts him right away, telling him “That which is hateful to you, do not do your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” The order of events is often missed, but it is instructive for us today. First Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches. First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it all about.

This morning, I want to offer an immodest proposal, what I believe politicians call a “trial balloon.” Let me state, very clearly, that there is absolutely no change in policy taking place today. But I do want to hear your thoughts on a transformation I am mulling over. What would happen, I wonder, if Conservative rabbis were to announce: “If you are seeking to convert to Judaism, then God bless, come meet with me for an initial intake and on the first of every month, the rabbis of the community will have blocked off time to oversee ritual conversion. We will, as the Talmud teaches, instruct you on some of the minor and major commandments, and we will accept you immediately as a Jew. We offer a year-round course in which you are automatically signed up in which you will learn about the history, rituals and beliefs of our people. Join us, we want you! Once you’re in, like the School of Hillel, we will walk you through what it means to be a Jew.

It is an approach that I readily admit is not without flaws. But it is an approach that is muscular in both its stringencies and its embrace. It affirms, without apologies, the value of marrying a Jew and creating a Jewish home, but it does so in a way that welcomes the would-be Jew instantly and warmly. It is no different from when the children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai and declared na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” First, they entered the covenant and then they learned of its contents. Are there any guarantees that the newly minted Jew will follow up as urged? No. But there were no guarantees for Hillel either. Quite frankly, given the option of being misled by would-be Jews lacking integrity, or running the risk of losing potential Jewish households, I would choose the former over the latter any day of the week. I am in the business, we are in the business, of creating Jewish homes. To paraphrase a fear expressed by the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yonaton Uziel, with respect to children of interfaith marriages: “…I fear that…by refusing to accept their parents for conversion, we will be summoned to answer [before God] and it will be said about us: ‘nor have you brought back the strayed, nor have you sought that which was lost.’” (Cited in Sagi and Zohar, Transforming Identity, 61.)

My arguments thus far have been from the heart and from the field, not from halakhah. I know that one of the strongest objections to my proposal is the not-insignificant matter of whether these prospective Jews will be Jewish in anything but name. As Milton Berle once quipped, when a person converts to Judaism, they are granted five thousand years of retroactive persecution. Judaism is a lot more than a dip in the mikveh. It is fair to ask if Judaism as whole is not cheapened by making conversion so easy. As scholars Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar point out in their book on the subject, there is, to be sure, a school of thought throughout the legal literature that makes the validity of a conversion contingent on whether the convert continues to live an observant Jewish life. But Sagi and Zohar also demonstrate that there exists another school of thought, just as ancient and authoritative, that understands conversion to reflect an unconditional transformation of identity, meaning once you convert, you are Jewish for life, whether or not you conform to Jewish religious behavior. To state the obvious, that is exactly the same principle that applies to anyone born Jewish. It is a complicated issue that we would need to study thoroughly in all its ramifications before actually making a change, but it strikes me as problematic verging on hypocritical to ask or expect converts to live according to a lifestyle that I do not demand of the rest of synagogue membership.

There are many reasons why this trial balloon may be a great idea and probably an equal number of reasons why it may be a bad one. But let me give you one final thought on conversion in the context of interfaith relationships. I have been overseeing conversions for some fifteen years. If I had to identify the strongest predictor for a successfully integrated Jewish identity, it would have nothing to do with the length of the program, the auspices under which it occurs or whether the conversion happens at the front or back end of the process. It actually has nothing to do with the non-Jewish partner at all. You know what is the strongest predictor for a successful conversion? The Jewish partner. If the Jewish partner takes Judaism seriously and joyfully, and sustains that feeling throughout the partner’s conversion process and beyond the mikveh, the odds of their creating a Jewish home are high. If, on the other hand, the conversion is done to alleviate intergenerational guilt – one of many punchlist items on the way to the huppah along with booking the caterer and band – then the Jewish character of the future household will be an extension of that sentiment. Neither you nor I can control who our children fall in love with – but we can live our lives in such a way that it would be inconceivable to them to live their lives in a way that isn’t thoroughly Jewish.

I began with one verse from the book of Esther – and I will conclude with another. One rabbinic reading suggests that at Sinai, God held the mountain over the people and threatened that if they did not accept the covenant, God would drop the mountain on them. In that case, the people’s acceptance could be construed in retrospect as coerced, which according to Jewish law could potentially render the covenant invalid. But in the time of Purim, as stated in the book of Esther, kiy’mu v’kiblu ha-yehudim, “the Jews affirmed and accepted.” (Esther 9:17) In other words, at that point, centuries after Mount Sinai, Israel accepted the covenant freely and of their own volition, thus making it binding on generations to come to this very day.

Centuries later, we are living neither in the era of Sinai nor in the time of Esther, but in a new age, filled with its particular challenges and opportunities. We must be sensitive to our moment, all the while being respectful to the heritage we have received. We must stretch our tradition to be as inclusive as possible, but never so far that it comes unhitched from its moorings. Most of all, we must construct the language and strategy whereby more and more homes will “affirm and accept,” “do and listen,” thus fulfilling our mission to build a Jewish future whose strength in numbers and substance reflects and realizes our very highest hopes and dreams.