Originally published 5/22/08.
As anyone who has studied the laws of conversion knows, the topic is most complicated. It is understandable why there are many different understandings of the theory behind these laws and, as such, the many disagreements within Halacha in regard to halacha l'ma'aseh. The present "crisis" in Israel in regard to conversion, that is halachic conversion, based on differing opinions, i.e. machloket, is thus most distressing.
The issue is not gerut per se. The issue is how we respond to legitimate machloket in Halacha and the proper response to a psak with which one may disagree or, more correctly in this case, since gerut, conversion, is a decision of a beis din, to a din Torah of another beis din with which one may disagree. This is its own area of the Halacha and needs to be further elucidated. Suffice it to say, in general terms, that a decision of a beis din has its own weight and demands its one respect. It is this issue that really is the issue, not gerut.
After saying all this, though, and recognizing that anyone who has studied the laws of conversion and the laws regarding the authority of beis din must recognize all this, a need does emerge to truly explain what is going on in this matter of conversion. Beyond the question of the authority of a beis din in general, in the case of conversion there actually seems to be great leeway given to a beis din, specifically, at least, in regard to the post facto acceptance of a beis din's decision. So the question, even more so, is what is really going on?
Conversion ultimately would seems to be a policy decision of a beis din. It is the beis din who converts someone and while there are some technical demands that are made upon a potential convert, some of which if not met does prevent a beis din from converting someone even if the beis din wants to convert this person, it is really the beis din that makes the decision of whether it wants to convert a person or not. This is, ultimately, a policy decision as it reflects the theory of a beis din on how to respond to the various reasons why someone may wish to convert, especially in this modern world. I believe that this is really the point of essential difference in how people are responding to the present conversion situation.
The question is the value of non-Halachic Jewishness. Someone wishes to become a Jew, truly identifying with the Jewish People and, in the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, truly committed to the fate of the Jewish People --- but this person does not wish to follow Halacha. His or her understanding of the essence of the spirit of our people is vastly different than the Halacha envisions, not based on Torah mi Sinai, which is, sadly, the prevalent reality of our people in general. The question is not simply how we view this person but how we view this person's desire and and connection to the "group" known as Bnei Yisrael on the whole. Within the halachic world there is a major disagreement on this issue. There are those who give no value to any non-halachic presentation of Jewishness and there are those who see in it some value albeit wishing for the eventual observance of Torah by all Jews.
How we respond to the issue of conversion, where halachic conversion is also the method by which someone joins the general Jewish "group" (a situation that we also seem to want) is all part of the issue. If we give no value to colloquial Jewishness then we may be strict in our standards of conversion and demand only a full commitment to the observance of Torah from a potential convert. If, though, we see some value in colloquial Jewishness and feel that, as such, a method of conversion that will serve the general Jewish world is necessary as well, then we may find reasons to be more lenient in our response to conversion.
I am actually torn in regard to this issue. Should we maintain relaxed standards on halachic conversion and thereby ensure that most people converting will turn to Orthodoxy in order to convert which will lessen the questions on Jewish identity into the future? Or should we, for the sake of Torah observance, maintain strict standards, thereby effectively sending people to Conservative and Reform rabbis for conversion and raising the potential for an identity crisis within our people in the future? The answer to that question does depend on how one understands the halachic standards of conversion itself but it, also, has much to do with this policy issue. As mentioned, I am really torn.
Rabbi Ben Hecht