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Who Says You're a Jew?

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I am a convert to Judaism under the Reform umbrella, then the Orthodox one. It is well-known as I wrote a book about it.

And while I am neither a rabbi nor an expert in halacha (Jewish law), I am obviously a very proud Jew, deeply involved in the Canadian Jewish community. I live and breathe Judaism in my daily life. I am fully committed to the religion and peoplehood of Judaism, for I chose to become a member of this covenant and nation -- just as did Ruth thousands of years before.

I can't help but say that I now find myself disheartened by the direction that the conversion debate is unfolding in Israel and the Diaspora.

This comes at a time when church pews and Buddhist temples are filling with names like Goldberg, Cohen, or Azoulay. Here in Canada, Jews-by-birth gush in mainstream newspapers of their pride in abandoning all Jewish holidays, replaced delightfully with a Christmas tree.

Scores more who haven't assimilated by decision are doing so by drift. Jews-by-birth increasingly see Judaism as the antiquated, narrow religion of their uneducated forefathers, with no relevance for today's world of post-religious, universal values.

This is not to say that conversion is the solution to assimilation and without its own challenges, or that all converts are genuine. But multitudes of converts bring passion, knowledge, talent and steadfast commitment to a people that need more of these traits, not less.

We need an approach to conversion that isn't devoted to more barriers, the invention of ever more stringent conditions, and the division of the Jewish people into streams. We need to end the emphasis on the adjective (Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox) and return it to the noun (Jew). And we need a consensus among k'lal Yisrael that stems from, rather than negates, halacha. In fact, we would argue that the halachic requirements of the Shulchan Arukh (the most authoritative legal code of Judaism), as well as the convert's sincerity, should be decisive factors in the process. But the focus needs to be on Jewish law, rather than streams of Judaism.

Without question, this will require every denomination to set aside its own narrow interest in an effort to find a common solution -- if for no other reason than the dire consequences of a dysfunctional and fragmented approach to conversion has an impact upon all of us. Intermarriage, assimilation, and the closing of doors to committed Jews-by-choice -- who are said to have been at Sinai with the entire Jewish people -- should concern every Jew and every stream.

While we cannot hope to be, nor should we strive to be, uniform in our views, we have an obligation to be united as one Jewish people. Unity, not uniformity should be our guiding principle. And it should lead the House of Israel to make the issue of conversions one of our highest priorities, removing the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of converts.

I know that there is no easy answer, but this does not relieve rabbinic leaders -- and Israel's political leaders -- of the duty to collaborate, explore, propose and find solutions. As the Israel Defence Forces have demonstrated with conversion programming of soldiers from the Former Soviet Union, there is indeed halachic room for innovation.

The time to act is now. For it makes no sense that Orthodox converts, including those looking to make aliyah (moving to Israel), face the possibility of seeing their fully halachic conversions retroactively annulled.

It makes no sense that young adults looking for a Jewish partner can be forced to turn into genealogical detectives to determine if their chosen is 'Jewish enough.' It makes even less sense that we would make it harder for our young people to marry Jewish at a time when some predictions show that the American Jewish community will shrink by 50 per cent in 50 years because of assimilation.

It makes no sense to have sincere converts, often leaders in their community, feel that their status as Jews is questioned, if not outright denied, by ultra-Orthodox rabbis living in a self-imposed ghetto in B'nei Brak or Mea Shearim.

And it certainly makes no sense to allow the very definition of Jewishness to be held captive by extremist, anti-Zionist rabbis who care nothing for the State of Israel (the centre of Jewish gravity today) and the Jewish people beyond their closed, narrow-minded circles.

I believe -- no, I am convinced -- that there is sufficient collective intelligence in the Jewish people to find a viable, halachic solution to a problem that threatens not only to widen the gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, but to tear the Jewish people apart.