Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion
By Rabbi Marc D. Angel
In recent decades, few issues on the national agenda have proven more contentious, or more durable, than that of conversion to Judaism.
From the halls of the Chief Rabbinate to the chambers of the Supreme Court, the question of how our society should relate to those who choose to tie their fate with the people of Israel continues to garner headlines.
Sometimes it bubbles to the fore of public discourse in the form of secular vs. Orthodox, and on other occasions it sparks debate among the various political parties in the Knesset. But despite the periodic attention that it receives, the issue of conversion, with all its complexity and nuance, remains largely misunderstood by many Jews.
And that is precisely why Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion, by Rabbi Marc D. Angel, could not be more timely or more relevant.
In this short and lucid text, Angel tackles the issue head-on with a masterful mix of halachic authority, historical context and human compassion. Drawing on his decades of service in the rabbinate, he makes the case for a more open and more welcoming approach to those who wish to convert.
A past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Angel has written and edited 23 books on a variety of Jewish subjects, and the formidable scope and breadth of his knowledge quickly become evident.
He argues quite convincingly that the present unease that many Jews feel toward the issue of conversion is a relatively recent phenomenon, with its roots primarily in the 19th century. Indeed, Angel marshals an impressive array of historical evidence and religious texts to assert that potential converts who show a sincere interest in joining the Jewish people and abiding by Halacha should be encouraged to do so and welcomed into our midst.
He cites, for instance, a number of eye-opening responsa from Rabbi Benzion Uziel, who served as Sephardi chief rabbi from 1939 to 1953, to demonstrate that there is room in Halacha for a more inclusive approach.
In 1943, Uziel received an inquiry from the chief rabbi of Istanbul regarding the validity of conversions performed for the sake of marriage. While some authorities might otherwise prohibit such cases, Uziel argued strongly in favor of converting the non-Jewish partner.
"Rabbi Uziel considered such conversions not only to be permissible," notes Angel, "but actually to be morally required."
Since the chief rabbi believed intermarriage to be a particularly grievous transgression, he felt that conversion would spare the Jewish partner from violating this prohibition. He also felt that it would ensure the Jewishness of the children born to such a couple. "Considering the alternatives of conversion or intermarriage, Rabbi Uziel ruled in favor of conversion," Angel notes.
His purpose in the book is not to assail the more stringent approach that has taken hold over much of the rabbinic establishment, but rather to uphold and defend the validity of the more lenient view. "While rabbis are free to follow the restrictive view if they think it the most correct and appropriate, they are also free to follow more inclusive views if they deem them most correct and appropriate," he says.
But this is far more than just a work of polemics. As senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York's historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue that was founded in 1654, Angel also draws on his rabbinical experience to provide an eye-opening glimpse into what motivates those who undergo conversion.
"The goal of this book," he writes, "is to present a meaningful, viable halakhic approach to conversion. To accomplish this, we must look into the halakhic sources; but we must also look into the eyes and hearts and minds of those who are remarkable enough to want to join the Jewish people."
And he does just that, weaving personal accounts and stories by converts throughout the text, which not only provide the reader with inspiration, but with context too. These include a Dutch Calvinist, a Muslim woman and a Hispanic-American, all of whom found their way to Torah and to the Jewish people.
Make no mistake - Angel's fidelity to Halacha is absolute. But he does not shy away from criticizing his fellow Orthodox rabbis. "Instead of rising to the challenge of the non-Orthodox movements, Orthodoxy as a whole seems content to retreat to its own inner world," he says. "At a time when authoritative Orthodox voices are sorely needed to reach out to potential converts, the Orthodox community generally prefers to maintain the historic posture of discouraging them."
This book is refreshing, courageous and thought-provoking. At a time of hardening attitudes, Angel has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging us all to rethink some of the conventional wisdom that many of us take for granted when it comes to the issue of conversion.
As a result, he has done the Jewish people, and those who would join it, a great service indeed.