Much has been written about conversion matters recently and too much of that has focused on the wrong issue – the virtues and vices of centralized or decentralized rabbinical courts. Not enough attention has been given to the much more important systemic issues: standards of observance for conversion.
Three competing standards are commonly presented within modern Jewish law authorities in America.
The first is that full observance is expected. The second is that important observance is expected, and the third is that woefully incomplete observance is not a barrier to a valid Orthodox conversion.
The first view only converts people to Judaism when their conduct is completely consistent with the Orthodox halachic tradition. This view practically denies that conversion is a valuable solution to the intermarriage problem, since few who would consider an intermarriage are seriously interested in being Orthodox.
The second demands social membership within the Orthodox community but would include converts who are incomplete in their observance, so long as they observe the important mitzvot and are generally halachic in lifestyle. This approach increases somewhat – but not enormously — the pool of people who would consider conversion instead of intermarriage.
The third group converts people who profess to observe even though they do not expect to actually observe; this view established a mechanism that allows conversion to serve as a solution to the intermarriage problem according to halacha.
Another view, endorsed by the eminent posek [religious decisor] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein but not accepted by all, allows for conversion of children even if their mother is not Jewish, provided the children attend Orthodox communal day school and even if they are not likely to grow up to be observant. This view, raised by Rabbi Feinstein in the course of a discussion of the problems associated with non-Jewish children in Jewish day schools, explicitly seeks to craft a solution to the problem of intermarriage that is acceptable to the halachic community. It is an important approach that is underused in America, I suspect.
Of course, the centralization controversy and the standards controversy are somewhat inter-related. A fully centralized system must have a uniform standard for acceptance and allows much less individualization both by the local rabbi and the local rabbinical court. On the other hand, a decentralized system tends to have more flexible standards with a rabbinical court made up of local communal rabbis who self-validate and who find a level of observance for the convert that reflects the needs of the local community. This approach is more ad hoc and less consistent from case to case.
Of course, it is possible to construct a national and uniform conversion network that has low standards: my impression is that conversion in the Israeli Army is such. But on closer observation, one sees that such programs are just as controversial as non-centralized conversion programs and not any more accepted than decentralized systems with similar lower standards. This indicates to me that standards is the issue and centralization is just the tool.
To give an American analogy that might help some of us: most of us actually do not care a wit about “states rights” as a true cause – rather, we support it when it favors an outcome that we like, and we dismiss it when it produces an outcome we do not like. It is a tool and not a value. I suspect that centralization of conversion is the same way: Right now, the group that wants higher standards supports centralization as a tool to achieve higher standards, and the group that wants lower standards supports decentralization as a way to reach the result they prefer. No one really cares about the apparent issue.
The real issue is standards for conversion and the real question – a weighty one of Jewish law, for sure – is what standard of observance should be expected for converts.
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde is a law professor at Emory University School of Law and the projects Director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He is the author of the forthcoming "Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts."