The issue of intermarriage and conversion has most recently been reawakened by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s attempt to take over the full conversion process of the American Orthodox Rabbinate. This difference between American Jewry and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate comes through in the two stories of Shavuot, the stories of choice and coercion.
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai to his chosen people. The holiday however also includes another narrative, that of Ruth the convert, who came from Moab and married Boaz, an established leader of the Jewish people. The conversion-choice story of Ruth balances out what the Talmud describes as “God forcing the Mountain” and ergo the Torah on the Jewish people. Ruth, unlike those at Sinai, chose to be Jewish.
In 1990 the National Jewish Population Survey reported that there was a 52 percent intermarriage rate among Jews. In 2001, those numbers were lowered to 43 percent. Either way, the numbers more than anything else highlight the ascendancy of the choice model in Jewish life. For better or for worse American Jewry sees Judaism not in the obligatory terms of the Sinaitic experience but in the choice model of conversion embodied in the Ruth story.
As if it was not bad enough that Israel has allowed the Chief Rabbinate to dictate who is a Jew thereby preventing the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews–whom they deem fit enough to serve and die in the Israeli army, but unfit to be called up to the Torah–the Chief Rabbinate is now trying to force the American Orthodox Rabbinate to adopt a rigid system that would severely curtail the number of converts to Judaism.
At a time when we should be reaching out and becoming a more welcoming community, the Israeli Rabbinate is doing its best to lift up walls and create barriers between Jews.
Read the Full Debate: Conversion, Choice, & Shavuot’s Message