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Shavuot: Choice and Coercion in Modern-Day Life

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

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posted May 22, 2007 at 6:57 pm

as a convert myself, who converted in the Conservative movement, the issue of who the Israeli Rabbinate deems a “true” convert, and who is not is an issue close to my heart. i have been encouraged by several Orthodox Jews and Rabbis in my acquaintance who accept me unquestioningly as a Jew, and respect that i am actively working to increase my understanding and my observance. i’m curious as to R. Stern’s personal opinion about non-Orthodox converts…since he is writing so eloquently his critical stance of the inflexibility (and hypocricy) of the Chief Rabbinate! Yasher Koach!

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posted May 22, 2007 at 10:24 pm

As someone who witnessed a loved one choosing to be jewish, I have to laugh that the Chief rabbinate of Israel can have the audacity to tell the American Orthodox rabbinate what to do. I hope that there is a schism, and the the rabbinate in israel wakes up and realizes that with out the American jews, there would be NO israel for anyone.

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posted May 23, 2007 at 12:23 am

I fell in love with Judaism over more than two decades. I studied intensely for more than two years. I have continued to study for nearly 15 years since my conversion to Reform Judaism. I cannot hope to ever express the depth and breadth of what this means to me. It causes sorrow to know that the chief Rabbinate in Isreal does not accept me. It is hard to accept a Jewish Pope! And, it is even harder to accept that he has power over the laws of the nation!

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Rick Abrams

posted May 23, 2007 at 1:19 am

The totalitarian extremes of most religions are more concerned with their own control and with a notion of “purity” (Nazi Arians, sex for Christians, Jewish lineage for Orthodox)than the actual welfare of people. The totalitarian Orthodox claim a special lock on Jewishness just as right wing Christian bigots would have all other Christians (not to mention us Jews) burn in Hell forever. Since we now see the terrible harm which the extremes in Islam and Christianity bring to their people, we Jewish People should realize that the extreme Orthodox’s totalitarian desire to control what other Jews do is a threat to the larger Jewish community. All we have to do is IGNORE them! The extreme Orthodox will prevail if we accept their lie-myth that somehow they are more Jewish than others since they are stuck in a time wrap from 17th Century Poland.

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Su Carroll

posted June 11, 2007 at 12:03 pm

I was raised overseas as a devout Catholic…convent bred in fact. However, I was always in trouble for my never ending questions, question, questions. Not a good thing in the days when “The priest said so” was supposed to be the final answer.
Becoming a Jew was my choice alone. There was nobody I was planning to marry. In fact, later in life, I ended up marrying an Irish Catholic…not because of his faith, but because of himself.
The Chief Rabbinate in Israel had no influence on my faith then, and does not have any influence on it now. I would give them the same answer I gave the Bet Din when questioned what I would do if they did not accept me as a Jew. I asked them if they would forbid me from attending services, and they said they would no. “Then it really doesn’t matter if you accept me or not,” I replied. So, they did.
G-d helped me choose the path I walk not, not any Rabbi. Not any shul. So, whether or not the Chief Rabbinate would accept me (by the way, I did go through an orthodox “converstion” too just to be covered by the Law of Return — should I wish to take advantage of it.
I am a Jew, my daughter is a Jew, and she lists her own children as Jewish. And G-d approves. Who else really matters?

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