Pew, Continuity and Conversion – Guest Post by Prof. Zvi Zohar

July 31, 2014

Precis

The findings of the recent Pew survey teach us, that the Jewish community in the United States as a whole is in a state of crisis (aka she’at ha-dhaq) with regard to the simple – but crucial – issue of numeric continuity. This fact has halakhic consequences: we can (and should) apply be-di-avad rules, follow minority opinions etc. to the utmost of whatever halakha can allow, with the goal of overcoming or at least ameliorating the she’at ha-dhaq situation.

In this paper I argue that Orthodox rabbis should shoulder halakhic responsibility for preventing numerical decline of American Jewry as a whole (i.e., they should make halakhic decisions not only caring for the future of Orthodox Jews, but for the future of all Jews).

Concretely, this means that they should be warmly encouraging towards all persons who seek to become Jewish, and follow the most lenient options for giyyur extent in halakhic literature with regard to what is the minimum required be-di-avad for a giyyur to be valid. In doing so, they can rely upon the views of the three great scholars I cite, whose halakhic stature is objectively no less than that of rabbi Moshe Feinstein. (The fact that they are less well known in the U.S. basically reflects the quite insular world of many American Orthodox rabbis.) Even were it the case that these rabbis express a minority opinion, that is of no consequence here, because we are not discussing what is the most correct position in an ideal world le-khathila but rather what options exist that can be employed in a be-di-avad situation.

Prof. Zvi Zohar is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University. He has written extensively on the history and development of halakha. His most recent book is Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013).

Introduction

The October 2013 Pew Report underscored the fragility of the Jewish future in North America and has led to anguished discussions and debates regarding “continuity”, i.e., how to reduce the number of Jews relinquishing Judaism and Jewish identification in favor of other options.

But given the nature of the American religious scene, as I will present below, it is simply impossible to assure Jewish continuity by such a strategy alone. Rather, only if a strategy of easing the path of conversion is joined with current educational efforts and programs do we stand a chance of achieving continuity.

Such a strategy is of course at odds with the notion that conversion should be discouraged and difficult. However, that notion itself was not the primordial position of our tradition but rather historically conditioned. Encouragement of would-be converts and the intentional application of   the more  lenient positions found in our sources  can be fully justified from within the halakhic tradition — particularly in times of crisis such as ours.

Stating the Problem Honestly

Even if 100 percent of all children born to Jews in the United States were to remain Jewish, the Jewish population would decline significantly over time, because of the simple fact reported by Pew that Jewish adults aged 40-59 have an average of 1.9 children – while 2.1 children in a family represents the minimum fertility replacement level, that is, the level at which births equal deaths in a society with good health services. Although I am Orthodox, the fact that Orthodox Jewish families have an average of 4.1 children is no consolation to me. My concern is for the future of the entire community and not for any particular sub-group alone. Indeed, I believe that religiously and morally, such horizons of concern are befitting all Jews – and especially the Orthodox.

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