On April 30, 2018, The Schechter Institute and the Jewish Theological Seminary co-sponsored a very successful academic conference at The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem on the subject listed above. Speakers included Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS, Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Jewish Agency and winner of this year’s Israel Prize, MK Rachel Azaria, and many professors from Schechter and JTS. The following is a translation of my Hebrew lecture delivered at the conference.
The Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people; and “Who is a Jew?” is not an Israeli issue but rather an issue facing Klal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people throughout the world.
Within ancient Hebrew manuscripts, scattered among libraries throughout the world, one can find some surprising treasures, like previously unknown and unpublished pieces of writing. The unusual midrash we will examine here is one of these. It appears in a manuscript that is part of the Firkovich collection, which resides in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.
I am officiating at the wedding of a young couple in the near future. In preparing the ketubah [marriage contract], I learned that the groom’s father was born Jewish, but the groom converted at age four, along with his mother. The groom would like his name to appear in the marriage contract as “X the son of the names of his two parents,” since they are all Jewish now; but his father would like it to appear as “X the son of Abraham and Sarah,” since that is how his son was named at his conversion. What is the halakhah in this case?
May an uncircumcised Jew have an aliyah, serve as a sheliah tzibbur, have a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish wedding or burial? Does it make a difference if he or his parents refused to circumcise him for ideological reasons or if he was prevented from having a brit milah [circumcision] by outside forces, such as the Soviet regime?
How we wish we could go back in time and stand at Sinai – to experience those three days of excited preparation, the sounds and the lightening, the heavy cloud, the loud blow of the shofar, the smoking mountain, God in the descending fire, Moses and God speaking to one another. If we could only, even for a brief moment, hear the voice of God, Master of the Universe, our Father, speaking to us to say: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt from the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[note]Exodus 22.[/note] We yearn to merit the experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai directly from God: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!”[note]Pesach Haggadah.[/note]
At the beginning of May 2008, a panel of three dayyanim (judges) of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate presided over by Rabbi Avraham Sherman published a ruling that all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999 are retroactively annulled and that Rabbi Druckman and his fellow judges are dayyanim pesulim, disqualified judges. What were the halakhic grounds for this decision? Why would a rabbinic court in Israel which belongs to the Chief Rabbinate retroactively annul thousands of conversions performed by another rabbinic court which also belongs to the Chief Rabbinate? All brief references refer to the Bibliography below.
In our day, there are many Jews who have converted to Christianity or Islam – among them thousands of Ethiopian Falash Mura – who wish to return to the Jewish fold. How can such apostates and their children return to Judaism?
Throughout the ages Jews and Judaism have lived as a part of host civilizations. They have been in the past a part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greco-Roman, Arab-Moslem, and Christian-European civilizations. Today Jews find themselves in a civilization that in many ways is dominated by American culture. But in addition to being a part of these world-civilizations, the Jewish people have almost always sought to preserve whatever it is that makes their own religious and cultural heritage unique, and as a result they distanced themselves to one extent or another from some of the characteristic norms of their host civilizations.
In this month’s Israel Insight, I would like to take a break from the Intifada and related controversies (I wish that Israel could do so too!) and relate to one of Israel’s long-term problems: conversion, intermarriage and “who is a Jew?” I relate to this issue not as an objective observer, but as someone who has been actively involved for three years in trying to solve this problem. This problem has two different aspects, which sometimes lead in opposite directions.