Ask the Expert: The Odd Couple

Can I convert to Judaism even though my husband isn't interested in following suit?

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Question: Is there a halakhically valid way for a married person to convert to Judaism if their spouse is not a Jew? I have been happily married for 17 years. My husband is not religious and never will be. I studied Judaism and was active in a synagogue for over a year. My Conservative Rabbi arranged for a Beit Din (at which he was not present). The Beit Din refused me.

They argued that if I became a Jew, that I would then be in a mixed marriage, which is prohibited. Is there any solution to this problem?
--Mary, Ontario

Answer:
Mary, your experience sounds like it must have been really discouraging. I'm so sorry.

The Conservative Movement actually has an official policy in regards to a married non-Jew who would like to convert even though his or her spouse is not converting. This question was first brought to the attention of the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1956, and at that time the committee decided to allow such conversions. The issue was revisited in 1993 and the decision to allow such conversions was upheld. The written 1993 responsum is worth a read (you can find it here) because it cites a number of reasons--both halakhic and policy-wise--to support the original decision.

The gist of the halakhic argument is that no intermarriage is performed by converting someone whose spouse is not Jewish; the intermarriage status comes about indirectly. There is halakhic precedent for allowing a permitted action that indirectly causes a transgression. For instance, in the Talmud, Rabbi Simeon allows one to drag a heavy object on Shabbat even though it may indirectly create a rut in the earth, which is normally prohibited on Shabbat (Betzah 23b).

From a policy perspective, the responsum points to the accepted Conservative practice of allowing the Jewish member of an intermarried couple to be a member of a synagogue or to sit on a synagogue board. If people whose intermarriage was entered intentionally are welcome in the Conservative community, then certainly someone who converts to Judaism--and whose marriage is subsequently indirectly transformed into an intermarriage--should be allowed full membership to the movement and its institutions.

Just because it's the official Conservative stance to allow one member of a non-Jewish couple to convert doesn't mean that all Conservative rabbis will accept the conversion. Despite the responsum, the beit din is not obligated to allow your conversion. But it's certainly worth it to discuss with them the history and precedent for this situation.

Another thing to consider is converting with a Reform rabbi. If you've already done the learning and preparations you need to do, it might be a way to complete the process without struggling with the issue of intermarriage. Of course, a Reform rabbi may have his or her own standards for your conversion, but it's at least something to consider.

I also consulted with Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, who is the conversion administrator for the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. He said that the RCA generally does not work with situations like yours, but "there could always be an unanticipated exception." At the very least, it may be worth looking into with a local Orthodox rabbi. 

I'm sorry that you had to go through this. I would try approaching your rabbi and the members of the Beit Din again, armed with the Conservative responsum. Ask for an open-ended discussion of the subject, and see how things go. If they are not willing to budge, you can try other avenues.

Good luck!

 

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