There's Room for Flexibility

If we are to develop a formula for conversion acceptable to all the Jewish movements, everyone will need to take a step toward the middle.

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The extent to which the court must go in investigating motives is, it seems, a matter in which some discretion is allowed, since the law allows that any conversion is valid. While it is not desirable to reduce all conversion to the lowest denominator permitted by the law, there is ample room here for one Jewish court to tolerate the principled decisions of another, for, as the code clearly implies--all conversions are valid.

Redefining Wickedness

This leaves the third, and most pernicious, area of disagreement in the religious arena today. Following the lead of R. Moses Feinstein, the ultra-Orthodox have found that no Conservative or Reform Jew may serve on a rabbinic court, regardless of his level of personal observance, since the fact of aligning with those movements is a disqualification from giving reliable testimony or serving as a judge.

This position, too, has some basis in law, if we choose to interpret it restrictively. I note that a court for conversion does not require rabbis, but rather laymen fit to serve as judges. One disqualification is wickedness, a standard measure of which is the non-observance of Shabbat. One could, certainly, rule that all those who, for instance, drive cars on Shabbat, are ipso facto within the legal category of the wicked. That would exclude most Reform and Conservative Jews from serving on a court and, again according to law, the whole class of Reform and Conservative Jews could be judged unfit by association with its majority.

But that is not the only possible construction, and the test of our intentions is precisely whether we seek interpretations that allow all of Jewry to recognize one another or whether we hanker for a split. In 1946, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, then Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled in a case that sought to invalidate a marriage witnessed by secu!ar Jews that indeed they should be viewed as reliable witnesses. Uziel's argument was that, in light of rampant transgression of those commandments between man and God, and since the intention of the law was to class as wicked and therefore unreliable only those who were in fact disreputable, the court should accept all testimony that they determine to be reliable. That remained, until quite recently, the regnant position of Israel's rabbinical courts.

Thus it is not only not difficult, but it is in large measure the presumption of the law as written, that there must be flexibility and tolerance of significant differences in judgment built into the legal system. I think this is not an accident. It is certainly a test of whether we desire to see Jewry united or whether we prefer to see it sundered in the name of purity. I pray that all of us, not least the State of Israel and its rabbinical hierarchy, retreat from the brink and seek conciliation.

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Dr. Avram I. Reisner

Dr. Avram Israel Reisner is a teacher and lecturer in Baltimore, MD. He is a member of the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards.