Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

While the government considers it a national task, the state of conversion in Israel continues to deteriorate. Official data indicate a 12% drop in the number of conversions to Judaism in Israel in 2009. Just 986 out of 300,000 people with no religious affiliation have converted to Judaism in the last year. The drop in the Israeli Defense Forces stands at 4% compared with 2008. The reason for this drop is because of the feeling shared by many potential converts who fear that the Haredi  rabbis in Israel may invalidate their conversions for whatever the reason they conjure. Therefore, the state itself – no longer considers them or their descendants to be Jewish.

What are the practical implications of such a scenario unfolding? All denominations of Judaism–from the Reform to the Modern Orthodox–suffer from the Haredi approach Halacha that violates both the letter and the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch. In an earlier blog, I have already demonstrated why revocations of conversion has never existed until fairly recent times. In a country where all personal status issues – from birth through marriage, divorce, and death – are all controlled by Haredi rabbis, this means children who suddenly will not be able marry, spouses can’t be buried next to one another. Unfortunately, this type of policy making establishes a cast system where converts have a second class status. We have not seen this type of marginalization of an entire group of people since the  Spanish Inquisition period, where the Marranos were singled out for stigmatization by their fellow Jews.

Why is there so much distrust toward the “Jew by Choice” in the ultra-Orthodox world?

I often wonder whether  Haredi or Hassidic Orthodoxy suffers from a psychological illness that I call, “The Groucho Marx Syndrome.” The story goes that once Groucho Marx wanted to join a certain country club. Much to his surprise, they refused to give him membership.  You see, the club had a policy: No Jews allowed. In one of the more spirited exchanges, Marx wrote:

‘I have received your reply, and I think I understand.   It seems that I cannot join your country club because I am Jewish.   Now, my wife is not Jewish, so I expect that she could join.   Where I am confused is about my son, whom I guess you would consider half-Jewish.  Does this mean that he could join, but only go swimming up to his waist?’

Several years later, when Groucho Marx resigned from Hollywood’s Friar Club with the following quip:   “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Continue reading “Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome””

How did Martin Buber arrive at his theory of the “I and Thou” relationship?

One autumn morning, Buber experienced what he believed to be a powerful mystical experience. On a July day in 1914, a young man named Mehe’ was soon about to enter the army and he came to see Buber for guidance. Those were difficult days. Buber politely answered all of his guest’s questions. After the young man left, Buber felt troubled. Although he answered most of his questions, he felt that in has self-centered happiness he ignored the unexpressed question that was really troubling the young man, who didn’t know how to articulate his soulful query. Shortly afterward, the young man died in battle. Though Buber managed to convince his guest of the God of the philosophers, he felt that he failed to teach him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Buber’s private joy kept him from being intimate with the stranger. This incident led Buber to abandon mysticism as a way of dealing with the reality of the world. This experience led Buber to reflect on the mystery and dynamics of dialogue. Buber wrote: “There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent-–where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.”

According to Buber, genuine dialogue goes beyond an exchange of words or information;  a real meeting between persons establishes a deep but mutual living relation between the dialogue partners. Authentic dialogue in this understanding is more than just a possibility in life: it is the deepest and basic way persons develop, how human life unfolds and evolves. To Buber, understanding the nature of relationship to others is essential if we are to develop an authentic human existence. Continue reading “How did Martin Buber arrive at his theory of the “I and Thou” relationship?”

Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?

If parallel worlds exist, I wonder what would the world be like if Judaism became one of the world’s largest religions? The question for some people may seem kind of funny. Can you imagine donating money to the government so that they could print the pictures of your parents or grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah on the national currency? But on a serious note, ask yourselves this question: Why didn’t Judaism attract the same following that Christianity and Islam later achieved?

Interesting question, no?

Historically,  there was a time when Judaism during the days of Late Antiquity went out of its way to welcome non-Jews to Judaism. A sizable portion of the Roman Empire had Jewish citizenry. The Jews of Alexandria specifically translated the Tanakh into Greek to help attract new converts to the faith. Jewish thought made philosophers like Philo of Alexandria and Aristobulus popular scholars the Graeco-Roman world enjoyed reading.

Yes, the Alexandrian Jewish community envisioned Judaism as a universal faith–a view that most the rabbis did not share because of their hatred of Hellenistic culture.  Jewish efforts to proselytize gentiles was so successful that the Roman Senate decided to expel the Jews in the year 139 B.C.E. and later in the year 19 C.E., according to Josephus (Josephus, Ant. 18.81–84). Incidentally, the NT indicates that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time engaged in outreach efforts to bring in new proselytes, thus we read, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15).

With respect to our original question: Why didn’t Judaism evolve into a much larger faith? In a nutshell, it had much to do with war, attrition, and internecine politics between the Early Roman Church and the synagogue. Basically, once Christianity became the state religion, proselytization became a forbidden activity for Jews to engage in. By many estimates, the Romans killed over 1.1 million Jews as a result of the failed Jewish rebellions against Rome.[1] Exponentially, one million people could over a millennium result in hundreds of millions of people given enough time. Add to this another 97,00o that were taken captive by the Romans. Continue reading “Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?”

Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha

There is a tendency among most Jews to think that Halacha by definition must always lean toward conservatism. However, the historical facts do not support this hypothesis.

Modern Halacha examines an interesting question: Should we go out of our way to attract potential conversions?  There are serious circumstances where we should openly encourage conversion whenever possible– specifically when we have an intermarried couple. There is every valid Halachic reason to go out of our way to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and their offspring to Judaism. We have already examined Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s attitude and he certainly was not alone (see the previous thread for examples). Another great rabbinic scholar reflecting this liberal approach comes from Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who later became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Of Israel.

In 1943, the following case came before him requiring an important Halachic decision. The Chief Rabbi of Istanbul once wrote to Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who was at that time the Rav of Rishon LeTzion. The Chief Rabbi asked Rav Uziel whether conversion for the sake of marriage is valid. Rav Uziel opened his Responsa with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268: 12) which states we must examine a potential convert to see whether his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Obviously, it would be wonderful that the potential convert for purely sincere reasons and certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Rav Uziel then goes on to state how intermarriages are common in the civil courts, and that we ought to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the Jewish partner from the problem of intermarriage. We should also do so that their children should not be lost to the Jewish fold.

But what do we do when the situation is less than ideal?

If we are faced with de facto case of mixed marriage, we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children whenever possible. If this is true when the couple is already married, it is certainly true before they have begun their forbidden marriage! Such a conversion could prevent future transgressions and religious difficulties. Continue reading “Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha”