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.”

When these Haredi rabbis see a convert candidate, they react much the same way. They cannot imagine that any normal person would want to join their little “Jewish club,” and the fact that the candidate is interested, could only mean that there is something wrong with that individual.[1] Ipso facto, by merely applying to join the Jewish people—the candidate is viewed as unacceptable! In reality, it is not the convert who is the problem—it’s the warped thinking of the Haredi mindset that is at the heart of the problem. This would also explain the great distrust these “Chief Rabbis” have of the converts, and ultimately–they look for every opportunity to invalidate their conversion–regardless of the social chaos they create.



[1] I recall once hearing a story from a Rabbi Shmuel Mordechai Hilldesheimer (a former roommate of mine back in the seventies, whose father was a brilliant Talmudic scholar and taught in Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland), about an outstanding Haredi yeshiva student that discovered he was not “halachically” Jewish because of a parent who had questionable Jewish ancestry. What did the student do? Well, everyone in the yeshiva expected him to go through a quickie pro forma conversion, but he chose to leave the Haredi world altogether. He said, “I have been so miserable here all these years, and I always wondered what it would be like to have a bacon and cheese omelet–and not have to feel guilty about eating it, now that I am no longer ‘Jewish.’ Moral of the story: The more oppressive we make our religion, the more people will want to free and liberate themselves from it.

2 thoughts on “Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    Cohanim visiting the dead rebbe’s grave wear a cardboard box with suspenders. With all that is going on in the world, this is what they worry about. The paradigm is not Groucho Marx, but Monty Python.

  2. admin says:

    “Cohanim visiting the dead rebbe’s grave wear a cardboard box with suspenders.”

    Really, I recall how the Cohanim of Chabad would enter a graveyard by having ten people form a magic circle around them, while the Cohanim stayed in the middle. That was a pretty unforgettable sight, It’s amazing how liberal the Hasidim will bend the biblical prohibitions proscribing Cohanim being in a cemetery.

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