Mutual Recognition of Conversions

by Maskil on June 1, 2009

During the debate around the Israeli High Court decision regarding non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, a fellow Tweeter (also Reform) took the stance that he had no interest in the issue, as Orthodox conversions are the only ones recognised by all streams of Judaism (leaving aside the issue of retrospective annulments of Orthodox conversions that have become almost commonplace).

Obviously I disagree profoundly with that attitude, and it’s also something of a circular argument (we shouldn’t press for non-Orthodox conversions to be recognised, because only Orthodox conversions are recognised by all…). It did start me wondering about another aspect of the issue, however. Outside of Israel, why should we even care about whether progressive (in the sense of non-Orthodox) conversions are recognised by Orthodoxy or not? To put this in perspective, would the Methodist Church care about whether the Catholic Church recognised its converts or not?

Shouldn’t we then see our conversions in the same way, i.e. they are converting to Judaism as a faith and Reform Judaism as a movement or stream within Judaism? It’s up to other movements to decide whether they wish to recognise them as members of the Jewish faith or not (and I think we already know the answer to that one). This does need to be clearly explained to potential converts beforehand, however. If he/she is not comfortable about acceptance of their conversion, then perhaps a Reform or Conservative conversion is not for him/her.

There needs to be some form of mutuality or mutual recognition here, an agreement (tacit or otherwise) that says that if we are to recognise your conversions, you should recognise ours. Failing that, perhaps we need to consider a tit-for-tat policy that applies the non-recognition both ways. Perhaps in the same way that we don’t allow just any Orthodox Rabbi to lead a Reform congregation? (Although we don’t want a convert to suffer because of this family quarrel.)

Judaism is and remains one faith or religion (in the same way that Christianity remains one religion), but encompasses many movements or streams (in the same way that Christianity embraces many churches and sects). What Judaism does not and should not have is one central authority to decide Halacha, declare something to be heresy or even excommunicate a member. If Orthodoxy wants a Papacy (and by many indications it does), then we cannot allow the writ of such a Jewish Papacy to extend beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy to the rest of the Jewish World.

The situation within Israel is, of course very different, in that recognition of conversions has much wider implications for personal status, citizenship, rights, etc., and we shouldn’t expect those issues to go away until all major streams of Judaism achieve equal status before the religious-bureaucratic complex there.

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