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September 30, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vezot Habracha

Before blessing the various tribes in this last portion of the Torah, Moses states that the Torah is a “inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deut. 33:4).  Why “congregation” instead of “house” or “seed”? Nachmanides argues that this word choice is quite deliberate: the latter term might seem limited to the descendants of Jacob, but “congregation” implies that non-descendants of Jacob (i.e. converts) will share in the heritage of the Torah.

One issue dividing Orthodox Jews from both non-Orthodox Jews and each other is how far this conversion thing should go.  The majority of Orthodox rabbis favor a very strict policy towards conversion, only allowing converts who are 100% religiously observant and even extending this policy to adopted children; some rabbis hold that if a Jewish couple adopts children, the parents need to commit to sending their children to orthodox day schools.  A (relatively) liberal minority of Orthodox rabbis reject this policy, and Conservative and Reform rabbis are far more permissive.

Who’s right?  As a technical halachic matter, I can’t answer that; there are plenty of rabbis who have studied relevant sources in far more detail than I.  But the policy issues are kind of interesting.

It depends on whether you want quantity or quality.  Do you want a small number of converts who are so motivated and so observant that (almost) none of them will relapse, or do you want the largest possible number of converts, some of whom will drift out of Judaism?  Or do you want to split the difference?  The more rigid the rules are, the fewer converts; and the fewer converts, the closer we are to the first extreme.  The more converts, the more likely we are to become an “easy come, easy go” religion like some liberal Christian denominations, as opposed to a religion that runs in families.  If we go to the latter extreme, do we lose something?

It seems to me that this is related to the broader question of outreach within Judaism- that is, to what extent do Jewish groups encourage modest improvements in observance (however you define that term), as opposing to focusing on perfecting the already-observant (however you define that term).  Chabad tends to favor a high level of outreach; the basic theological assumption behind this is that the more mitzvot performed, the better.   But I would guess that a non-outreach-oriented Jew (say a Satmar Hasid) might argue that what is more important is mitzvot per Jew- if so, isn’t it better to encourage less-observant people to drift away from Judaism?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions.


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