Once a Jew, always a Jew?

"Even if a Jew were to (renounce his Judaism), and even if every Christian priest in the world were to baptize such Jew into Christianity, he would remain a Jew."

Interestingly, the above quote is taken not from Messianic Jewish literature, but from a ruling handed down by a rabbinic court in Israel. The rabbinic court system has a reputation for being all over the map regarding many issues, and there is no matter which brings this phenomenon to light more clearly than the issue of conversion to Judaism. A new report recently issued by the “Itim” NGO has shed new light on the flawed nature of the orthodox-dominated conversion process in Israel according to the report, conversions dropped some twenty percent in 2008; moreover, the conversion system is marred among other things by conflicting rabbinic opinions and unjust conversion annulments.

The statistics paint an interesting picture. Just 5,321 conversions were performed in 2008, as opposed to 7,280 in 2007. The crucial demographic of new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union saw a drop of some twenty percent, with less than 1,000 people successfully completing conversion in 2008. This may set back by several centuries the hopes of fully integrating the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish descendents who are not recognized as Jews in Israel. Similarly, almost thirty percent less immigrants from Ethiopia converted during the same period.

During 2008, rabbinical courts attempted to annul a number of completed conversions for unjust and even ludicrous reasons. For example, a court in Jerusalem invalidated a conversion because the convert’s father was a Reform rabbi. In another case, a court in Ashdod unilaterally decided that certain rabbis in the rabbinic conversion establishment (of which said court is a part) were “unqualified” to perform conversions and consequently annulled a conversion previously conducted.

Perhaps most outrageous of all, however, are the conflicting rabbinic opinions cited in the report. Even though conversion annulments are regular, several justices at the highest rabbinic level believe that a conversion can never be annulled. According to a decision of Justices Brali, Tzarfati, and Bass:

“In the world of Hebrew jurisprudence there is no force capable of changing a Jew…into a gentile. Even if the Jew were to desire this, and even if every Christian priest in the world were to baptize such Jew into Christianity, he would remain a Jew. Moreover, if a convert to Judaism wishes to deny his Judaism, he will not be able to do so and return to his previous faith. He is and will always remain a Jew, and there is no way in the world to take this away from him.”

Many Messianic Jews would undoubtedly concur. Ironically, Orthodox parties in the Knesset have consistently ignored rabbinic opinion when it suits their purposes in other words, when they lobby for legislation aimed at delegitimizing those who do not conform to their radical worldview. The Law of Return, for example, was amended in 1970 by a coalition of religious parties to state that a Jew who has “changed his religion” may not immigrate.


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