Conversions in Israel? …ask the rabbi

August 3, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Q. Why is the Israeli rabbinate so strict in what it expects from converts?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. The halachic answer ought, theoretically, to function regardless of political considerations.

However, the pure ideal cannot be achieved while there is such controversy about the relationship between State and religion when the religious parties demand a price as part of their membership of the coalition and the public objects to spiritual matters becoming part of party horse-trading. Converts feel that they have been sold down the river.

The halachic rules are neither too strict nor too lenient. They require a candidate for conversion to really want to be Jewish and to undertake to study and observe the laws of the Torah.

The number of people who seek to become Jewish depend on the circumstances. Decades ago the group involved in conversion controversies were the Ethiopians. Now it is the Russians. It is in the interest of Israel and the Jewish people that their halachic situation be regularised and that they move out of limbo to full membership of Judaism and the Jewish people.

This means having rabbis deal with them who are warm and welcoming and do not bring the rabbinic profession into disrepute. It also means, when the applicant is a woman, having warm and welcoming women to accompany them to the rabbinate and to ensure they are not frightened away by the official face of Israeli religion.

Must the potential convert must be free of all ulterior motives and want Judaism for its own sake, not, for example, in order to marry a Jew? Many rabbis allow flexibility, arguing that if one begins with an ulterior motive they will come to love being Jewish for its own sake. It all depends on the judgment of the rabbinic court.

Rabbi David Hoffmann, the author of M’lammed L’ho’il, accepts certain people who are involved in intermarriage, arguing that this would retain the Jewish partner and their children for Judaism. Rabbi Zvi Kalischer comments, “It may even be that great religious leaders will descend from them”.


Q. What is the Jewish attitude to blood donations where there definitely isn’t any “known” recipient?

A. The issue of a “known” recipient – in Hebrew, “choleh lefanenu”, literally “a patient who is before us” – arises with, for example, an organ bank into which, theoretically, human organs could be deposited for use at some future time when needed.

Being a blood donor does not raise this problem at all. Subject to obvious safeguards, removing blood does not harm the donor, and the blood can normally not be immediately transfused into a “known” patient.

Giving blood, as Lord Jakobovits point out in his “Jewish Medical Ethics”, 1975 edition, page 285, is an almost literal fulfilment of the precept, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16), which the sages interpret as requiring a person to act when another’s life is at risk.


Q. Why do we have wine, spices and a candle for Havdalah?

A. Wine is part of every joyous occasion in Judaism. The spices give us a last experience of the fragrance of Shabbat or, according to others, cheer up the soul which feels sad at the departure of Shabbat. The candle indicates that the making of fire is permitted once Shabbat has concluded, and thus Havdalah marks the beginning of the creative week.

Homiletically, the mouth tastes the wine, the nose smells the spices, the eye sees the light, the ear hears the blessings and the hand holds the wine cup, spice box and candle; thus all five senses are utilised, showing that every part of one’s being is needed in living a Jewish life.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem

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