MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, your comments and letters about what you've heard from us this week, and the Barbershop Guys are in the house, but first our Faith Matters conversation. Israel is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its independence this week, but despite the abundance of plays, concerts, and fireworks, some of its citizens are having trouble celebrating. That's because the high rabbinical court, the highest rabbinical authority in Israel, released a decision questioning the integrity of one of the officials who conducts the conversion process for the Jewish state.
And if the courts decision stands, the Jewish status of hundreds, if not thousands, of converts could be invalidated. The issue raises the personal and political question, what does it mean to be Jewish? Here to talk about the ruling and its impact are Rabbi Shaul Farber, director of the Jewish Life Information Center, and Shaney Gilbert. She received her conversion certificate in 2005. They're from Tel Aviv, thank you so much for joining us.
Rabbi SHAUL FARBER (Director, Jewish Life Information Center): Hi.
Ms. SHANEY GILBERT (Convert to Judaism): Hi.
Rabbi FARBER: Thanks a lot Michel and greetings from Tel Aviv.
MARTIN: Thank you. Rabbi, this issue affects people, as I understand it, who underwent the conversion process between 1999 and 2003 under the supervision of state conversion authority Rabbi Haim Druckman. Now, as briefly as you can, and I know it's complicated, can you lay the case out for us? Why does the court feel the conversions should be invalidated? Is this a political dispute, a theological dispute?
Rabbi FARBER: First of all, let me distance myself and my organization, the team, the Jewish Life Information Center, from this decision. We fought, despite the fact that I'm a member, official member of the Israeli rabbinate, I find myself in the strange position of fighting this decision tooth-and-nail and in fact I appeared in the Knesset in a hearing on Tuesday in an attempt to advance legislation that would invalidate this decision.
Rabbi FARBER: This decision itself, which in fact invalidates conversions from 1999 to the present day, in fact, is relevant as it demonstrates a certain trend within the rabbinical court system towards a more fundamentalist posture. Conversion to Judaism is an exceptionally, exceptionally complicated matter. It's undergone enormous evolution. The Jewish people, perhaps more than any other western faith, is a people that subscribes to sensitivity, in particular, to the convert.
Rabbi FARBER: The background to this decision is actually a rabbinic court decision issued a little over a year ago that essentially threw into question the validity of conversions based on the observance patterns, both of those who went through conversion as orthodox Judaism demands that those who undergo conversion also adopt an orthodox lifestyle, and in addition questions the integrity of one of the state officials who in fact is in charge of that conversion authority, Rabbi Druckman.
MARTIN: So are they saying that the people, who converted in this process aren't really observant?
Rabbi FARBER: They're saying they're not really Jewish because, unfortunately, the fundamentalist posture suggests a radical and brand new position, in fact, that suggests that conversion is never ultimately confirmed until literally the end of ones life. It can always, always be questioned based on an observance pattern. And again, this fundamentalist position is something radically new within the Jewish faith. Within Jewish tradition from the Talmud from almost 2,000 years ago, it is absolutely clear and abundantly clear within the sources, traditional sources, legal sources, rabbinic sources, that someone who undergoes a legal conversion remains Jewish and should never be questioned. As I said the Bible in Leviticus says you have to love the convert, vhav temet hager (ph), if I may quote the Hebrew. For you, the Jewish people, were strangers in land not yours, in Egypt, and before the Jews underwent the exodus they understood what it means to be sensitive to someone who is a foreigner and a stranger.
Rabbi FARBER: We help at our organization hundreds of people. We've helped thousands in the last few years. And you can just imagine what's happened in the last week at our organization is the phone literally has been ringing off the hook with people whose confidence in their own Judaism has been shattered by the fundamentalist posture of the rabbinic court.
MARTIN: It must be very traumatic.
Rabbi FARBER: It sure is.
MARTIN: Shaney can we talk to you for a minute? Now you're from Maryland, and...
Ms. GILBERT: Right, originally from Carroll County.
MARTIN: Originally from Carroll county, which is outside of Washington D.C., far suburb of Washington D.C.. You moved to Israel and went through the conversion process there. You live an orthodox lifestyle. Can you just tell us what motivated this important decision?
Ms. GILBERT: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the last part.
MARTIN: What motivated this decision for you?
Ms. GILBERT: To convert?
Ms. GILBERT: I always knew that I was Jewish. My father took me to a synagogue in Hagerstown. They were having a political meeting actually, and when I was just graduated from high - from university and was planning to head over to Tel Aviv University, and he told me a story and this Hagerstown synagogue that when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, it was Yom Kippur services and they had gone, both of them as couple, had gone to this synagogue, and my mother wanted to leave, and she wasn't comfortable in the synagogue. So she left the synagogue and was walking down the steps, and I kicked her from inside her womb, and she fell down the stairs. And she called out and she told the people - the people from the synagogue heard her cries and brought her back into the synagogue. And I had never heard the story before but it just like solidified to me, that yeah, even from the womb I knew that I was going to be Jewish.
MARTIN: So you, what was the process of conversion like for you? It's quite a lengthy procedure.
Ms. GILBERT: I underwent the orthodox conversion process through the Tel Aviv chief rabbinate. The process induces having to have an adoptive orthodox family in which you have to go to for Shabbat and for Jewish holidays, you have to attend conversion classes which meet three nights a week from three hours each session. And that's about, for about 10, 11 months.
MARTIN: And as I - Just to clarify, your father is Jewish, but your mother is not, and Judaism is passed through the mother's line, and that's one reason you had to undergo a conversion.
Ms. GILBERT: That's correct.
Ms. GILBERT: That's right Michel. And I just wanted to say that I actually made aliyah to Israel before I started the conversion process because aliyah can also be passed - your Israeli citizenship can come through the father's line, Jewish line, It doesn't have to be through the mother's line only.
MARTIN: And making aliyah means?
Ms. GILBERT: Making aliyah means becoming an Israeli citizen.
MARTIN: So what has it meant for you to - and I have said also it also took - and that's another long story, it took you two years after you went through the process to actually get your certificate, so what has it meant for you to have this questioned?
Ms. GILBERT: Like Rabbi Farber said, it was an immediate shock, and actually today is actually one week since exactly to the time when I - when the news first hit that this was going to happen. I had just finished preparing for Shabbat, and I thought OK I'll just check the news before Shabbat comes along and then I was hit with that and I - it was incredible. I was shaking, I was crying. I couldn't believe it. But you know, through it, I - you know, I had read this quote once a long time ago and I really believe in it, it said that for a trivial goal any hardship is great, for a great goal, and hardship is trivial. And I really believe that through this whole process, we are going to get something good out of it. And this is not something bad.
MARTIN: In a way you feel like your faith is being tested?
Ms. GILBERT: Pardon?
MARTIN: Do you feel like your faith is being tested?
Ms. GILBERT: I feel like I am constantly under, under scrutiny. But this is - but this was a blanket ruling made by the Bet Din. It wasn't something where they had any evidence for all of these thousands of converts that they're not following the halachah.
MARTIN: That's the question for Rabbi. If you're practicing, you're observing Shabbat, you're keeping kosher, why is it - what is it, what is more than is needed, and why is this certificate so important?
Rabbi FARBER: Again Michel you asked at the beginning, fabulous question, is this rabbinic court motivated by strict legal terminology or is there something more at stake? And again it's happening also in the states. There's a very serious debate in Israel in particular about the nature of Jewish life, and this is one indication that in certain quarters fundamentalist positions have actually to a certain extent even hijacked the legal system. There were serious disciplinary violations that went on in the rabbinic court including ignoring repeated protests by the chief rabbi, who's the president of the rabbinical courts, and to a large extent, though in the particular case that was in front of the judicial system, in front of rabbinic courts, a decision has been rendered. I received on Tuesday a commitment from the Chief Rabbinic that this decision will not affect one more convert. And as I mentioned before, we, our team, our organization, the Jewish Life Information Center, went into the Knesset law committee - that is the parliamentary system in Israel, which theoretically and practically is a system of law in Israel, that empowers the rabbinical courts, and we demanded, among others, that this kind of fundamentalism simply be eradicated from the rabbinic court system. It simply cannot be allowed to go on.
Thousands and thousands of people this week had their confidence shattered in a rabbinic court system that they accept and have adopted, to a certain extent, their legal mechanisms. And at this point we are simply not going to allow this to go on any more. There has been pretty much universal condemnation of the rabbinical court decision, in most normative rabbinic settings. And I know we, ourselves, together with leadership of the United Jewish Communities in America are running an ad campaign that began today calling both upon the Chief Rabbi and the Knesset and upon Jews around the world to embrace converts and to not let fundamentalist voices carry the day here.
MARTIN: Is there a concern - and I think it is important for people to point out, that there is no civil marriage in Israel, so the certificate is important in order to get married. It's important for the children's identity. Do you think, rabbi, that this is kind of a struggle over Jewish identity and how that is to be expressed?
Rabbi FARBER: I absolutely do. I feel that, in certain quarters within the orthodox community, power has lead to an insularity that basically is exclusivist. They are uninterested, and this rabbinical court in particular, is uninterested in recognizing the Jewish identity of those who don't share those exact observance patterns. And that is an exceptionally dangerous phenomenon for a Jew like myself or an organization like mine, who believes in the universality of the Jewish people and its message to the world.
Judaism is not an insular religion and even orthodox Judaism, I'm an orthodox rabbi, does not subscribe to a vision of Jewish life that excludes those who don't necessarily adopt your point of view. And it's probably not surprising to you, Michel, that certain fundamentalists do take that insular point of view. And because of that, they don't want other Jews to marry with them. They don't want other Jews to be buried with them. And that is simply something that the State of Israel cannot allow to happen.
MARTIN: And very briefly Rabbi, can the state survive with an exclusivist perspective on this identity?
Rabbi FARBER: I don't believe it can, but I believe that the state is strong enough at its 60th year to recognize that even given the political considerations that empower certain fundamentalist positions, this issue of who is a Jew and what does it take to become a Jew is simply too important to it go by the wayside.
MARTIN: I see.
Rabbi FARBER: And I believe strongly that both the Knesset and the Jewish people as the whole will reach a consensus on this in the coming weeks. The Knesset opens its session in 10 days, and we plan to be there.
MARTIN: All right, Rabbi, we are going to have to leave it there. Rabbi Shaul Farber is the director of the Jewish Life Information Center. We were also joined by Shaney Gilbert, she is a Maryland native, a Jewish convert. They both joined us by phone in Tel Aviv. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Rabbi FARBER: Thank you very much.
Ms. GILBERT: And Shabbat Shalom.
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