Use Religious Court to Convert Children : Rabbi’s Intermarriage Solution

Times Staff Writer

. . . He gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” --Exodus 2:21-22

Tradition says that on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrew slaves, the first-born Gershom was spared along with his Israelite father and Midianite mother from the fatal tenth plague.

Although one early Talmudic source asserts that Zipporah converted before her marriage to Moses merely by asserting her faith in monotheism, a modern Talmudic scholar in Los Angeles is suggesting a radical response to the issue of intermarriage that is almost its equal in simplicity.

Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, an Orthodox rabbi from Congregation Sharrei Tifila, who claims descent from 18 generations of Orthodox rabbis, believes that a religious court should convert the minor children of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother at the request of the parents, and without any preconditions for religious observance.

His innovative departure from accepted practice has already stirred deep feelings among Jewish religious leaders around the world.

Intermarriage Dilemma

For no religious dilemma confronts the American Jewish community--or threatens to divide the world Jewish community from Israel--as the related issues of intermarriage, conversion and the religious identity of children born to Jewish men and Gentile wives.


On April 7, rabbinical leaders of all three branches of American Judaism released a joint statement, to be read from the pulpits of 2,500 synagogues on the Sabbath before Passover, voicing “distress over polarization of the Jewish people.” The 450-word statement was widely interpreted as referring to the controversy over intermarriage and conversion, as well as to the ordination of women.

Despite the fact that intermarriage is strongly and consistently discouraged by all branches of Judaism, the most recently available statistics indicate that approximately one-third of American Jews marry a non-Jewish partner.

By law and tribal custom, Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, and for that reason many children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers--Gershom’s contemporary counterparts--fall into a kind of heartbreaking limbo, even in those cases where the children and the parents desire a Jewish upbringing.

“Jewish husbands have said to me, ‘leave my wife alone,’ ” said Cohen. “ ‘Don’t interfere with my relationship with my wife. I love my wife. I don’t want to go into her status, whether she’s a Jew or she’s not a Jew, but I want my children to be Jewish.’ . . . This is the sort of feeling that’s been ingrained in many people, for thousands and thousands of years. Your children should be Jewish. You should carry on the tradition. They should be an anchor to the past.”

In the 3,500 years between the first Passover and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when the Law of Return provided automatic entry and instant citizenship for all Jews, the benefit of Jewish identity has been a problematic matter.

Self-Evident Advantage

Jews have suffered death and persecution at various periods in history throughout the world merely because of their heritage. Such anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the rabbis have always considered being Jewish a self-evident advantage--the Hebrew word is zekhut-- to those born into the faith. Conversion has not been encouraged and proselytism strongly discouraged.

Some elements within the religious community in Israel are now going further, disputing the validity of religious conversions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis throughout the world, and they want to exclude such converts from admission to the country under the Law of Return. A controversial proposal by the Reform movement that Jewish identity is transmitted patrilineally, through the father, has raised the possibility that other branches of American Judaism will not recognize these children as Jews.

Cohen’s thesis is laid out in a closely argued, heavily footnoted book entitled, “Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halakhic Solution,” scheduled to be published in June by Ktav, a Jewish publishing House. He cites the principle of zekhut in a wholly unexpected context in the book, an abbreviated version of which is scheduled to appear in the May issue of “Tradition,” the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America.

“Quite a number of Jews who intermarry--or intermarry with Gentile women--have a concern that their children at least be considered Jews,” said Cohen, 49, in an interview. Cohen estimates the number of such children in the United States at 100,000.

“The question now comes, what do we do with these children?” he asked.

The author of two other books and scores of articles, Cohen said he became interested in the subject about three years ago, when he learned of the case of a couple affiliated with the Reform movement, considered Judaism’s most liberal branch. The man and woman had adopted a baby and wanted it converted by an Orthodox rabbinical court so that all branches of Judaism in the United States, as well as Israeli rabbis would recognize the conversion.

The rabbis they asked refused, citing a lack of sufficient religious commitment on the part of the parents, a decision that piqued Cohen’s interest. Although he is a congregational rabbi, the New Jersey native said, “I am by nature a scholar. I love to study. And I love to learn Talmud.”

Adoption and Conversion

The subject of adoption and conversion, and its relationship with religious observation, led Cohen to the matter of requirements for converting the natural children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers.

“I became almost obsessed with the concept and started to look up every particular source that I possibly could relating to it,” he said, chain-smoking in his study overlooking Beverly Boulevard. “The more I researched the issue, the more I felt that the prevailing extreme point of view was not necessarily the monolithic approach in Jewish law.”

Cohen found an early Talmudic precedent governing an analogous situation, citing zekhut, along with considerable body of related commentary, which convinced him that this guiding principle would permit a panel of Orthodox rabbis to accede to the request of a Jewish father and Gentile mother to convert any daughter up to the age of 12 and any son up to the age of 13. All that would be required would be for circumcision for male children and for children of both sexes to be immersed in the ritual bath called the mikveh, considered by some to be the Old Testament forerunner to Christian baptism.

Cohen also challenged established Orthodox practice of requiring parents of any child, natural or adopted, to agree to certain conditions of religious observance for themselves or their child before conducting a conversion.

“One of the reasons most people will not seek a rabbinical court for conversion of their children is that they are apprehensive that the rabbis will be requiring a commitment for observance that they’re not able to fulfill,” Cohen said.

“As such they simply will not go through the process altogether,” he said. “According to my research it is apparent that children, minor children, are not required at all to make any commitment, and any commitment relating to observance is not germane to the conversion process.”

Clear-Cut Decision Unlikely

Cohen said he hopes his position will prevail within American Jewry, but he cautions that no clear-cut decision on the matter is likely.

“The problem in America right now is that most of our sages, the great rabbinic scholars on these matters, have passed away,” Cohen said. The determining factor of his thesis is whether Orthodox rabbis will actually perform such conversions on adopted children or natural children of intermarried couples from other branches of Judaism.

Cohen says he has reason to believe that the primary impact of publication may be “granting solace to all these individual Orthodox rabbis in the hamlets and the villages and the small towns all over America, who were probably doing it anyway.”

For his part, Cohen has not acted according to his research.

“The reason I have not acted is simply because I . . . didn’t want the community of scholars to impugn my motivations,” he said, “to in any way suggest that my thesis is a means of rationalizing my actions. And as such I felt I would like to disseminate it within the community of scholars and Jewish community at-large so that the issue itself could be validated.”

Favorable Responses

Most of the responses from rabbis and religious authorities from around the world have been favorable, Cohen says, including support from Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Support has been strongest among Orthodox congregational rabbis and opposition greatest among rabbis teaching at seminaries, Cohen said.

However, at least one major seminary figure, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, wrote that Cohen’s argument “meets all the criteria” of Jewish law and “must be reckoned with.”

Some of those rabbis who wrote favorably of Cohen’s analysis, like Weinberg, nonetheless advised against publishing it at this time, or at least refraining from publishing in English.

“I’m unhappy about conducting this kind of debate in the public press,” said another Orthodox rabbi, who asked not to be named.

Cohen called such requests “medieval.”

The reason for not publishing in the vernacular, Cohen said, is rooted in the belief “that you’re not allowed to teach the Bible to the masses. They’re not supposed to know the laws because you know that’s supposed to be a private reserve of the leadership. But in Jewish law, the rabbi is not someone qualitatively distinct, he’s not a priest. He’s not qualitatively distinct from the layman. He’s the same person as the layman. All he has is a little bit more knowledge than someone else, and a position of teaching that knowledge. We believe that every Jew should be a scholar. Every Jew should be a rabbi.”

There has already been some negative reaction, and Cohen said that more is expected, given the organic way in which Jewish law, called halacha, evolves through debate.

‘Meaningless’ Conversions

One Orthodox rabbi in New York, who asked not to be named, said that conversions performed according to Cohen’s thesis would be “meaningless.”

Rabbi J. David Bleich, a professor of Talmud and law at Yeshiva University, was critical of any conversion which did not include a commitment for observation by both parents, on their own behalf as well as for the child.

“My impression and conviction is that the conversion is invalid under those circumstances,” said Bleich, in an interview. “There are strong policy reasons to discourage it, even if it would be valid.”

The sharpest negative response came in a letter from Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, chief rabbi of England. Jakobovits wrote that Cohen’s argumentation was “questionable,” and “quite inconclusive, if not irrelevant to the problem as it faces us today.”

Jakobovits also zeroed in on the issue of religious observance.

It would be morally and legally wrong, he wrote in his response, for an Orthodox rabbinical court “to confer Jewish status if it thereby creates lawbreakers. They would be liabilities rather than assets to the Jewish people. . . . We should concentrate on converting should-be Jews, rather than would-be Jews. . . . The overriding need today is to find effective deterrent to contain this plague which has already reached disaster proportions. The measures you advocate cannot but serve to encourage the continued erosion of Jewish life, now threatened by more than by any other single factor.”

Rabbi Robert S. Hirt, vice president of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with Yeshiva University in New York, wrote Cohen that “I believe that what you suggest is probably common practice in small- and medium-size cities for Orthodox rabbis serving a heterogenous constituency.”

Cohen’s book “may offer support to them and, therefore, should receive wide dissemination regardless of a public policy decision,” Hirt wrote.

Whatever disagreement there may be about Cohen’s approach, there is near unanimity on the scope of the problem he is addressing.

“The threat to the future of Judaism which intermarriage represents has impacted dramatically on the Conservative Jewish community, as it has on all segments of the Jewish population,” according to a statement from Rabbi Franklin D. Kreutzer, president of the 1.5-million-member United Synagogue, the major organization of Conservative Judaism, presented during a two-day conference on intermarriage held in New York in early March.

Opposition to Intermarriage

“Reform Judaism is unalterably opposed to intermarriage, even as are the Orthodox and Conservative religious communities,” said Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the governing body of Reform Judaism.

Speaking earlier this year in Newport Beach to Western leaders of the Reform movement, Schindler said “we live in an open society and intermarriage is the sting which comes to us with the honey of our freedom.”

Partly as a response to widespread intermarriage, the Reform movement--which had previously welcomed non-Jewish spouses to its congregations without conversion--has adopted a controversial two-pronged response.

In a sharp break with tradition, Reform Judaism now embraces the concept that Jewish identity is transmitted through patrilineal descent as well as through matrilineal descent, dividing it from Conservative and Orthodox branches. The religion has adopted a more activist approach to the converts, calling them “Jews-by-choice,” and focusing on non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages.

“We have transformed American Jewry’s mindscape,” Schindler said. “The subject of intermarriage is no longer taboo, and the concept of outreach, even conversionary outreach, is no longer a heresy within the American Jewish community. We have taken the discussion of intermarriage out of the house of mourning and into the house of study.”

Rabbi Milton Polin, president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, wrote Cohen that his argument for Orthodox conversion of children “is wonderful in theory but may never be put into practice,” because, for many mixed couples, assuming Jewish indentity through patrilineal descent would be much easier.

Cohen admitted that the controversy over patrilineal descent--which he strongly opposes--served as a “galvanizing issue” in his own research, but he held out the hope that his proposal might offer a solution to the divisive matter by offering a relatively uncomplicated route to conversion of minors that would be recognized by all branches of Judaism.

Cohen also acknowledged that his book raises the larger question noted by the chief rabbi of England. The questions he asks himself are equally pointed.

“Should the public policy of the Orthodox rabbinate be to prohibit the conversions of these minor children simply because it may give the impression that we’ve opened the floodgates to intermarriage? he asked.

“Because if we’re going to permit the children of intermarriage to to be converted to Judaism, then what we’re basically doing is perhaps making it easier for people who want to intermarry,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better that the rabbi should put a special stringency in the law that we don’t convert their children, as an added motive or barrier against intermarriage itself?”

There is another dimension to the issue, he says.

“From a religious point of view, what’s the sense of making Jews who are not observant? My concern to this is that we’re now living in a new age. An age of freedom for people. They’re not listening to the rabbis. The Orthodox rabbinate is only receiving a minute number of people who are intermarrying.”

Rabbi Jacob Traub, of San Francisco, agreed.

“This could serve as a building block in terms of a reuniting of the next and future generation of our people,” he said in a telephone interview. “Maybe it’s time to reach out to them and bring them back, rather than the read them out of the people of Israel.”

“The issue is,” Cohen said, “can we save these children?”