Arts and Culture | Israel | Religion & Jewish Life

New book frames debate on conversion

NEW YORK (N.Y. Jewish Week) — The issue of who can become a Jew through conversion is controversial and critical to determining the essence of the Jewish character, and as timely as the current headlines from Jerusalem.

But as two rabbinic scholars — one Reform and one Conservative — show in assessing Orthodox rabbinic decision-making on the subject over the last two centuries, the debate is hardly new. And in their recently published book, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law and Policymaking in 19th and 20th Century Orthodox Responsa,” the authors emphasize that opinions have always taken into account the social context and conditions of the day as well as interpretation of Jewish law.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, are old friends who conceived of the book 20 years ago.

“We began to think about how these responsa spoke to the modern conversation, and how these were not just narrow legal opinions,” noted Rabbi Ellenson during a joint interview here last week. “The rabbis were philosophers expressing their attitudes toward the conception of Jewish peoplehood and charting public policy.”