In March 2012, seventy-seven leading scholars gathered to discuss the topic of “Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity”, and earlier this year, fifteen of the papers delivered at that conference were published in what is now the twenty-third volume of The Orthodox Forum Series. The papers contained in ‘Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity’ (ed. A. Mintz & M. D. Stern) are divided into six categories: Intermarriage, Conversion in the State of Israel, History of Geirut, Current Contemporary Halakhic Approaches to Geirut, The Theological Foundations of Jewish Identity & Orthodox Responses to New Paradigms of Jewishness, and each paper offers a refreshing perspective on these complex issues.
As should be obvious, all of these topics are of crucial importance, and as Adam Mintz and Marc D. Stern observe in their introduction, the way in which the Jewish community address these topics “will determine the character and essence of the Jewish communities of the future.”
However, beyond the fundamental disagreements about how to approach the issues of conversion and intermarriage wherein “advocates on both sides speak with greater certainty about the wisdom of their approach than seems warranted”, what is also clear is that too many leading voices in the Jewish community are not sufficiently aware of the scale of these problems and the urgency to find solutions.
In an addendum to his paper addressing ‘Intermarriage and Jewish Communal Policy’, Dr. Steven Bayme writes that “many Orthodox leaders live in a bubble far removed from the day to day realities of American Jewish communal life…The total number of converts to Judaism in the United States likely exceeds 200,000, and the overwhelming majority of these conversions have occurred under non-Orthodox auspices”, but he notes that no viable policy has been seriously discussed regarding how the Orthodox community “relate to this critical mass of individuals, let alone their progeny?”.
However, perhaps the reason for this is found in Marc D. Stern’s paper titled ‘The Jewish People – A Yawning Definitional Gap’ in which he observes that “[t]he requirements of conversion and the response to intermarriage are, for the Orthodox, essential benchmarks or border-markers of what it is to be Jewish…[but] Orthodox Jews who were born Jewish don’t often think of these boundary questions. They may not even be essential questions for those not inclined to self-reflections. But from a contemporary communal perspective, they are essential.”
“Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity” is not a collection of solutions, but it is an important collection of papers that highlights the challenges which the Orthodox community currently faces but remains unprepared to directly confront. I would encourage anyone interested in halakha, policy or the future of the Jewish people to study this volume with care.