by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis
Stanford University Press, December 2011
Issues of how Jewish status should be resolved and what it means to be a Jew have hovered over Jewish legal discourse throughout Jewish history. Positions on these issues have never been universally held, and the assumptions upon which they rest have largely remained unarticulated.
However, with the collapse of the Jewish community as a semi-autonomous political entity in Western Europe and the United States from the late 1700s on and with the cultural, political, and social integration of the Jew as an individual citizen into the modern world, questions surrounding Jewish status and identity – issues closely identified with conversion – have surfaced consciously in novel and intense fashions.
This book focuses on these challenges to the modern Jewish community and its self-understanding by examining a wide array of legal opinions written by nineteenth and twentieth century orthodox rabbis in Europe, the United States and Israel on what constitutes legitimate conversion to Judaism.
The authors argue that the divergent positions that these rabbis assumed – even as they based their opinions on the same legal precedents – demonstrate that these rabbis were doing more than delivering legal opinions. Rather, they were actually crafting public policy for Jews and Jewish society who were experiencing unprecedented changes in matters of status and identity as a result of their social and political interactions as equals with non-Jewish persons in whose midst they dwelled.
The book prefaces the analysis of these modern opinions and writings on conversion with a discussion of the classical Jewish sources upon which the authorities who wrote them drew. It employs these works as the lens through which one can understand the overlapping but distinct ways in which these traditionalist rabbis have gone about the task of defining the core of Jewishness – Jewish identity, status, and community – in the modern situation.
In so doing, the volume illuminates the larger phenomenon of how Jews and Judaism have responded to the challenges that the modern world has presented to the continuity and borders of the Jewish people.