By now you’ve all heard about Hareidi Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who heads Israel’s High Rabbinical court, and his ongoing retroactive nullifications of conversions to Judaism. This story has been building for some time, as the Hareidi establishment in Israel, which has long controlled the rabbinic arm of the government, has sought to monopolize power over the definition of who is a Jew.
There are excellent political and religious reasons for them to do so, of course. The question of who is a Jew defines who may claim the right to citizenship in Israel through the Law of Return, and with that citizenship, the basket of Aliyah benefits. From the Hareidi perspective, limiting aliyah only to Hareidi Jews, or at least Orthodox Jews, means that all the money flows to them, and that no money is spent on Russian immigrants, South American converts, or people converted by non-Orthodox clergy.
Many are rightfully tearing their hair out over the potential confusion that retroactive nullification of conversion creates. The Wolf, for example, wonders if uncertainty over conversions will lead to converts being unreliable for any kind of religious obligation, from testimony to minyan. He further speculates in a later post:
And how about things that have long-reaching consequences? What if you use a convert as a witness to your wedding? Or even worse, what if a convert serves on a bais din (or is a witness) to a divorce? Can you imagine the halachic nightmare that would result from a witness (or judge) on a divorce case (or multiple cases) being found to be not Jewish retroactively, throwing all those divorcees, their new spouses and children (and grandchildren) into some halachic purgatory from which they and their descendants may never escape? What about a convert who sits on a bais din for other conversions — you could have multiple “generations” of invalidated conversions, each wreaking havoc on countless individuals and society as a whole. And, don’t forget, this doesn’t go just for the convert, but for any descendant of a female convert as well!
I believe that this path leads to both a cleavage between Hareidi Judaism and the rest of us, but also to the complete abandonment of Judaism as a hereditary status. By performing these retroactive nullifications, Hareidi Judaism is casting into doubt conversions done by otherwise-respected institutions of MOdern Orthodoxy, like the RCA. As such, the RCA will eventually be forced to reject Hareidi hegemony over them, and will have to work against Hareidi authority over the Israeli Rabbinate. They already are in alliance with the Religious Zionists on this issue, but they will need to work with the Masroti movement and even the Reform movement to rewrite the rules. For all that, they may not even be successful.
What will be true is that between intermarriage, patrilineal descent, and Hareidi conversion nullification, the question of who is a Jew and who is not will have many answers and no clarity of any kind. For many, the only pragmatic way of dealing with this reality is to rely on people and their self-identifications. Sure, when it comes to weddings some people might ask for a bit more background on a person’s Jewish provenance, but for the gabbai at a shul, the question of Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael will remain the standard by which Judaism is defined in the day-to-day. Whether this is good for Judaism or not I don’t know, but it does represent another stage in our evolution away from a tribal religion and towards something much greater, but also more diffuse.