Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa

Stanford University Press  2012


"Who is allowed to become a Jew" is a question that quietly attaches itself to the much-discussed issue of who is a Jew – although, perhaps not so quietly these days. The ongoing argument in Israel over conversion has roiled that country and rattled this one. Co-authors David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis illuminate the challenges of that specific debate, and those confronting Jewish communities elsewhere, by taking a look at history. They avoid offering their own personal remedies: instead they present an aggregation of responsa from Orthodox rabbis in Europe, the United States, and Israel from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries, letting the past inform the present.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that a collection of Orthodox legal opinions from years ago is dry reading. Ellenson and Gordis are storytellers – frugal but skillful at laying out the context and content of the diligently halakhic, yet ultimately conflicting, decisions made by various rabbis in different locations over more than two centuries. Though all of the rabbis consulted the same halakhic texts and commentaries, their varied conclusions make it clear they were influenced, however reluctantly, by the "facts on the ground" of their particular place and time. Specifically highlighted is how the presence of increasingly sizable non-Orthodox denominations exerted pressure on many of these rabbis and their rulings.

The book begins as modernity presents the Jewish population of Europe with the complications of inclusion in non-Jewish society – increased intermarriage, more Gentiles wanting to convert to Judaism, questions of Jewish identity – and concludes with the contentious circumstances arising from massive Russian immigration to the State of Israel. The result is a compelling, pendulum-swinging narrative and a sobering view of the kaleidoscopic difficulties that conversion can present.

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