Talking about conversion

Talking about conversion

Orthodox and Reform rabbi plan to discuss hot-button issue with civility, mutual respect

Rabbi Paul Jacobson, left, and Rabbi J.J. Schacter meet at the Lazy Bean in Teaneck.
Rabbi Paul Jacobson, left, and Rabbi J.J. Schacter meet at the Lazy Bean in Teaneck.

This is not an easy time for unity.

The partisan divisions that separate us in so many ways from each other seem tribal in their depth and ferocity; we are Democrats or Republicans, metropolitan or rural, women or men, self-assessed survivors or bystanders (apparently never abusers), liberal or conservative. Always we are right and they, no matter how you define we and they, are wrong.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck and Rabbi Paul Jacobson of River Edge both come from the same world in that both are Jewish (the “rabbi” part sort of gives that away), but they are from different parts of that world. Rabbi Schacter is Orthodox; he is the university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Jacobson heads Temple Avodat Shalom; he is Reform.

The two rabbis, perhaps surprisingly, certainly reassuringly, are friends; Rabbi Jacobson thinks of Rabbi Schacter, a generation older than he is, as a mentor.

In January 2017, Rabbi Schacter went to Avodat Shalom because Rabbi Jacobson realized that most members of his community know very little about Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Schacter agreed to discuss Orthodox theology with them. “I feel that there is too much distance between the different denominations in the American Jewish community,” he said then. “We need to talk to one another, to understand one another.”

Both Rabbi Schacter and Rabbi Jacobson thought that the program was a great success, and members of Rabbi Jacobson’s community wanted to learn more. “People who were there said that we had a lot to learn from each other,” Rabbi Jacobson said.

So the two rabbis decided to do it again, but this time with a twist.

This time, they will take on a deeply divisive subject — conversion. And they have come up with a format that, as Rabbi Jacobson explains it, will defuse the possible personalization of the debate that is likely to follow, without papering over the huge differences between the way conversion is approached by Orthodox and Reform Jews.

In the Sunday morning discussion (see box for details), Rabbi Jacobson will begin by presenting the Orthodox position, and Rabbi Schacter will present the Reform view. “And then we will put our own hats on, and say why we disagree with ourselves,” he said. “Why I am a Reform Jew and therefore don’t subscribe to the Orthodox perspective, and he will do the same thing. And then we will open it up to conversation with the congregation, to be able to explore these views a little more fully.”

This format, Rabbi Jacobson believes, will allow both rabbis the chance to be one layer removed from their own arguments, and thus allow the disagreements both worldviews are such to evoke to be aired not less passionately but in a less personally directed way.

To be sure, the subject is controversial enough, and the Orthodox and Reform approaches to it are so different, that it is likely to evoke a lively discussion anyway. It would be very difficult to discuss conversion without also touching on the politicization of conversion in Israel, and on patrilineal descent. (The Reform movement says that if they are brought up as Jews, then the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are Jews; both Orthodox and Conservative Jews say that halacha makes clear that to be born a Jew you must be the biological child of a Jewish mother. Anyone else must undergo conversion to become Jewish.)

“I hope that people in attendance will see a respectful dialogue between an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “They will see that there isn’t anything to fear from one another, but that it can be opportunity for conversation. That even if there is a sense of disagreement, that disagreement can be thoughtful and respectful and constructive in trying to find ways to address these issues going forward.

“That is the ultimate goal. There are places where we differ. Unless we can use our synagogues as places where these conversations can happen in respectful ways, then I would ask where we can have them.

“We should be able to share conversation about the ideas that we disagree with. In this heavily politicized world, where the rules of discourse seem to have gone so far away, how do we come back together? How do we look at each other? See each other? Understand each other’s stories? How do we see that our actions and our words affect each other?”

Rabbi Schacter is glad for the chance to go back to Avodat Shalom and talk more about the stringency and beauty of the tradition he represents. Last year’s program “was very meaningful, and I began to have very interesting conversations with members of Paul’s community, who asked some interesting questions,” he said. “We had to stop in the middle, so Paul invited me back to finish those conversations.” The upcoming program will be a bit different, because the first time “essentially Paul introduced me and then I made a presentation and then there was a q and a session. This time there will be more of a discussion as well as a continuation of the conversations that we had the last time.”

Why does he do it? “It is important to me because I believe that Orthodoxy is misrepresented and misunderstood in large swathes of the liberal community, and I welcome an opportunity to explain my perspective on contemporary issues from an Orthodox point of view,” Rabbi Schacter said. “I don’t expect that we will agree, but I hope that we will be better able to understand one another.”

The choice of conversion as the topic was not accidental, he added. “At the end of the January session, one of Paul’s members came over to me. He was really distraught — I will go so far as to say that he was irate — because he said that the Orthodox community does not recognize the conversion of a close family member.

“I was not then in a position to be able to explain my perspective,” Rabbi Schacter continued. As is so often the case in adult education programs, he simply ran out of time. “So I had an email correspondence with this individual, and I suggested to Paul that this might be something worth focusing on the next time around, since I consider it to be unfinished business.

“I understand that this is a hugely controversial, wrenching issue, but if we can’t talk about it, then what is the point?”

The issues that the two rabbis will discuss and the related issues to which that discussion will lead “go to the heart of what it means to be a Jew today,” Rabbi Schacter said. “There is nothing more profoundly meaningful to someone than his or her own identity, and issues of conversion and patrilineal descent are bound up in that, and that is what we need to discuss.

“The Orthodox position on both standards of conversion and patrilineal descent are both quite countercultural” — in other words, they are not derived from the primary need to make people feel good about themselves, but instead to follow halacha, Jewish law, with the understanding that following God’s law might at times be very difficult but still it is necessary. “Therefore, it requires a careful presentation and openness on the part of the listener to at least try to understand it, even if they would not agree with it.

“To use the famous phrase, which is relevant even if it is overused, my hope is that we will emerge learning to disagree agreeably.

“And civil disagreement itself, regretfully, is somewhat countercultural,” Rabbi Schacter added ruefully.

“My goal is to try to present what I understand to be the Orthodox position in as thoughtful and sensitive a way as I can. In a way that is both authentic and respectful to both the tradition and the audience. I hope that those who are listening will take it in that way, and will at least be open to try to understand it, if not to agree.

“These kinds of encounters are extremely important in today’s polarized Jewish community,” Rabbi Schacter said. “I am grateful to Paul for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with him and members of his community.

“I am happy to do as many of them as I can. To anyone who invites me, the answer is yes. The Bible tells us that when God gave the people of Israel the Torah, they responded ‘na’aseh v’nishma.’” We will do and we will understand.

So when a synagogue invites Rabbi Schacter to explain Orthodoxy, and thus bring together fractured parts of the community, “the answer is yes. Now tell me the details.”

Who: Rabbi Paul Jacobson and Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

What: Will look at the question of conversion
to Judaism from the Reform and Orthodox perspectives

When: On Sunday, October 14, at 9:30 a.m.

Where: At Rabbi Jacobson’s synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom, at 385 Howland Avenue in River Edge.

How much: It’s free and open to the community

For more information: Call Avodat Shalom at
(201) 489-2463 to go to its website,

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