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Use Religious Court to Convert Children : Rabbi's Intermarriage Solution

April 18, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

. . . He gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said "I have been a stranger in a foreign land." --Exodus 2:21-22

Tradition says that on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrew slaves, the first-born Gershom was spared along with his Israelite father and Midianite mother from the fatal tenth plague.

Although one early Talmudic source asserts that Zipporah converted before her marriage to Moses merely by asserting her faith in monotheism, a modern Talmudic scholar in Los Angeles is suggesting a radical response to the issue of intermarriage that is almost its equal in simplicity.

Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, an Orthodox rabbi from Congregation Sharrei Tifila, who claims descent from 18 generations of Orthodox rabbis, believes that a religious court should convert the minor children of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother at the request of the parents, and without any preconditions for religious observance.

His innovative departure from accepted practice has already stirred deep feelings among Jewish religious leaders around the world.

Intermarriage Dilemma

For no religious dilemma confronts the American Jewish community--or threatens to divide the world Jewish community from Israel--as the related issues of intermarriage, conversion and the religious identity of children born to Jewish men and Gentile wives.

On April 7, rabbinical leaders of all three branches of American Judaism released a joint statement, to be read from the pulpits of 2,500 synagogues on the Sabbath before Passover, voicing "distress over polarization of the Jewish people." The 450-word statement was widely interpreted as referring to the controversy over intermarriage and conversion, as well as to the ordination of women.

Despite the fact that intermarriage is strongly and consistently discouraged by all branches of Judaism, the most recently available statistics indicate that approximately one-third of American Jews marry a non-Jewish partner.

By law and tribal custom, Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, and for that reason many children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers--Gershom's contemporary counterparts--fall into a kind of heartbreaking limbo, even in those cases where the children and the parents desire a Jewish upbringing.

"Jewish husbands have said to me, 'leave my wife alone,' " said Cohen. " 'Don't interfere with my relationship with my wife. I love my wife. I don't want to go into her status, whether she's a Jew or she's not a Jew, but I want my children to be Jewish.' . . . This is the sort of feeling that's been ingrained in many people, for thousands and thousands of years. Your children should be Jewish. You should carry on the tradition. They should be an anchor to the past."

In the 3,500 years between the first Passover and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when the Law of Return provided automatic entry and instant citizenship for all Jews, the benefit of Jewish identity has been a problematic matter.

Self-Evident Advantage

Jews have suffered death and persecution at various periods in history throughout the world merely because of their heritage. Such anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the rabbis have always considered being Jewish a self-evident advantage--the Hebrew word is zekhut-- to those born into the faith. Conversion has not been encouraged and proselytism strongly discouraged.

Some elements within the religious community in Israel are now going further, disputing the validity of religious conversions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis throughout the world, and they want to exclude such converts from admission to the country under the Law of Return. A controversial proposal by the Reform movement that Jewish identity is transmitted patrilineally, through the father, has raised the possibility that other branches of American Judaism will not recognize these children as Jews.

Cohen's thesis is laid out in a closely argued, heavily footnoted book entitled, "Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halakhic Solution," scheduled to be published in June by Ktav, a Jewish publishing House. He cites the principle of zekhut in a wholly unexpected context in the book, an abbreviated version of which is scheduled to appear in the May issue of "Tradition," the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America.

"Quite a number of Jews who intermarry--or intermarry with Gentile women--have a concern that their children at least be considered Jews," said Cohen, 49, in an interview. Cohen estimates the number of such children in the United States at 100,000.

"The question now comes, what do we do with these children?" he asked.

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