Friday, September 28, 2012

The Syrian Ban on Conversion

I received an email a couple of months ago arguing for a ban on conversion, in order to counter conversions which are performed for the sake of marriage. That reminded me of a New York Times piece published a few years ago on the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, highlighting their ban on conversion. The article pretty much gets the story right: In 1935, out of fear of intermarriage and assimilation, the Syrians banned marriage to converts.

That wasn’t the first time a Jewish community took strict measures to reduce the likelihood of intermarriage. This concern has produced many rabbinic laws, such as bishul akum - the prohibition against eating certain foods if they are cooked by non-Jews. (Interestingly, the Church actually did the same thing in reverse; they even forbade Christians from receiving medical care from a Jewish doctor.)

Further, any Jewish authority is within his rights to refuse to cooperate with a conversion. Since Judaism teaches that a human being can be great, earn a portion in Heaven, etc, without being Jewish, one is not committing harm by refusing to participate in a conversion.

That said, I have a two-part problem with the Syrian ban.

[Note: I'm not addressing the ban's undertone of emphasizing "pure-bloodedness," a charge Jewschool lodged here in response to the NYT article. I'm not sure I agree; that same charge could be used to indict anyone who opposes intermarriage, too.]

Part 1: Despite the wording of the ban (“this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless”), the Syrian authorities cannot invalidate conversions performed by legitimate authorities outside of their community. The only thing they can do is rule that Joe Convert cannot marry a Syrian woman. And once they do that, they have overstepped fundamental biblical prohibitions against harming or oppressing a convert.

Therein lies Part 1 of the problem. It’s a matter of harming the convert. The Torah says explicitly, וגר לא תונה, You shall not oppress a convert.

However: One might defend the ban by arguing that this is a case of Preserving the Community vs. Protecting the Convert. The needs of the many vs. the needs of the few. And so one might well argue for the many vs. the few; isn’t Jewish history filled with such decisions?

But there’s a second problem:

Part 2: The people you are protecting are the ones who want to intermarry inappropriately.

In order to keep your children from marrying out, you prevent converts from marrying in, and so you harm converts - who have properly joined the Jewish people - in order to benefit those who wish to sin. To borrow from Parshat Lech Lecha, it’s a case of harming the righteous while you rein in the wicked.

To which Avraham cries Heavenward, חלילה לך, This would be a desecration for You!

Granted, I have relied on the assumption that refusing marriage to a Syrian counts as oppression and harm, an assumption which may not be accurate, since there are other Jews for them to marry. But to me, telling someone who has embraced the Torah, “You may not marry our children,” counts as hurtful - even if those children are not the only Jews in the world.

Just my two cents.


  1. "Plenty of other Jews to marry?" Lucky for those who follow the ban - must be a big relief not to have to worry about those converts. And what about all those other Jewish singles who have not been able to find someone? This rule would have the effect of preventing perfectly legitimate possibilities. It's not as if marriages can be made just by picking somebody else who happens to come along. It takes work to find someone who is appropriate.
    Any time a proposed dating prospect (especially if they both know each other)is deemed prohibited, it hurts very badly. Even one experience of unnecessary pain should be a violation of אונאת הגר. "Plenty of other options" does not lessen the pain in that instance, and any one who says something like that to any single is increasing the pain ten-fold.

  2. Joseph-
    I absolutely agree; hence my opposition to the ban. I have edited the phrase.

  3. Clarification: I agree with your rejection of the possibility of "plenty of other people to marry" - just putting the pettiness of such an argument into perspective. It bothers me that people think that way.

  4. I misread your post because I reacted without reading your last sentence carefully (unless you just changed it?). My bad.

  5. That was original; my only edit was to remove "plenty of", because on re-read it felt too glib even when placing it in their mouths.

    No problem.

  6. During the "Who is a Jew" Discussion - was it early 1970's? - Rabbi Teitz suggested a temporary moratorium on conversions and several rabbonim, including the Rav, rejected it.

  7. Also see here

  8. Talmud - Interesting; I wasn't aware of that.

    Shasdaf - Thanks!