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.]
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
But there’s a second problem:
Part 2: The people you are protecting are the ones who want to intermarry inappropriately.
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!
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
Just my two cents.