There have been two important political and religious developments in Israel this year on issues related to Giur, Conversion to Judaism, which came to the fore again, as we crossed the threshold of Shavuot this year.
Shavuot is about the Jewish People receiving the Torah, which offers an interesting association with Megillat Ruth, the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot. Megillat Ruth is the story of the Moabite woman who chose to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, and share the destiny of the Jewish People. Not only was Ruth a proselyte or convert, but she was a great woman and the lineage of her descendants is specifically mentioned: Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, who was born on Shavuot: and this is why we read this Megillah on the festival.
So, the question of acceptance of converts, their sincerity of intentions, and how they become part of the Jewish People today is a particularly sensitive issue, and there was a large demonstration in Jerusalem opposite the Israeli Chief Rabbinate following the the latest problems – just before Shavuot (5768-2008).
Whatever the grounds and whatever one's personal opinion, there are many issues and personal lives at stake here, and it tarnishes the image of Judaism. Jewish History has many examples of healthy disputes, where each school of thought had its own opinion and rulings within the overall framework of Judaism, but accommodation was achieved among them either with one ruling prevailing (such as: Bet Hillel over the more literal Bet Shamai; the prevalence of the Babylonian over the Jerusalem Talmud), or a situation of mutual acceptance.
It is a telling and immensely saddening comment on the status, understanding and persona of the modern Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, as well as their unwillingness to acknowledge each other's decisions and solutions, in face of the need to help the Jewish People hold together in body and spirit.
Unfortunately, it is so easy to oversimplify the issues, as did one radio interviewee, who observed cynically, "I don't think that Ruth would have had a chance of meeting the criteria for conversion to Judaism today!".
We invite you to explore and role-play these issues: further resources are supplied below and in the series: Conversion Controversy.