Dear Rabbi Simon,
I was wondering if you could comment on the latest controversial issue of revoking conversions of Israeli immingants who subsequently became less observant. We know you prepare people for conversions yourself, and we have always considered your views on modern issues in Judaism as wise, respectful and balanced, so at the time when the act of leading Israeli religious authority seems so unfair to us as outsiders, we thought you could help us to understand what's going on, both from the technical Halachic and from the wider points of view. I am sure this would be of interest to others in the kehillah as well.
Best regards, Gregory
Conversion is indeed a fraught topic which is likely to remain in the public eye for the foreseeable future. Here in the UK the subject has excited much interest (and comment, and protest) due to the JFS case. In Israel there is the ruling, to which you refer, to de-legitimise at a stroke the conversions performed by certain rabbis. And everywhere there is the spectacular crash-landing of a so-called haredi rabbi from America who had been at the forefront of international efforts to introduce credible, more or less uniform conversion standards worldwide.
I will not comment here on the first or the last of these, although I may address them, if there is interest, on another occasion.
Fundamentally, "once a Jew, always a Jew".
One's identity as a Jew cannot be renounced or relinquished, just as a tiger cannot change its stripes, or a bushman, an aborigine or an Eskimo his ethnic or genetic identity. This is true also for one who has become Jewish in accordance with Torah law (which of course is not analogous to the bushman, aborigine or Eskimo, to which identity one cannot possibly "convert"). The rub, however, is in the words "in accordance with Torah law." The central issue is one of accepting the commandments, i.e. undertaking to live in accordance with the principles of Torah law (which logically and inevitably entails a working knowledge of those laws). If the convert subsequently lapses in her observance, though this may be a lamentable transgression (for which she will be called to account in the Next World) the original conversion, and the Jewish status which it confers, is not vitiated thereby.
However: There are circumstances in which the validity of the original conversion can and indeed cannot fail to be called into question. That is, there are cases where the original intention to live in accordance with Torah law was palpably absent at the time of the conversion. Where this is the case, it is not so much that the convert's Jewish status is revoked, as it has become apparent that the conversion itself was a sham ab initio. Occasionally this is principally the fault of the rabbi who conducts (or confers) the conversion. Often, however, the convert herself, frequently together with a (Jewish) partner, is at least vaguely aware that Jewish observance entails much more than the superficial expression of identification with the Jewish People which is sometimes the extent of the commitment required for her to convert. In other words, one whose conversion to Judaism was based on deception, incompetence, corruption, or similar may find his or her Jewish status called into question in the future. When that happens, the conversion is not so much revoked as revealed for the artifice which it always was. Deplorable, indeed.
Having said that, I do acknowledge the anxiety and even human tragedy which this situation produces. Indeed, in many cases the primary blame and culpability lies with the rabbi who conducts such spurious conversions. But as with someone misled by a cut-rate, incompetent (or venal) health-care professional, the fault may lie with the practitioner, but the patient pays the price.
It is to be hoped that the publicity surrounding issues of conversion generally will help to minimize in the future the circumstances which give rise to this tragic situation in the first place.