Attitudes To Conversion
At the time of the Mahzor Aram Soba of 1527 and 1560, conversions were clearly accepted, as there are blessings in the Mahzor on the rituals of conversions. However, in the early twentieth century the Syrian Jewish communities of New York and Buenos Aires adopted rulings designed to discourage intermarriage. The communities would not normally carry out conversions to Judaism, particularly where the conversion is suspected of being for the sake of marriage, or accept such converts from other communities, or the children of mixed marriages or marriages involving such converts. However, there are exceptions to the rule, such as conversions for the sake of adoptions always being permitted. Additionally, communal rabbis (such as the late Chief Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin) have occasionally recognized conversions carried out by certain rabbis, such as members of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Nonetheless, these rulings strongly discourage people from converting into the Syrian Jewish community as they require them to show commitment to Judaism above and beyond what is required by the normative rabbinical laws of conversion.
Hacham Uzziel, then Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was asked to rule on the validity of this ban. He acknowledged the right of the community to refuse to carry out conversions and to regard as invalid conversions carried out by other communities in which marriage is a factor. At the same time, he cautioned that persons converted out of genuine conviction and recognized by established rabbinic authorities should not be regarded as non-Jewish, even if they were not allowed to join the Syrian community.
The ban is popularly known within the Syrian community as the "edict" or "proclamation" (in Hebrew, takkanah). Every twenty years or so, the edict is reaffirmed by all leaders and rabbis of the community, often with extra clauses. A full list is as follows:
- Buenos Aires, 1927 (R. David Setton)
- New York, 1935 (Hacham Hayim Tawil)
- New York, 1946 "Clarification"
- New York, 1972 "Affirmation"
- New York, 1984 "Reaffirmation"
- New York, 2006 "Reaffirmation"
There has been some argument as to whether the ruling amounts to a blanket ban on all converts or whether sincere converts from other communities, not motivated by marriage, may be accepted. The relevant sentence in the English language summary is "no male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversions which we consider to be fictitious and valueless". In the 1946 "Clarification" a comma appears after the word "conversions", which makes it appear that all conversions are "fictitious and valueless", though this understanding is not uncontested, and there is no equivalent change in the Hebrew text.
Supporters of the edict argue that it has been demographically successful, in that the rate of intermarriage with non-Jews in the Syrian community is believed to be less than 3%, as opposed to anything up to 50% in the general American Jewish population. Opponents argue that this fact is not a result of the edict, but of widespread attendance at Orthodox day schools, and that a similarly low rate of intermarriage is found among other Orthodox day-schooled Jews despite the absence of any equivalent of the edict.
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