Following are two letters written by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to Prime Minister Ben Gurion in 1959, when the Prime Minister asked the Rebbe how to set certain policy to insure the continuity of Judaism, even though the government of Israel was not based entirely on the teachings of Torah….
8 Adar 5719
Mr. David Ben-Gurion
Prime Minister of Israel
This is in reply to your letter regarding my opinion on the registration of children of mixed marriages, when the father is a Jew and the mother a non-Jew who did not undergo conversion before the birth of the child.
The intent of the inquiry is – as the wording of the resolution has it in the above mentioned letter – “to define instructions that should be in harmony with the tradition accepted in all circles of Judaism, both orthodox and non-orthodox of all trends, and with the special conditions of Israel as a Sovereign State which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as a center of ingathering the exiles.”
My opinion is absolutely clear, in conformity with the Torah and the tradition accepted for generations, that in these matters there can be no validity whatsoever to a verbal declaration expressing the desire to register as a Jew. Such a declaration has no power to change the reality.
According to the Torah and the tradition of ages which still exists today, a Jew is only a person born to a Jewish mother, or a proselyte who had been converted in conformity with the exact procedure laid down in the authoritative codes of Judaism from ancient times down to the Shulchan Aruch.
The above applies not only to children whose parents or guardians declare their desire to register them as Jews, but to whosoever comes forward to declare his wish to change his status in order to enter the Jewish community.
Such a declaration has no force whatever unless he actually fulfills, or has fulfilled the appropriate conversion procedure as laid down in the Jewish codes in the Shulchan Aruch, as above.
I do not cite sources since there are clear and detailed rulings on the matter in the codes of Maimonades, the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, etc.,
All that follows now is merely an additional postscript, written with the intention of emphasizing that even if the following is not accepted, either in part or in full, this does not distract at all from the finality of the opinion I have outlined above.
The following remarks are merely a reaction to the account of the situation delineated in your letter.
- The question of registration, or however it may be described, is not a matter confined to Israel alone. It goes without saying – as explained in your letter – that no one may raise a barrier between the Jews of Israel and those of the Diaspora. On the contrary, all our brethren, wherever they may be, have constituted one people, from the moment of their emergence in spite of their dispersion in all the corners of the world. Consequently, the solution of the problem must be one that is acceptable to all members of the Jewish people everywhere, that is capable of forging and strengthening the bounds between unity of all Jews, and certainly not one that would be cause, even the remotest, of disunity and dissension.
- Accordingly, even if you may argue that the present conditions in Eretz Israel call for a special study of the above mentioned question, those conditions do not restrict the problem to Eretz Israel, but, as noted, constitute a matter of common concern to every Jew everywhere.
- The belonging to the Jewish people was never considered by our people as a formal, external matter. It has always been defined and delineated in terms of the commitment of the whole being of the Jew, something intimately linked with his very essence and innermost experience.
Accordingly, any movement which disregards or belittles any of the procedures in this connection degrades the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people and cannot but be detrimental to the serious and profound attitude toward the Jew’s inner link with his people.
- To ease the conditions of transition and affiliation to the Jewish people – particularly in the special circumstances of Eretz Israel, surrounded by countries and peoples unsympathetic towards it (that is an understatement) is to endanger considerably the security of Eretz Israel.
- What emerges from the above points is that even if an attempt is made to avoid the proper solution to the problem by a compromise, such as substituting for the word “Jew” a word of completely secular connotations, this will not constitute a way out, since the damage would remain both with respect to strengthen the bonds of unity with Jews everywhere, as well as from the point of view of inner strength and security.
- Of course, no argument can be abducted from the cases of people who have been converted in the proper manner and have nevertheless caused harm to the Jewish people. On the other hand, there is the possibility that one who merely makes a verbal declaration of his Jewishness may benefit the Jewish people. The demand for a duo conversion procedure is likewise not negated by the fact that there are non-Jewish “saints” who, as the description implies, are for all that, still “non-Jews.”
- In the frame of reference in which the question was put, the matter discrimination was mentioned.
Discrimination can, however, only apply to granting or withholding of rights, or meting out punishments; it can have no relevance to the question of Registration which has to do with existing reality.
Let me conclude with the hope and expectation that Eretz Israel in all its aspects, both present and future, should constitute a factor uniting Jew everywhere both orthodox and non-orthodox of all trends, by attuning itself in all its affairs more and more to the name by which it is known among all the peoples of the world – “the Holy Land.”
Mr. David Ben-Gurion,
Prime Minister of Israel
Yesterday I sent you my official reply to the question of Registration, and I have to apologize for the delay in my reply till now for a number of reasons. What is written further is not official and not even semi-official. It was once fashionable in certain circles to suggest that the Jewish religion and religious observances were necessary for those living in the Diaspora – as a shield against assimilation. But for those who can find another “antidote: in the place of religion, particularly for those living in Eretz Israel, within their own society, where the atmosphere, language, etc. (apparently) serve as ample assurances of national preservation, the Jewish religion was superfluous – what need had they to burden themselves with all its minutiae in their daily life?
But the trend of developments in Eretz Israel in the last seven or eight years has increasingly emphasized the opposite view: That however vital the need for religion amongst Diaspora Jewry, it is needed even more for the Jews in Eretz Israel.
One of the basic reasons for this is that it is precisely in Eretz Israel that there exists the danger that a new generation will grow up, a new type bearing the name of Israel but completely divorced from the past of our people and its eternal and essential values; and, moreover, hostile to it in its world outlook, its culture, and the content of its daily life; hostile – in spite of the fact that it will speak Hebrew, dwell in the land of the Patriarchs and wax enthusiastic over the Bible.
I do not wish to dwell on this painful subject at all for obvious reasons (especially since I see no need for further elaboration). One of the reasons is that I fervently hope that this calamity will not come to pass. Eventually, members of that generation itself will vehemently rise up against that danger, and will take measures to ward off the evil. Indeed it is just recently that an intense ferment has been felt in Eretz Israel and abroad demanding a spiritual content to life; if a deeper probe is made, it becomes evident that the yearning is for something transcending the reason of man.
The thirst of the youth of our eternal people will certainly not be quenched by rationalizations and theories that are the product of contemporary mortals, which will share the fate of those ideologies which made their debut only yesterday and which are no more today. Here is the place for the Law of Moses and Israel, the Oral and Written Law, our independent values dating from the day the Jewish people stood before G-d, our G-d, at Horeb and the great voice was heard which did not stop: “I am G-d your G-d…You shall have no other gods….”
Needless to say, I do not speak here of a theoretical religiosity which serves only as a purely philosophical world outlook, or as the subject of lectures at weekends and holidays. I speak of a pervading and practical way of life, which includes the weekdays too, and all such matters which are usually termed “secular.” Our faith is, after all, essentially one of practical deeds.
Now is the ideal opportunity to transform the whole canvas of life in Eretz Israel and direct it into the above-mentioned channels. This opportunity is knocking at your door; for you have been granted the ability and privilege to use it to the best advantage, a privilege and opportunity which are not given to every man and the likes of which have not presented themselves for many decades.
It is more than likely that the aforementioned lines will astonish you. Do I really imagine that by means of this letter I can change or influence an outlook many decades old, and in particular the outlook of a man who has seen the fruit of his labors? But, since in my opinion the situation in Eretz Israel is as described above – the situation in itself, the essential truth of the idea, the unique and most wonderful opportunity granted you – it is they which speak, appeal and demand.
I am sure that even without my letter you have often reflected on this But I could not allow myself to pass over this in silence – at a time when I am engaged in writing on the subject of Registration which is part and parcel of the general background outlined above. I felt it my duty to refer to this, at least in a private letter to you.
At this opportunity, and begging apology for the delay, I thank you for sending me your booklet. Let me base my next few words on what you wrote in the booklet when referring to Eretz Israel, I mean the expression “the Holy Land.”
Now the epithet “holy” like that of “Jew”, has had its content defined and consecrated by generations of our people, from the time of the Giving of the Law – when the title “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” was bestowed on us and when the Jewish people were granted the Holy Land according to its borders “the land of the Canaanite and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates” – till the present day and including it.
As for your question with regard to my attitude towards the Holy Land etc., I trust you saw my reply to the question “what is a Jew?,” which has been published both here in America and in Eretz Yisroel. You particularly question with regard to immigration and settling in Eretz Yisroel does not indicate whether it refers to yourself or is it on a general way.
But my answer would depend on the circumstances of each individual, for it is not possible to give a blanket advice on such an important question.
I should like, however, to emphasize one general point. No matter how much is expected of a Jew in regard to Torah and Mitzvahs, wherever he may be, a great deal more is expected of him if he is in Eretz Yisroel, of which the Torah says “It is the land of which the eyes of G-d, they G-d are, from he beginning of the year to the end of the year.” So much so that it is regarded as a Holy Land even among non-Jews.
Our Sages refer to it as “The Palace of the King.” A person wishing to enter the Royal Palace must be prepared to answer such questions as for what business is he there and he must be prepared in every way. It is demonstrated by his conduct and actions that he realizes he is in the Royal Palace. It is unnecessary to elaborate.
May G-d grant that you will succeed in what is your tune and inner purpose in life, namely to spread Yiddishkeit, and in an ever-growing way, and may you have good news to report always.