8 Adar I 5719
[February 16, 1959]
Mr. David Ben-Gurion,
Prime Minister of Israel
Greetings and Blessing:
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 and in the Shulchan Aruch, as above.
With honor and blessing,
P.S. I do not cite sources, since there are clear and detailed rulings on the matter in the codes of Maimonides, the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, etc.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 detract 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.
a) 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 bonds between and the unity of all Jews, and certainly not one that would be a cause, even the remotest, of disunity and dissension. Accordingly, even if you may argue that the present conditions in Eretz Yisrael call for a special study of the abovementioned question, those conditions do not restrict the problem to Eretz Yisrael, but as noted constitute a matter of common concern to every Jew everywhere.
b) 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.
c) To ease the conditions of transition and affiliation to the Jewish people—particularly in the special circumstances of Eretz Yisrael, surrounded by countries and peoples unsympathetic towards it (that is an understatement)—is to endanger considerably the security of Eretz Yisrael.
d) 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 strengthening the bonds of unity with Jews everywhere, as well as from the point of view of inner strength and security.
e) Of course, no argument can be adduced 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 due 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.
f) In the frame of reference in which the question was put, the matter of discrimination was mentioned. Discrimination can, however, apply only 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 Yisrael in all its aspects, both present and future, should constitute a factor uniting Jews 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.”
Rabbi M.M. Schneerson