By Michal Kravel-Tovi
Jewish conversion, in Israel and elsewhere, has always been a highly politicized and publicly contentious issue. Conversion implicates practical and symbolic matters related to the question “Who is a Jew?”—and from this, who is entitled to determine the answer to this question. Conversion has historically elicited emotionally-laden rabbinic and communal debates. In Israel, Jewish conversion is entangled within the disputed arrangements of a weak separation between state and religion, and the state’s self-definition as a both Jewish and democratic state. Since the late 1980s, the Israeli state not only maintains its prerogative to regulate legal aspects of Jewish conversion but appears primarily concerned with strengthening its grasp on the administration of the conversion process.
The catalyst for this shift was the mass influx of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU)—immigrants who, although eligible for naturalization under the expansive provisions of Israel’s repatriation law, are not recognized as Jews under Jewish religious law and by the state’s Orthodox rabbinic authorities. Under the mobilizing rubric of a “national mission,” the Israeli state devised a pro-conversion policy, informed by a sense of demographic urgency and an ideological, Zionist impetus to convert as many non-Jewish FSU immigrants (and their offspring) as possible. This impetus was further buttressed by moral rationales which construed state-run conversion services as a token of gratitude and act of reciprocity toward the state’s newcomers: those who, so goes the logic, chose Israel as their homeland and ought to prove themselves as loyal and productive citizens. Within these laden schemes of political exchange, conversion and Jewish recognition were offered as a gift, in the hope that the deserving citizens would be willing to receive it.
In order to actualize the “national mission,” the state established new conversion institutions, nationalized extant institutions, and formalized the nature of the conversion project. The state institutionalized three subsequent stages, or state-citizen interfaces, in and through which conversion candidates undergo the official process of conversion. First, the candidate undergoes a typically year-long conversion course, which exposes candidates to the core tenets of Judaism, and instructs them about the religiously observant way of life they are expected to lead during and following their conversion. Second, they are scrutinized through a series of relatively brief bureaucratic encounters with agents of the rabbinic conversion court—first a representative of the court, and then a panel of rabbinic judges. The meetings afford the rabbinic judges an opportunity to evaluate the sincerity of the applicant’s desire to convert, and whether his/her level of adherence to Jewish law (as interpreted through an Orthodox lens) is satisfactory. Third, after the court approves the application, the applicant undertakes the ritualistic immersion in the ritual bath, an act that formalizes the joining into the Jewish fold.
According to the religious doctrine of conversion, the decisive stage of the conversion process is the ritual immersion. It is only after this that the rabbinic imprimatur is placed upon the state-authorized certificate of conversion. However, it is the preceding series of bureaucratic encounters at the conversion court that dominate the whole procedure. Given that the rabbinic court is the ultimate arbiter and gatekeeper of conversion, it is little wonder that other institutions and dynamics within this state-citizen interface have all been oriented and adapted to fall in line with its organizing principles.
Elsewhere, I have analyzed these principles in dramaturgical terms, arguing that the conversion procedure is constructed as a conversion performance, or rite of passing, in which candidates learn how to make a good impression and fashion the believable persona of a sincere candidate for conversion (Kravel-Tovi 2012, 2017). Developing a dramaturgical analysis of the conversion performance allowed me to follow the emic dramaturgical lingo of my interlocutors, who often used terms like “act,” “theater,” “masks,” and “show” to associate performance with impersonation. Equally important, it allowed me to identify how—counterintuitively, and contrary to the pervasive politics of suspicion—conversion agents of all sorts maintain collaborative and quite inventive performances with their candidates. This analytic direction resonates with several other threads in the study of bureaucratic encounters, most notably the emphasis on their performativity and self-constituting dimensions (Sharma and Gupta 2006, 13), and on their mediating materialities (Abarca and Bibler Coutin 2018; Farhat 2021). Considered together, these analytical approaches teach us about the interactive, creative, and transactive aspects of bureaucratic encounters. It also illustrates the ability of citizens and non-citizens—both “bureaucrats” and “clients”—to look back, speak back, maneuver, take agentive decisions, and influence the course of bureaucratic actions and decisions.
Likewise, Michel de Certeau’s (2005) notion of “tactics” directs our attention to the mundane practices enacted within bureaucratic encounters, the improvised and creative ways through which ordinary individuals negotiate this imposed system. As opposed to strategies that reside in or emanate from clear loci of power, tactics are “the arts of the weak” (219). They are exercised in the absence of such a locus, as a response “in isolated actions, blow by blow” (219). Far from being a secured plan of action, tacticians must seize occasional opportunities and offerings of the moment, and make do with limited possibilities (e.g., Gokalp Yilmaz 2013). In what follows, I employ De Certeau’s framework of tactics to consider how conversion teachers are implicated in the bureaucratic encounters that take place at the rabbinic court. In particular, I suggest that looking at the conversion teachers as tacticians allows us to illuminate their parallel, sometimes conflicting, commitments to both their students and to the conversion education institutions that employ them; and to unpack the means in which they manage the institutional awkwardness that marks their position within the bureaucratic conversion interface.
At the court, several social actors are regularly expected and invited to join the conversion hearing. Teachers, through the information they provide, rank as more important than all the other actors, including the synagogue sextons, host religious families, and the court’s own representative. The presence of these officials relates to the nature of the conversion hearing as a bureaucratic encounter. Rabbinic judges generally have between thirty to sixty minutes to decide if the person appearing before them is a worthy and trustworthy candidate for Jewish conversion. Most likely they have never met this individual before, but nevertheless must decide quickly if they can authorize their conversion. To make this decision, they must identify sufficient evidence of the practices, habits, and motivations that they consider intrinsic to the conversion process. Given the thin encounter permitted by the court arrangement, with the spectre of uncertainty that runs through rabbinic panels, they rely heavily on close interrogation of the conversion performance—and on the testimonies of the significant others who know the candidate better than they do. Aware of their susceptibility to deceptive performances, rabbis expand their field of vision outside the court to compensate for their blind spots. Neither clients nor bureaucrats, conversion teachers are called upon to fulfil this awkward institutional position.
Teachers are expected to testify to their students’ trustworthiness and credibility, significantly extending the incomplete bureaucratic gaze of the rabbinic court. After all, it is the teachers, and not the court’s agents, who meet the conversion candidates for several hours each week during the typically year-long conversion program. Their relationship with candidates is considerably more intimate than anything a rabbinic judge can establish across a sequence of short bureaucratic exchanges. Teachers are asked to report to the court about their students: to state their impressions and opinions of them and, ultimately, to share everything they know—good and bad—that would help in validating the bureaucrats’ decision.
But the teachers, who are all too easily co-opted by the court to fill in the missing information on candidates, often have ambivalent relationships with the court. This aside, they also have loyalties to other, differently-positioned actors—most notably, their students and the conversion education institutions that employ them. First, teachers generally hold relatively lenient religious (i.e., halakhic; legal) perspectives on conversion, compared to the more strident positions held by rabbinic judges. In particular, conversion teachers tend to hail from less observant Jewish communities, and to prioritize the national, Zionist meanings of Jewish conversion over niggling preoccupations with strict religious observance (Kravel-Tovi 2018). Secondly, they tend to be uneasy about what they see as the overly-bureaucratized and instrumental handling of Jewish identity by the rabbinic court. At the time of my fieldwork (2004-2007), this was both the personal stance of many of my teacher-interlocutors, and the formal stance of the institute that employed them. However, given the ascendant position of the rabbinic judges as gatekeepers over the process, conversion teachers have no choice but to comply with their norms and forms.
When accompanying their students to court, all these threads of tension become tangible, and teachers must devise ways to navigate their “between and betwixt” situation: between being a “conversion agent” and yet not a professional insider in the court; and between working in the name of conversion, but also working closely with those subjected to the interrogative power of the conversion process. Even though these teachers are supposed to serve the court as informants, their unique position nudges them into concurrently acting as their candidates’ advocates—to the extent of sometimes being complicit in concealing information from the court. The teachers’ assigned role in the court procedure is tied to the general strategy of the rabbinic court, which is to know as much as possibly about the candidate converts; but their actions, which I frame as tactics, sometimes include betrayal of this role. They do so through selective accommodation and selective resistance, attempts to assert ad hoc (albeit limited) spaces of autonomy within a complex bureaucratic and political structure.
To provide a more immediate glimpse into the pervasive dynamics of institutional awkwardness, and the ensuing tactics that teachers are pushed to exercise in response, I turn to describing a telling dilemma that confronted one conversion teacher during my fieldwork. His distress—as well as the leverage that he was able to apply—is indicative of the broader dynamics I briefly described above.
Dvir was clearly baffled. He had no idea how to tackle the issue, and Yossi, whom he had turned to for insight and clarity, had no ideas either. Dvir and Yossi co-taught a conversion class in Tel Aviv, sharing responsibilities for a class of about twenty conversion candidates, most young women, first- and second-generation migrants from FSU. The three of us were in a car, driving to the northern Tel Aviv area. We were on our way to a pedagogic seminar for teachers in Jewish conversion programs, like the one they worked in. Both teachers considered Kati, the protagonist of the puzzling story that Dvir had told us, one of the brightest of these candidates. As Yossi had described her once, she was “an extremely serious and promising convert.”
What could have possibly gone wrong with such a promising candidate? Kati had a boyfriend who was refusing to participate in the conversion program. Though the Orthodox conversion court required candidates with spouses to involve them in the process (with an eye towards building the religiously-observant Jewish homes of the future), the boyfriend was not playing his part. Dvir told us that the boyfriend, a well-known public relations professional, had paid a visit to the class the previous week. During a recess, Dvir and the boyfriend had argued about the rationale of this prerequisite. The boyfriend felt that his background, as a religiously-oriented Israeli Jew, meant that he knew more than enough about religious Jewish life; but Dvir, whose mandate included supporting candidates on their path to the court hearing, knew better. Unable to reach agreement or compromise, the boyfriend, exercising his own tactics, told Dvir upfront: “So, she will say that we broke up.” In so doing, he meant to release Kati from the extra burden of proving her spouse’s cooperative religious performance, and allow her to focus on bettering her own preparation. And indeed, at the following session Kati informed Dvir that she and her boyfriend had split up.
I looked at Dvir through the car mirror, watching his wondering and embarrassed face as he laid out the alternatives he was pondering: to accept Kati’s claim unquestioningly? To ignore his own suspicions, and forget or un-hear what her boyfriend had said? Or, perhaps, speaking with her directly would be the right thing to do?
A few months passed, and I heard nothing more about Kati and her boyfriend. In due course, the time came for Kati’s preliminary meeting with a conversion court representative, tasked with evaluating her progress in conversion. Dvir joined the meeting, and so did I. It is normal for conversion teachers to take part not just in the final court hearing, but also in the early- and mid-term meetings between their students and the representatives of the rabbinic court. In the meeting, Kati made a markedly positive impression on Rabbi David, the court’s representative. Appropriately attired in accordance with the gendered modesty code of Orthodox Jewish women, she also presented a remarkable biographical statement underscoring key religious sentiments. Overall, she expertly performed the persona of a candidate committed to religious observance.
But after Kati left the room, Rabbi David continued to discuss her case with Dvir. Although teachers have no formal say during the decision-making, they are partners in internal discussions. In this case, Rabbi David wanted to air concerns, and possibly garner more information about Kati. Expressing his doubts, he said: “Something here is too sweet, too perfect.” Dvir asked whether his suspicions had been triggered “because of the guy.” Kati had mentioned the name of her (ex?) boyfriend, during the interview, but presenting him merely as an acquaintance who had supported her in different ways throughout the conversion process—including his submission of a recommendation letter, testifying to her religious observance, to the court. Being presented in this manner freed him from the obligation to join her and perform his own religious persona. Her prospects were much brighter as a single woman, rather than with a spouse who rejected the extended dictates of conversion. Rabbi David nodded. Dvir, to my surprise, responded vaguely. “Well, maybe, I don’t know. Look, she excels in class.”
When Rabbi David left the room for a short break, I said to Dvir “So, you chose not to tell.” It was more a statement than a question. Dvir understood immediately that I was referring to his choice to not reveal what he knew, or suspected, about Kati’s real relationship with her (allegedly) former boyfriend. The inconsistencies between Kati’s story and his own knowledge of her were not negligible. The concealment of such a significant aspect of one’s life (being in serious relationship or not), if disclosed, could easily be taken as evidence of insincere conversion. Saying everything and nothing at once, he replied laconically: “Yes, it was a real dilemma, but that was my decision.” A few days later, Dvir updated me that he had subsequently spoken to Kati, sharing with her Rabbi David’s suspicions because he felt that she needed some shock therapy. “If she is going ahead with her version of things, then let her go for it, but I wanted to give her pause to reconsider.”
Dvir did not believe Kati’s official story. But, as this vignette shows, he chose to collaborate (some would say connive) with her, and—unbeknownst to her—rescue her “too perfect”, “too sweet” conversion narrative. When he did challenge Kati, Dvir did so privately, backstage, in a way that did not undermine her candidacy or expose his prioritized allegiance to his students rather than to the court. He could not reveal to her what he had done on her behalf; partially because he had to save face as a teacher, and partially because he also, genuinely, hoped to educate her. I had come to know Dvir quite well over the course of my fieldwork, and so did not make light of his decision. I knew how much he had valued and emphasized in class the ideal of sincere conversion; but also how much he felt mobilized to the “national mission” to convert FSU immigrants, whatever it takes. When choosing to evade full disclosure to Rabbi David, Dvir clearly compromised and stretched his ideals concerning sincerity, taking a not-insignificant risk in the process. After all, if his conduct had been exposed and scrutinized, he could have lost his job; certainly, it would have harmed his credibility in the eyes of the court. His nontrivial decision to unequivocally support Kati in her encounter with the court representative reveals much about the “sideways tactics” that conversion teachers are inevitably pushed to exercise contra the conversion court: an apparatus with which they are ostensibly aligned with but also external to, often critically so.
Other professional sensibilities and habits of conversion teachers, which I became privy to during my fieldwork, can productively be taken as tactics. For example, conversion teachers deliberately manage their own persona in front of the rabbinic judges. This can include concealing or reframing aspects of their personal or professional life. They never confront rabbinic judges directly, nor bring to the surface the fraught institutional relations between the court and the conversion schools where they work. They clearly know their place and role within the play. On a few occasions, I noted how teachers politely but firmly proposed alternative interpretations to those proposed by the court. Likewise, I also saw how teachers helped their students in court: easing the palpable tension, reminding them of what they know, leading them into manifesting stronger performances.
In the classroom, teachers exercised various tactics to reconcile their awkward and conflicting positioning as middlemen between court and candidates. Teachers prepared their students for their performances by sharing insights into specific “audiences,” i.e. specific rabbinic panels. In other cases, teachers were straightforward in their critique of the court. In one case, Naftali, a third teacher in the class where I conducted my fieldwork, observed to his class candidly that the requirements that they were expected to conform with were rooted in specific sociological, rather than absolute theological, truths—and as such are reflective of the arbitrary background of the rabbinic panel. In this sense, Naftali armed his students with an additional layer of meaning, otherwise transparent or unknown, about the contextualizing forces behind the workings of the court.
The idea of tactics invites us to look at how conversion teachers operate “sideways,” vis-à-vis and contra the bureaucrats with whom they are simultaneously aligned in a shared national mission. Seeing conversion teachers as tacticians opens possibilities for going beyond the seemingly dyadic formations constituted in bureaucratic encounter, and toward considering the multiple actors, multiple vulnerabilities, and multiple positionings entailed in the encounter.
Michal Kravel-Tovi is a cultural anthropologist at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of the award-winning When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel. Her current projects include the construction of a “continuity crisis” among American Jewry, and an emerging “Me-Too” activism among Haredi Jews in Israel.
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