A central theme of the upcoming Yom Tov of Shavuos is conversion. The Oral Law too looms large at this time of year. It is after all only due to the oral tradition that we celebrate Shavuos when we do — day 50 from the 16th of Nissan — and the Gemara records fierce debates between Chazal and the deniers of Torah shebe’al peh over this very issue.

The timing was interesting then for the Jewish Week to feature a report on a new conversion brouhaha that’s brewing in Israel alongside a piece about a current controversy in New York involving something called keeping “Biblical kosher.”

The latter phrase popped up in an article describing the aftermath of the decision by the 92nd Street Y (92Y) an iconic cultural institution in Jewish New York to have a nonkosher caterer prepare the meals for its annual gala. Although the event invitation announced that the fare would be “kosher style ” longtime 92Y member Suzanne Goldberg told the Jewish Week that she’d been informed by the 92Y that it would be “Biblical kosher… and I was told it meant that milk and meat would not be served together.”

That response has given me newfound respect for the level of Jewish sophistication and scholarship at the 92Y. I’d have assumed that at an event featuring “Biblical kosher” food the only thing not allowed on the premises would be kids boiled in their mothers’ milk (or perhaps kids period considering what Manhattan babysitters take an hour these days).

But apparently the 92Y folks are far more Jewishly clued-in than that and realized that the derivation of the meat-and-milk prohibition from a Scriptural verse gives it d’Oraisa — and thus Biblical — status. The lamdanim among us of course can still debate whether this exciting avant-garde definition of kashrus — it’s so 970 C.E. when the Karaites were all the rage — includes the need for kosher slaughter.

The procedures for such slaughter appear nowhere in Scripture save for a fleeting Divine reference to performing slaughter “as I have commanded you ” meaning in the Oral tradition. Hence Torah Jews give it Biblical status; on the other hand it’s not literally Biblical as in “appearing explicitly in the Bible” — but then again neither is the mixing of milk and meat. It is complex questions like these that would keep Tzeduki poskim up nights — if only any Tzedukim still existed.

That the two controversies over conversion and kashrus have been stirred contemporaneously can be problematic for Jewish “leaders” trying to juggle their public responses to both. That’s the lesson Steven Bayme head of the important-sounding Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee must have learned by now. Asked by the Jewish Week about the 92Y tempest Bayme’s response was admirable: “Given the changing demographics in which the Orthodox are playing a strong role in Jewish public and communal life the trajectory is toward the most inclusive standards of kashrut.”

He was not alone in arguing that an institution such as the 92Y serving the broad Jewish community ought to have kashrus standards that are acceptable to every part of it including its most observant sector. Quoted next was Steven Number Two clergyman Steven Wernick CEO of the Conservative movement’s congregational arm who spoke of his “disappointment” with the 92Y’s decision:

“Organizations that purport to serve the broad Jewish community should have kosher affairs” he told the Jewish Week. “Not having them is exclusionary. There is a responsibility of communal organizations to act in such a way that is inclusive of the Jewish community.… I hope it does not happen again for the unity of the Jewish people.”

Wernick in turn was followed by Steven Number Three Long Island Reform clergyman Steven Moss who said he has “always believed that we need to be inclusive both in my synagogue and in communal life. That means to be respectful of those who are more observant.… Excluding those who are more observant is not a Jewish thing.”

Well said and pleasantly surprising. And now over to the other current controversy in which a bill making its way through the Knesset would “recognize only conversions performed under its own institutions the State Conversion Authority under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate…[and] reject all conversions done in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis and by privately run rabbinic courts.”

The Jewish Week quotes one Steven Bayme head of… well you already know who said that “90 percent [of American Jewry] will regard this as a direct affront ” because it sends a message that “your Judaism is not recognized by the State of Israel.” Now let’s see… The above-quoted Ms. Goldberg says a 92Y told her that the “cost is prohibitive — are you aware of the cost of kosher food and supervision — and 99 percent of the people do not care.”

Nevertheless Mr. Bayme along with his fellow Stevens argued cogently that “the unity of the Jewish people” called for adopting a minimal standard of kashrus that was for the majority of attendees uncomfortable but for the minority indispensable. Indeed Bayme had put forth an even more pragmatic case for adhering to higher standards based on “changing demographics in which the Orthodox are playing a strong role in Jewish public and communal life.” How is it then that what’s kosher for kashrus is treif when it comes to standards of geirus?

True the downside in accommodating Orthodox kashrus requirements is limited to missing out on one’s favorite nonkosher delicacies while the Knesset conversion bill under consideration would deny something far more serious — Jewish identity — to thousands of prospective converts. But if the stakes on one side of the conversion controversy are far more consequential than the steaks that diners at the 92Y gala might have missed out on the same is surely true on the other side of the equation as well.

Permitting thousands of halachically bogus converts to be recognized as Jewish would tear asunder the unity of the Jewish people far more deeply and permanently than a treif gala dinner ever could. It would create entire castes incapable of marrying into one another and flood Israel with non-Jews posing as Jews to add to the deluge of non-Jews already there. And the “changing demographics in which the Orthodox are playing a strong role in Jewish public and communal life ” is an even stronger argument in tradition’s favor in Israel where hundreds of thousands of people are coming ever closer to Jewish observance.

Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 661. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com.