On Honesty

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Rabbi Reuven Hammer, head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, has an op-ed on JPost.com which relates directly to my post of yesterday evening.

Officially, the Conservative movement also has high standards for a convert. There is no way they would, or should, accept a conversion-by-correspondence course, with or without Miami seminar. But (to the chagrin of some of the more serious members and Rabbis) all you hear from them in Israel is that all conversions should be accepted.

The Orthodox Batei Din should be commended, not criticized, for upholding their standards — even when the charlatans performing trivial ceremonies claim Orthodox ordination. But you won’t hear that from Rabbi Hammer. Instead, you see him note that according to Maimonides, “after the fact, even the lack of a formal acceptance of mitzvot is not enough to void the conversion (Issurei Biah13:17). The picture that emerges from a careful study of the sources, then, is one of great leniency. The authorities were concerned that the convert be sincere, but they were also eager to ease the way into Judaism and were loath to invalidate a conversion so long as the individual had undergone the technical ritual requirements.”

It’s hard to express how painfully dishonest this is.

Here are Maimonides’ own words, just 13 paragraphs previous to Rabbi Hammer’s quotation: “When a non-Jew wants to enter into the Covenant, and to dwell under the Wings of the Divine Presence, and accept upon himself the yoke of Torah, then he requires circumcision, immersion, and [in Temple times] a sacrifice…” According to Maimonides himself, the desire to accept upon him or herself “the yoke of Torah” and observance of Torah law is presupposed. The lack of formal acceptance does not invalidate the conversion “after the fact” — when the failure to ask was an inadvertent omission. Rabbi Hammer casts Maimonides as an advocate for “don’t ask, don’t tell” acceptance of the Commandments, and that’s just not the case.

Furthermore, Rabbi Hammer neglects another important clause in the language of the Rambam, in the very paragraph he quoted: “and we are concerned about [the possible convert] until we verify his righteousness.” In other words, when read fully and in context, Maimonides was not in favor of “great leniency” but great concern — meaning, concern for the possibility that perhaps the individual did convert sincerely.

And this is important because, as discussed a few weeks ago, Rabbi Hammer’s colleage Neil Gillman said “that calling [the Conservative movement] a halachic movement is intellectually dishonest.” According to Rabbi Gillman, Rabbi Hammer must first reconcile not only the Reform movement’s stance, but even that of their own, before launching his barrage of criticism at Orthodox Batei Din. Until then, it is clear that it is those Batei Din, and not Rabbi Hammer, who are faithful to the Maimonidean standard.

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1 Response

  1. Toby Katz says:

    The Conservative movement plays a funny game, talking out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand they do not accept Reform conversions, because C demands mikva and bris and Reform do not. On the other hand they demand that the Israeli goverement accept Reform as well as Conservtive conversions.

    When they do conversions, many C rabbis do not demand anything particular of their converts. The ritual must be formal — bris and mikva — but there is no standard for what a convert must do or believe. Each C rabbi determines what he will demand, the C movement has a whole has no standards for conversion. See Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, the 1988 book published by JTS.

    When a couple come to a C rabbi to be married, and one of them is questionably Jewish, the C rabbi uasually takes care of the problem with minimal fuss. Let’s say one of the partners is a Reform Jew whose mother is not Jewish—and he is Jewish only acording to the R definition which accepts patrilineal descent (which C does not accept). Or let’s say his mother had a Reform conversion, with no mikva. Or let’s say he simply isn’t Jewish. C rabbis in theory do not perform intermarriages. What will the C rabbi do in any of the above cases? He will conduct a quickie pro forma conversion of the partner whose Jewishness is in doubt.

    This explains why R and C get along so well. You would think the R movement would heatedly denounce the C movement, just as they denounce the Orthodox. “How dare they not accept our conversions, how dare they not accept patrilineal descent, how dare they say that half the people in the Reform temple are not Jews?!”

    Why do they not turn in fury on the C rabbis who reject R standards of conversion and halacha?

    The answer is obvious. It’s a wink and a nod understanding between R and C that they are both on the same side, and that when it comes to the crunch, C will find ways to accept R while they both work together to undermine Orthodoxy.