Conversion: It’s Not About Numbers

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A few years ago, a television producer asked me to help locate interesting converts to Judaism for a documentary he was preparing for Israel TV.

In the course of the project I met some extraordinary Jews, including a Harvard-trained math professor, descended from old Pilgrim stock, and a former Protestant minister whose interest in Judaism was first piqued, while he was a graduate student in Germany, by ceremonies commemorating Kristallnacht.

As the documentary neared completion, we learned that it was scheduled to be shown on Shavuot, not in the days preceding the holiday, as we had been led to believe. None of the subjects whom I had convinced to participate were willing to be part of a TV program broadcast on the festival itself. Doing so, they felt, would betray the life of mitzva observance to which they had committed themselves.

Of such converts the Midrash states: “A ger is more beloved [before God] than the multitudes who stood at the foot of Sinai. Why? Because the latter would never have taken upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven had it not been for the thunder, the flames, the lightening, and the sound of the trumpets that they witnessed… Whereas the former came forward without witnessing any of these wonders.”

ACCORDING TO Jewish tradition, the Messiah descends from two righteous converts: Ruth, the Moabite, and Na’ama, the Ammonite. (Ruth serves as the model for all future converts; we read her story in the Book of Ruth on Shavuot morning.) Rabbi Akiva, the greatest teacher of the Oral Law, was the offspring of converts. And Onkelos, whose Aramaic translation is printed in many editions of the Pentateuch, defied his uncle, the Roman emperor, to convert.

The Jews of Vilna used to sing, every Shavuot, the same melody and words, “But we are your Nation, the children of Your covenant,” that Count Potocki (Avraham ben Avraham), a young Polish noble and seminarian, burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for converting to Judaism, sang on the way to his martyrdom.

Such converts add immeasurably to the Jewish people by providing what is most lacking today: examples of the burning power of a life of Torah and mitzva observance. Their contribution is qualitative, not quantitative.

But converts will never be an answer to the hemorrhaging of the Jewish people.

THE TALMUD describes a ger “as if newborn.” To view oneself in that fashion – i.e., as having severed all connections to one’s past, including to one’s biological parents and siblings – is a miracle. And miracles by their very nature can never be mass produced.

Jewish ignorance and apathy should be our concern, not numbers. Long ago the Torah informed us: “Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did God desire and choose you, for you are the smallest in number of all the nations” (Deuteronomy 7:7).

Nevertheless, most of the Jewish world treats numbers as the primary desideratum of conversion. An editorial last week in the Jerusalem Post (“Stop obstructing conversion”) lambasted the Chief Rabbinate for not recognizing the conversions performed by any ordained Orthodox rabbi and by members of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

The editorialist barely asked why the Chief Rabbinate no longer recognizes, for instance, every certificate of conversion bearing the rubber stamp of a certain rabbi bearing a long white beard. It was enough for him to know that “the Jews are a small and shrinking people,” and that the Chief Rabbinate’s scrutiny of conversions performed in America will result in fewer converts. Case closed. Never mind that the rabbi in question has, in the past, affixed his seal to conversions where there was no commitment to mitzva observance, in contravention of the RCA’s own guidelines.

IN NO AREA are rabbis subject to more pressure than over conversions.

Let’s say that you are an American Modern Orthodox rabbi, and the son or daughter of one of your most prominent congregants has decided to marry a non-Jew. The congregant wants the prospective spouse converted, no ifs or buts about it. Your job is on the line.

The only protection for a rabbi in such is situation is a blanket rule that he does not have anything to do with conversions, and refers all conversion cases to a regional rabbinical court specializing in conversion.

Seventeen years ago, the RCA announced that it was creating such regional batei din. Yet the situation remains almost unchanged today. The major impetus toward the creation of regional batei din has come instead from the Eternal Jewish Family Program, under the rabbinical guidance of New York-based Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, which originally began as an initiative to create standards of conversion for already intermarried couples.

The RCA has a strict rule against members issuing their own private kashrut supervision, but none against performing conversions. Some members perform hundreds of conversions a year, which itself raises suspicions. Yet the RCA has never reprimanded a member for running conversion mills, or publicized the fact that they do not recognize the conversions of such members, as the Conference of European Rabbis did recently with respect to the conversions of one of its members in Eastern Europe.

TRUE, MANY conversions in Israel under Orthodox auspices are also halachically questionable. The recent case where the rabbi in charge of the conversion authority in the Prime Minister’s Office signed that he had witnessed a conversion ceremony in Warsaw even though he was in Israel on that date is but the tip of the iceberg.

Here the pressure comes not from individual congregants but from the state, which has decided that it is past nisht – that it’s unacceptable – to have brought hundreds of thousands of individuals to Israel who are halachically not Jews but qualified to immigrate under the Law of Return, and now seeks a magic fairy dust to turn them into Jews.

But the Chief Rabbinate’s failures in Israel do not justify its turning a blind eye to those in America.

It is also true that even would-be converts fully committed to accepting the yoke of mitzvot may find themselves caught in the jaws of an inefficient and sometimes cruel bureaucracy in the Chief Rabbinate. But curing that problem has nothing to do with lowering standards for conversion.

The Va’ad Olami L’Inyanei Giyur, founded by Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, the late chief rabbi of Antwerp, recently intervened with the Chief Rabbinate to expedite the handling of several such cases. Yet the same organization has spearheaded the international campaign for the recognition of a single standard of conversion, and for the creation of regional batei din specializing in conversion issues.

We must welcome every truly committed convert with open arms – not because they add to our numbers, but because they add to our quality. Only that quality can ever lead to resurgent numbers.

This article appears in today’s Jerusalem Post.

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29 Responses

  1. Aryeh says:

    “That was then, this is now. Unfortunately, we don’t have Rabbi Feinstein around today.”

    I think it’s wishful thinking to assume that if he was alive, he’d just wave his magic wand/write a teshuva and everything would be wonderful. I also used to think that the gedolim have the power to just make all problems go away. But unfortunately that’s not true.

  2. Aryeh says:

    Lumpy, Chazal say that Shimshon’s wives didn’t do him any good either and he was punished for “going after his eyes to marry them.” The last one, Delilah is a good example.

    As far as identifying who’s sincere and who’s not, you’re quite right. We’re not mind readers. This is what I mentioned in my original point. That there’s a tension between a mitsvah to love the ger (even the one who may have been converted for not the best reasons) and the general dislike of geirus for the wrong reasons, which may lead us to adopt “tighter standards” for conversion to weed such converts out (before they convert). Once again the Rambam I quoted describes the whole dilemma very clearly and succinctly.
    This balance may be difficult for some people, but then again many mitsvos are difficult for at least some people (e.g. loshon hora, hating another Jew, quarelling, talking in shul, not talking about business on Shabbos and the list can go on and on).

    On your point about Rus. Even if Ruth did convert to marry Machlon her sincerity when converting or reconverting again is not in doubt. In fact if you take this approach (that she did eventually convert for the wrong reasons) she becomes an example to all the gerim who converted for the the wrong reasons, namely to work on oneself to really mean it.

    As far as “grandfathering” gerim. If (hypothetically) I suspect that someone’s conversion was not performed properly based on the information that just came to light, why should I “grandfather” them?

    If someone shechted a cow for you, and then it turned out, two days later that the shochet wasn’t qualified, would you eat the meat?

  3. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    and then gave Shlomo’s wives as an example.

    And at the beginning of the statement I also gave Shimshom as an example. I noticed you don’t have anything to say about his wives.

    Your counterexample of Ruth is an example of someone who precisely did NOT convert for marriage reasons, but was a lishma convert.

    That’s a matter of dispute — some say Ruth converted before she married Machlon — long before her “lishma” talk with Naomi.

    The not so sincere ones

    How can they be identified? Do we have mind readers among us?

    The “rabbanute” seems to be saying that every ger is suspect. The Torah commands says we are obligated to love, welcome and accept gerim into our people. The Torah doesn’t say that we are allowed to conduct witch hunts to ferret out the imposters after years and years of silence. That’s just cruel and uncaring.

    The only fair thing is, grandfather ALL of the gerim in before 2006/תשס”ו — safeq d’oraisa, l’chumra.

  4. Eliyahu says:

    Lumpy, you wrote “I fail to see what problem anyone could have with someone who converted for marriage reasons” and then gave Shlomo’s wives as an example. But they are an example of a problem with a convert who converteed for marriage reasons. Your counterexample of Ruth is an example of someone who precisely did NOT convert for marriage reasons, but was a lishma convert. Geirim are a sapachas to klal yisral. The sincere ones, because they are an indictment to the lackadaisical jews from birth (perhaps accounting for a incorrect/asur negative reactions from some). Halevay, we should have more sapachas’s of this kind. The not so sincere ones, because they bring in improper influences as in the case of Shlomo. (I know that we have plenty of jews who bring in improper influences, but there is no need for more).

  5. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Note that this has nothing to do with the the jewishness per se of Shlomo’s children from these wives.

    I know, it just gives some people an excuse to paint other people with a broad brush.

  6. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Shlomo’s foreigh wives secretly worshipped avodah zarah and led him astray

    That’s right, Shlomo’s wives did (past tense). Fortunately, we have a thing called bechirah, so today, our results may vary.

    Boaz married a “foreign wife” — I guess it didn’t do him any good either.

  7. Eliyahu says:

    Lumpy, your comment about shlomo hamelech just proves aryeh’s point. Marrying foreign women did not do Shlomo any good. Shlomo’s foreigh wives secretly worshipped avodah zarah and led him astray. This was the beginning of the process that led to the destruction of Bayis Rishon. Note that this has nothing to do with the the jewishness per se of Shlomo’s children from these wives.

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Yisrael,

    I understand the sensitivity of this issue, as I have a friend who’s mother was converted by the RCA, and who is now himself married, although I don’t know the details as far as which Rav, etc.

    I imagine that it directly affects only those who make Aliyah. Perhaps each situation will be considered on a case by case basis.

  9. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    It’s highly unlikely that such people are banging down the doors to make aliyah

    I agree. I also think this issue with the “rabbanute” is important for gerim who have no plans to make aliyah. Why? Because more and more, the velt is looking to personalities in Eretz Yisrael for leadership because we no longer have gedolim today of the stature of a R’ Feinstein or a R’ Hutner. This rejection of gerim in Eretz Yisrael will ultimately gain a foothold in the United States, IMHO.

  10. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    One type is the “lishma” ger, such as Rus, Shmaya and Avtalyon and of course Onkelos and many others

    The “lishma” gerim also live among us today. These are the ones are the ones that I have observed who have been mistreated by all types of “frumme” yiden.

    (I’m not mentioning any contemporary ones only because I don’t know any contemporary gerim who are well known).

    Rabbi Asher Wade and Rabbi Natan Gamedze are two that come to mind.

    Those I don’t think anyone has any problems.

    I wish it were so.

    I’m sure if you go through it together with the background Gemara, Rishonim, and Tur and then the commentaries and the relevant Shailos and Tshuvos it’ll be more than 4 pages

    It sounds like it would make a nice pamphlet.

    So too, R’ Moshe Feinshtein YD 106, writes that the “vast majority of conversions are for marriage purposes and we should not really accept them, but once we accept them they are gerim.”

    That was then, this is now. Unfortunately, we don’t have Rabbi Feinstein around today.

    Anyway, since Shimshon the Nazir married converts of Philistine descent, I fail to see what problem anyone could have with someone who converted for marriage reasons. Shlomo HaMelech married scores of foreign women — I’m sure they converted just so they could marry Shlomo HaMelech.

  11. Yisrael says:

    So those of us who converted for the right reasons should be forced to live with the sword of Damacles hanging above our heads because of some ‘supposed’ gerim who converted only for marriage? That may not be what you meant but apparently it seems to be the line taken by the Chief Rabbinate.

    Newsflash. People who convert for marriage get married and then high tail it out of the community. They get their Ketubah signed and then they’re gone. It’s highly unlikely that such people are banging down the doors to make aliyah, which is why this whole business is so stupid. The only people who are being punished are us gerim who converted for the right reasons.

  12. Aryeh says:

    As far as “frumme yidden” not liking gerim. I’m not sure why every Moishe and Shloime likes this or doesn’t like that (and if they don’t like gerim period, then they’re violating a few mitsvos) but the truth is that there were (and are and will be) two types of gerim.

    One type is the “lishma” ger, such as Rus, Shmaya and Avtalyon and of course Onkelos and many others (I’m not mentioning any contemporary ones only because I don’t know any contemporary gerim who are well known). Those I don’t think anyone has any problems. In addition, there’s a mitzvah to love the ger, so anyone who doesn’t like gerim for is violating it

    But… (unfortunately) there’s also the other type of ger. The “shelo lishmo,” usually for marriage purposes. To those gerim, Torah has an ambivalent attitude. On one side, once they’re converted they’re 100% Jewish and the mitzvah of loving the ger applies to them too. But on the other side, we’d rather they they didn’t convert. That’s what the Talmud (Yevamos 47b) says that gerim are “kashim k’sapachas.” Rashi there explains that it is because they’re not familiar with the particulars of mitsvos and other Jews learn from them. Rambam, in Hilchos Issure Biah, ch. 13, halacha 19 interprets it in a similar vein and brings the story of the erev rav as a proof. So too, R’ Moshe Feinshtein YD 106, writes that the “vast majority of conversions are for marriage purposes and we should not really accept them, but once we accept them they are gerim.”
    Divrei Hayamim 1, ch. 2, pasuk 26 (see Rashi, Radak and the Gra) also reflects the negative attitude towards such conversions.

    So we’re faced with a tension between the mitsvah to love the individual ger (even if he didn’t convert for the right reasons) and the dislike for the general idea of someone converting for the wrong reasons. This balance is pretty difficult.
    As far as Lumpy’s comment about Hilchos Geirus. It’s found in the Shulchan Oruch YD, 268 (I think). I’m sure if you go through it together with the background Gemara, Rishonim, and Tur and then the commentaries and the relevant Shailos and Tshuvos it’ll be more than 4 pages.

  13. mycroft says:

    Has anyone in the midst of all these articles and pronouncements stopped to think what this does to those of us who have converted al pi Halacha here in the US and lead Torah-observant lives? Or maybe does no one really give a damn?

    There have been a few posts–I’ve written some taken Yisrael’s point–but I’m not a leader–so I think Yisrael’s point is well taken.

    No one has provided any list of the supposed ‘approved’ rabbis

    The approved rabbis include some well known politicians with access to money–see list in Seth Farbers org. I assure you it was not made on halachik reasons once you see some on the list.

    (thus leaving all of us gerim in a hellish limbo), nor what our halachic status is now in the US, nor has anyone provided a good explanation as to why this is a necessary step.

    There is no good reason.

    Maybe instead of writing apologetics these rabbis could possibly try to address the concerns of the people whose lives are actually being affected by this new pronouncement from on high instead of wasting time defending the decrepit Chief Rabbinate.

    Comment by Yisrael — June 7, 2006 @ 10:02 am
    Lumpy Rutherford also wrote well.

  14. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Has anyone in the midst of all these articles and pronouncements stopped to think what this does to those of us who have converted al pi Halacha here in the US and lead Torah-observant lives?

    Oh, I have and it is completely wrong. It’s been my experience that too many “frumme yidden” don’t really like gerim, so I am not at all surprised that the “rabbanute” has decided to play games with the lives of other people. I feel especially bad for the women who have converted many years ago and now have children — what a mess!

    If the “rabbanute” wants to say that the RCA is no longer an Orthodox institution, then come out and say it. However, inasmuch as they didn’t say anything over the past several decades, they should grandfather in all gerim before 2006/תשס”ו.

    BTW, does anyone know of a sefer about Hilchos Gerus? I’d like to see that, I bet it’s about four pages in length at most. Converting someone is not at all that complicated. Some people would have us believe that it is as complicated as brain surgery (viz. The Jewish Press: Tightening Standards Is A Good Thing).

  15. Yisrael says:

    Has anyone in the midst of all these articles and pronouncements stopped to think what this does to those of us who have converted al pi Halacha here in the US and lead Torah-observant lives? Or maybe does no one really give a damn?

    No one has provided any list of the supposed ‘approved’ rabbis (thus leaving all of us gerim in a hellish limbo), nor what our halachic status is now in the US, nor has anyone provided a good explanation as to why this is a necessary step.

    Maybe instead of writing apologetics these rabbis could possibly try to address the concerns of the people whose lives are actually being affected by this new pronouncement from on high instead of wasting time defending the decrepit Chief Rabbinate.

  16. SephardiLady says:

    Mr. Rosenblum, I think your allegations need to be backed up by some cold hard facts, otherwise they remain just that, allegations.

    In addition, a Beit Din requires three members, so while one sitting member may feel pressure from a congregant (which could happen even if someone were not modern), hopefully that is not the case with the other two members.

    There certainly are some strong arguments for regional ba’atei din, but large bueracracies are rarely good with dealing with situations in further off places, and like mycroft says, many conversions are not too complicated, and it would be sad to see some of these families put through a bueracratic nightmare to convert an adopted child or a BT that was raised Jewish and finds out there are halachic issues with a conversion a generation or two back.

  17. Joel Rich says:

    Mycroft is correct – I just didn’t want to get into the whole thing (5 types of creation vs. 4 etc. – hamevin yavin)
    KT

  18. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Everyone accepts geirut-there is a halacha-but the feelings change

    Sadly, not everyone does (viz. Syrian community of Brooklyn).

  19. Bob Miller says:

    Has each (or any) group in this controversy published a set of its own detailed, written, objective criteria for performing/validating/documenting a conversion, and for becoming a rabbinic authority qualified to perform/validate/document a conversion?

    If such written standards are not available, it’s not even possible to argue properly about this, much less resolve differences.

  20. mycroft says:

    “Unclear as to whether we really philosophically welcome converts”
    Joel probably a hashkafic debate between mystical inclined like Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Chassidism and the more rationally inclined Rambam-followed by normative rational halachik Judaism. Everyone accepts geirut-there is a halacha-but the feelings change.
    For the Rambam’s attitude see his letter to Obadiah hager on why he should say “elokeinu velokei avoteinu” and probably why the Rambam paskens like the Yerushalmi vs the Bavli and says a Ger is korei when he brings bikkurim.

  21. mycroft says:

    Most geirut preformed in the US by Orthodox Rabbis are not actually that complicated-they are probably either geurei katan or the case where a baal(at) teshuva realizes that although brought up Jewish-Reform or Conservative the mother isn’t Jewish halachikally. Both are not complicated halachik decisions-Geirut can be done hedyotot. The mosrt important point is integrity. It is clear that until recently the Chief Rabbinate accepted the geirut of Orthodx Rabbis as long as the RCA would certify the Rabbi. People were mgayer on that basis and would have been accepted on that basis to retroactively challenge a geirut where the ger followed and has followed accepted procedure is abhorent.
    A side point-it is not that those 50 on the Rabbinates list names are necessarily the most learned and respected-they are just as likely to be those who were aggressive and wantedto make a business out of geirut-versus those for example who refused to accept money for a geirut and did it only when the facts warranted it.

    I wonder if “The RCA has a strict rule against members issuing their own private kashrut supervision, but none against performing conversions” this is athrowback to when the RCA owned the OU symbol-they used the profits to support Yeshivat Hadarom and a few other Yeshivot in Israel before about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago they transferred ownership of theOU to the Orthodox Union-who have been using the profits for their uses since. Of course, I assume the profits are much greater now with much bigger Kashrut business.
    Geirut is just something that is not and shouldn’t be a profit center.

  22. Steve Brizel says:

    It is disturbing that certain members of the RCA and the Beth Din of America are portrayed as a conversion factory. That conclusion requires more than the conclusory allegations offered by the CR of Israel, an institution that now is controlled by Charedi interests and which has aligned itself against the RCA in its internal disciplinary proceeding of a member.How ironic for the author to align himself with a newspaper that has taken the defense of such a member as one of its primary editorial duties recently.

    There is simply no proof offered that any percentage of RCA members are acting in the manner posed in the article-just a naked allegation that some members of the RCA perform hundreds of conversions a year
    ( presumably in the same manner that one can find signatories for a heter meah rabbonim among many yeshiva bachurim and avreichim who sign such documents) or that the head of the Beth Din of America had not been physically present-a newly imposed requirement that had not been imposed or required by the Beth Din of America or the CR. Perhaps, the real issue is that the Charedi controlled CR views the RCA and its halachic authorities as simply unqualified to perform conversions. One also would appreciate claification as to whether Conference of European Rabbis, Eternal Jewish Family Program and the Vaad Olami Lianyani Giyur use the same standards for all potential gerim, consult with each other and recognize conversions by and between these groups. These facts, as opposed to the allegations about the RCA and its Beth Din, would have aided the reader’s comprehension and understanding of the issues involved herein.

  23. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Unclear as to when she actually converted (would great men (according to the Medrash)like Machlon and Chilyon marry nachriot?)

    Some say they intermarried, some say their brides converted before marriage.

    Once she established a connection to Boaz, getting a court to perform her conversion would have been trivial.

    No kidding, inasmuch as Boaz was Ivtzan, a shofet, mentioned in Sefer Shoftim.

  24. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    The RCA has a strict rule against members issuing their own private kashrut supervision, but none against performing conversions.

    Maybe it’s because conversions are not that complicated.

  25. joel rich says:

    Unclear as to when she actually converted (would great men (according to the Medrash)like Machlon and Chilyon marry nachriot?)

    Unclear as to whether we really philosophically welcome converts.

    Unclear how much a convert must know before we accept their conversion.

    Unclear (as hinted at by Micha) as to how long a conversion takes to take.

    Clear that discussion of the issue today is being clouded by non-halachik concerns.

    KT

  26. Alvin says:

    There are a host of commentaries which deal with the question of when and how Ruth converted.
    Hillel, why recreate the wheel based on your own reading of Ruth?
    Why not look up the classic commentaries & see how they approached the topic?

  27. HILLEL says:

    To Micha:

    Please forgive me, but your comment borders on the sacreligious.

    “Nachriah,” in my opinion, simply means a newcomer–not a Goya.

    Evidently, Naomi was of sufficient stature to effect a conversion, perhaps with a Bet-Din.

  28. Micha says:

    Acutally, her conversion must have not been valid until after she was already going through Boaz’s fields. In Ruth 2:10 she expresses wonder at Boaz’s generosity and comments “… and I am a nachriah!”

    Once she established a connection to Boaz, getting a court to perform her conversion would have been trivial.

  29. HILLEL says:

    King David’s grandmother, Ruth, was converted by a single person–Naomi.

    I wonder how that would play-out in today’s Israel.