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.