Rabbis are not Pooper-Scoopers

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The influx of one million Russian-speaking immigrants in the 1990s was a blessing for Israel, albeit a mixed one. The mass immigration provided hundreds of thousands of Jews with a chance to reconnect to their heritage after 80 years of Soviet dictatorship.

Shuvu, a nationwide school system, whose enriched Jewish curriculum combined with superior secular studies has benefited tens of thousands of immigrant youths, and which is funded by the overseas haredi community to the tune of more than $10 million annually, is the most intensive effort at reconnecting young immigrants to Jewish tradition.

At the same time, the wave of immigration brought the country as many as 500,000 non-Jews, under the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. When prime minister Ehud Barak went to greet the millionth new immigrant, few Jews could be found on the plane. Of 1,004 new immigrants from Chaburusk in 1999, only 38 were Jewish. Former Diaspora affairs minister Michael Melchior lamented that on visits to Israeli embassies in the FSU, all he found were “people… with no connection to Israel or the Jewish people.” One family of eight had only a grandfather who was one-quarter Jewish, and 20 years dead to boot.

Government policy deliberately maximized the number of non-Jewish immigrants. US government funding of immigrant resettlement constituted one-fifth of the Jewish Agency’s budget in the ’90s and was pegged to the number of immigrants. Former absorption minister Yuli Edelstein described the Jewish Agency’s policy as one “of turning over every stone in Vilna in search of a drop of Jewish blood.”

Dov Kontorer of Vesti described Jewish Agency emissaries as having “fully internalized the ideology of creating a new Israeli nation, for which Slavs are preferable to haredim and Moroccans.” Yuli Tamir, when she was absorption minister, praised the Jewish Agency policy of maximizing immigration for “maintaining the secular character of the state.”

But even those eager to reshape Israeli society around the new immigrants eventually recognized an experiment gone awry. They had not foreseen neo-Nazi literature being sold in Russian-language bookstores, or Jewish immigrants complaining of arriving here and being confronted by the same anti-Semites who hounded them in the FSU.

HAVING CREATED a Frankenstein’s monster, the state cast the rabbinate in the role of pooper-scoopers to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, there is no rabbinic fairy dust to make hundreds of thousands of non-Jews into Jews, nor are rabbis empowered to twist Halacha out of shape to create it. (We can ignore with impunity editorials penned by those who have never opened a volume of Talmud, yet do not blanch at instructing the greatest living talmudists how to read Maimonides.)

Every contemporary halachic authority of standing, including Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, has viewed acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot as an indispensable requirement of conversion. A would-be convert need not know every Halacha, but he or she must be fully committed to the system of mitzvot.

That commitment involves more than merely mouthing a verbal formula. Where the would-be convert, for instance, is living with a non-religious or non-Jewish partner – even if that partner is “only a boyfriend or girlfriend” (in the quaint formulation of a recent “news” story) – the dayanim would have to be remarkably naive to trust in a verbal commitment to keep mitzvot.

That hundreds of thousands of new immigrants would make the requisite commitment to mitzva observance was never in the cards. Life changes of that magnitude cannot be subjected to numerical targets or mass-produced. All the outreach organizations in Israel, employing hundreds, bring at most 2,000 native-born Jews, many from traditional backgrounds, to such a level of commitment per year.

How could anyone hope to achieve greater results with non-Jewish Russian immigrants raised in a totally atheistic society and totally ignorant of Judaism? Even more absurd was the expectation that this miracle would be effected by a Joint Conversion Institute, whose Reform and Conservative lecturers explicitly deny the binding nature of mitzvot.

Israeli society has made its own contribution to the small numbers of Russian immigrant converts. The immigrants have had little problem integrating without converting. They have correctly noted that most Israelis are not mitzva observant, and little inclined to demand a greater commitment from the new immigrants than they themselves possess. (Those who would make their level of observance the standard for entrance into the Jewish people forget that they are descendants of generations of ancestors whose commitment to Halacha was complete.)

Far from the requirements for conversion being too strict, there are currently too many fictitious conversions. Rabbi Yisrael Rosen of the Conversion Authority – in which the dayanim are drawn from the national religious world – admits that a substantial number of converts do not observe even basic mitzvot shortly after conversion. Some experts put the figure above 90 percent.

Such non-observance of basic Halacha immediately after conversion undermines any claim of a sincere commitment to mitzva observance. How prescient has proven the warning of the first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, that far greater scrutiny of candidate’s sincerity is required today, when converts no longer enter an overwhelmingly observant Jewish community and may have external incentives for converting.

Binyamin Ish-Shalom, head of the Joint Institute for Conversion, maintains that tens of thousands of non-Jews avoid conversion because they only want to be Jewish, not Orthodox. Conversion, however, is a religious commitment – a choice “to dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence.” Israel can lay down any criteria it wants for citizenship – e.g. service in the IDF. But it has no right to conflate citizenship with being a Jew.

Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, April 20.

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18 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Yehoshua,

    Where is the Chazon Ish regarding the Meiri?

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I would like to add that although the accepted halacha concerning relations toward non-Jews is according to the Rambam, there is a position, that of the Meiri, that discriminatory halachic status toward non-Jews only applies to the ancient pagans. The pagans were basically possessed of a might-makes-right ethic. Later religions which have ethical principles, even though they are less than monotheistic, are enough to warrant a fairer legal status. The Chazon Ish zt”l came out against using the Meiri for actual practical legal decisions since the Meiri’s works were found in manuscripts which did not go through the tradition of learning and criticism throughout the generations. There are those who differ with the CI, and in addition when the issue of ger toshav becomes operative, the Sanhedrin will be functioning and reviewing basic principles.

  3. Elliot B. Pasik, Esq. says:

    Yehoshua –

    Thank you for the referral to those wonderful seforim. I also recommend them highly.

    I thought it was self-evident that my reference to ger toshav was not intended in the strict halachic sense. In fact, I did not write that any non-Jew living in Eretz Yisroel is a ger toshav. I am unaware of any current procedure in Israel for a non-Jew to appear before a beis din so as to earn the status of ger toshav. On the other hand, I would suggest there are lessons to be learned from the concept of ger toshav.

    Darchei shalom, the way of peace, also informs Jewish thought and deed. We Jews in both Israel and America are blessed in having many wonderful neighbors of different faith communities, Evangelicals, Russian Orthodox, many others. In my legal profession, I’ve been fortunate in meeting many Christians who are wonderful friends of Israel and the Jewish people.

  4. dovid says:

    Will Choose — April 23, 2007 @ 4:17 pm: Isn’t every ben Adam created in tzelem elokim?

    No question, we were all created b’tzelem elokim. The question is what we do with it afterwards. If a non-Jewish tzelem elokim goes to beis din and states (see Yehoshua Friedman — April 23, 2007 @ 2:52 pm) that he wants to perform all the Noachide commandments for the sake of Heaven (not out of convenience, and not out of fear of the justice system [for instance not to steal, because this is the will of G-d and not because of fear of being caught]), then he qualifies to live in the Land of Israel. In short, one has to qualify. I will never make it into the US Olympic team. I don’t qualify. BTW, not all the mefarshim require a Gentile to state in beis din his intention to faithfully obay the Noachide laws, but all of them do require a ger toshav to observe them. As Yehoshua Friedman wrote in his post: “An atheist or icon-worshipping Russian Orthodox would not qualify.” I will ad to this that most of the Arabs, even the observant ones, also don’t qualify to live in Israel. Murder, promiscuity, lack of effective courts of justice are violations of the Noachide laws that most Arabs are guilty of.

  5. L.Oberstein says:

    Of course, most contemporary rabbis rule as the above article, but there are plenty of sources for a more lenient approach. It is not as cut and dried as one might think. King David converted people he conquered ,they didn’t take a course nor were they asked. This whole procedure has been much more flexible under earlier Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel. That being said,the Jews of the former Soviet Union are a special case. They suffered as Jews and could not learn anything about the religion. It was a nationality, they had no religion.After all that our people have gone through , especially under Communism, we cannot turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to our cousins, even if they are not 100% Jewish. That doesn’t mean they should be given automatic conversion certificates, but for heaven’s sake let Zionist Rabbis handle it halachicly. The very old rabbis in whose names every ban is issued do not share in the dream and they are applying impossible standards. Israel needs these people for its existence. They are productive citizens and they are our flesh and blood, sort of like Marranos.

  6. SephardiLady says:

    I’m not trying to change the topic (per Jacob’s comment), but the title is misleading considering the important subject matter.

  7. Jacob Haller says:

    Can’t help but speculate that the majority of those who take issue with the article’s supposedly politically incorrect title are merely attempting to change the subject since the original one unpleasantly presents a serious societal issue without any solution in sight.

    I’ll also qualify the use of term “supposedly” since the author explained its intentions which dovetailed with my own hava amina that the scatological question was raised due to the mess created in wake of the realization of a true “kulturkampf”.

  8. Will Choose says:

    Isn’t every ben Adam created in tzelem elokim?

  9. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Eliot,
    I don’t believe that Reb Yonasan had in mind that non-Jewish Russo-Israelis were “poop”. I believe that he meant (correct me if I am wrong, Reb Yonasan), that the clear-as-mud social reality of who is a Jew is the poop. Of course other than the anti-Semitic skinheads and settler-and-hareidi-beating policemen, there are plenty of very decent, cultured Russian non-Jews living in our midst. There is no reason to cast gratuitous aspersions on them. Our problem is not their fault. In addition, I suggest, Eliot, that you check out the Gemora (Sanhedrin, Erechin), and the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim, last few chapters) for the definition of a ger toshav. A ger toshav is a non-Jew who has passed the inspection of a bet din as one who keeps the Sheva Mitzvot Bnai Noach. An atheist or icon-worshipping Russian Orthodox would not qualify.

  10. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    A number of readers have objected to the title as undignified, and they may be right. I would like to make clear, however, that the object of the implement described in the title is metaphoric — it is not the non-Jewish immigrants themselves, but rather the problem for the identity of the state of Israel created by half a million people who are Jews according to halachah.

  11. Reb Yid says:

    Yes, it’s ironic that JR uses the term “pooper scooper”.

    Especially since I’m sure his mother remembers the signs that used to exist in Kenilworth, IL, which read “No Jews or dogs allowed”.

  12. dovid says:

    “we are required to treat fairly the ger toshav (non-Jewish resident) within our midst.”

    A ger toshav must accept the Noachide commandments and live by them. I think the great majority of these fellows, as well as the Palestinians, do not qualify.

  13. Elliot B. Pasik, Esq. says:

    This is an informative article, but “pooper-scoopers”? I don’t think the author intended it, but the use of the term in the headline and the article text might be interpreted by some to mean that the non-Jewish Russians living in Israel are “poop”. Surely, this is not a message that the Torah endorses – to the contrary, we are required to treat fairly the ger toshav (non-Jewish resident) within our midst.

  14. YM says:

    Very well reasoned and written.

  15. Gil Student says:

    Pooper-scoopers?!?! I object to the obvious implication.

  16. Stanley Kards says:

    I’m sorry but they don’t have much choice. Israel needs people desparately, and if these folks want to live there, and they qualify Aich sheh hu, you got to let em in.

    With so many Yordim who never return?

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum: Israel can lay down any criteria it wants for citizenship – e.g. service in the IDF. But it has no right to conflate citizenship with being a Jew.

    You are absolutely right.

    There are three groups here:

    1. Halachic Jews living in Israel.

    2. Israelis who are socially Jewish, who live in Jewish cities and villages. This group has all levels of observance from Charedim to Chiloni couples living together and cooking bacon cheeseburgers on Shabbat.

    3. Citizens of Israel.

    Groups 2 & 3 had never been identical, since Israel has Arab citizens. Groups 1 & 2 were presumed to be the same, even though it’s quite likely that they had never been identical (I doubt that anybody asked the Holocaust survivors who came to Israel if they were really Jews, or just racially Jewish in the eyes of the Nazis).

    With the Aliya from the FSU, groups 1 & 2 are moving further apart. Frankly, there is no logical reason for them to stay the same. There is no logical reason for the couple above, who ignores Taharat Hamishpacha, Kashrut, and Shabbat, to suddenly cares about what Halacha says on who is a Jew.

    It would be unfair to expect Rabbis to bend Halacha to keep 1 & 2 identical. It would also be unfair to expect Chilonim to suddenly care what Halacha say, and not get married with boyfriends / girlfriends who are members of group 2 but not 1.

    In a couple of generations marriage between Chilonim and the observant might require giyur lechumrah (conversion to verify that somebody is Jewish). Since such a marriage already requires the essense of giyur, the acceptance of Mitzvot, to avoid marital disharmony, I don’t think that would be a big loss.

  18. Bob Miller says:

    Judaism is not some rubber band that can be stretched to fit the perceived needs of any government. The whole idea that political considerations should be allowed to subvert the halachic conversion process, or other Jewish practices, is offensive.