Conversion Confusion

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Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate has been under siege of late, over the issue – once again – of conversion. And once again as well, the media abound with misinformation. This time, though, some of it is being supplied by Orthodox rabbis.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, the retiring rabbi of an historic New York Orthodox synagogue assailed Israel’s Rabbinate for “raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold.” He accuses the religious authorities of having “adopted a haredi position that conversion is available only to those agreeing to observe Torah and mitzvot in full,” asserting that the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative codification of halacha, or Jewish religious law) say otherwise.

In the same periodical, a second Orthodox rabbinic commentator, the director of an educational institute in Israel, vented similar displeasure with Israel’s Rabbinate. The fact that Israel has become home to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants, he argues, “demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion.” That such has not happened, the rabbi went on, is proof that the Jewish State’s rabbinic authorities “are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process.”

Or, perhaps, more concerned with halachic integrity than with pleasing a populace.

The image of masses of sincere neophytes yearning to join the Jewish people — but being rebuffed by small-minded religious functionaries — plays well in the press. As does the notion that commitment to Jewish religious observance is not a requirement for conversion. Both, though, are at odds with reality.

There are certainly non-Jews in Israel who sincerely wish to convert to Judaism, not merely to cement their status as citizens of Israel but to wholeheartedly join the Jewish People and its mission.

But there are many more non-Jews in Israel, among them many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who may wish to be considered Jews but who have no interest in undertaking Jewish observance.

Sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah’s laws — or “kabbalat hamitzvot” — is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.

When a non-Jew seeks to convert solely for the purpose of marrying a Jew, pleasing a spouse or just feeling more Israeli, Jewish law is clear that the request should not be entertained. If a legitimate Jewish court is convinced that the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage is in fact willing to shoulder kabbalat hamitzvot, respected Orthodox authorities have not considered the marriage factor to be a bar to conversion.

But should a non-Jew without any such willingness somehow manage to be accepted by a rabbinical court and go through the motions of conversion — a formal declaration of kabbalat hamitzvot, immersion in a mikva (ritual pool) and, in the case of a male, actual or symbolic circumcision — halacha is equally clear: the conversion is entirely invalid.

One of the rabbis quoted above has tried to insinuate otherwise, citing codified halachic sources to the effect that once a conversion is performed, no amount of backsliding can change the convert’s status as a Jew.

That is indeed true. But only, the sources are clear, when the conversion was valid in the first place — i.e. there was an acceptance at the time, sincere and unmitigated, of the Torah’s commandments. Should it become clear — and certainly in a case where it was always clear — that the professed embrace of the Torah’s commandments was a sham, so was the conversion. The “convert” never was one.

Proponents of the “relaxation” of conversion standards in Israel often cite poignant, agonizing cases of non-Jews who were not accepted for conversion or whose conversions were not recognized by rabbinical authorities. There can be no denying that human pain can result from the application of Jewish law, no less than it can from the laws of physics, or from life itself.

But ignoring Jewish law is not an Orthodox option. And doing so can take its own human toll. Were Israel to “relax” its conversion standards, children of the beneficiaries of that change who might one day become observant would discover that they need to convert to be Jewish by the yardstick of their own beliefs. Young women engaged to cohanim would discover that they, as converts, cannot halachically marry their fiancés. What is more, the Jewishness of every convert and convert’s child would become questionable to all halacha-respecting Jews. Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should, and prevent the Jewish People from becoming, G-d forbid, a multitude of “Jewish peoples.”

One of the rabbis mentioned above chided Israel’s Rabbinate by reminding it that human beings are not “chess pieces.” He is right. What is more, the Jewish People is not a club, and halacha is not a game.

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42 Responses

  1. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    SephardiLady:

    Indeed the problems exist. But not every problem can be easily solved. Here, radically redefining conversion might seem to “solve” the challenge facing Israel, but it would be just as unconscionable from a halacha-respecting perspective as would be, say, to most of us, deporting from Israel all non-Jewish immigrants – another neat “solution.”

    What may seem to be an easy solution is often the seed of tragedy. As the Talmud teaches: “the ‘construction’ of youths [the insufficiently wise] can in fact be ‘destruction.’” And, as the Talmud continues, what might seem “destructive” on the part of “elders” [i.e. the wise] can in the end be truly constructive.

    JR:

    I think we should let the rabbis speak for themselves, and that they should be specific. Until they do, though, since their clearly expressed goal is to effect great social change in Israel with the absorption of a large number of immigrant non-Jews, and since all reports from Israel are that the vast majority of those immigrants have no interest in observance (i.e. kabbalat hamitzvot), it would certainly seem that the rabbis at issue have more than simply presenting a friendlier “welcoming” face in mind.

    I fully realize that you were referring, previously, to the Rabbanut-RCA rift, and again inform you that that controversy was simply not a subject of my essay; I lack the knowledge of its particulars that would enable me to address it.

    Your final comment puzzles me. If you mean that kabbalat hamitzvot is indeed not insisted upon by many seemingly reliable batei din, then my cry of anguish at attempts to further erode halachic conversion is all the more intensified.

    I am myself very familiar with several geirim (and have even written a book about one: “Migrant Soul” – Targum/Feldheim). All of them were mekabel mitzvot entirely, and their batei din would not have proceeded without that.

  2. JR says:

    Dear Rabbi Shafran,

    The 2 Rabbis have NOT called for a mass conversion, they have simply called for being more open and welcoming to people who are actually interested in converting, and then possibly reaching out to those who are not yet interested.

    As for refuisng to recognize conversions, I am talking about the Rabbinate-RCA rift, and it’s impact on thousands of people whose Kabbalat mitzvot should not be assumed to have been insencere, nor should even be questioned. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1178020746144

    Finally, if you think that your definition of kabalat mitzvot is actually what many of these Batei dinim are adhering to, then you need to pay a visit to the beit din and speak to some converts and potential converts. I am married to one and have many, many friends whove gone through geirus with various Batei Dinim.

  3. SephardiLady says:

    Rabbi Shafran,

    What do you propose to address these social issues? Surely they exist.

  4. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear JR,

    Reality check: Two rabbis have called for what amounts to mass conversion of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel, to help swell the “Jewish” population and avoid social problems. They have not detailed what new standards they are promoting but since the vast majority of Israel’s non-Jewish immigrant population, by all account, has no interest or intent to in any way undertake the yoke of mitzvos, it is clear that the rabbis have in mind some sort of “lessening” or elimination of the requirement of kabbolas mitzvos, the central element of halachic conversion.

    At no point did I address the issue of “retroactively refus[ing] to recognize conversion[s].” In cases where there is clear evidence that a conversion was not performed halachically, it is indeed invalid. But the issue here is not the past but the future – i.e. whether the Rabbanut should change the accepted halachic standard.

    As to the Rambam, he (echoing the Gemara, of course) is referring to what the potential ger has to be told; the neophyte need not be aware of even the bulk of mitzvos for the conversion to be, at least, post facto, valid. The kabbalas hamitzvos of what he does know, however, (and of future mitzvos he will come to learn about) has to be a true one, not the mere mouthing of words that the speaker has no intention of honoring. That is my definition of kabbalas hamitzvos and it is the definition put forth by every posek of whom I am aware.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    JR-I mentioned the Encylopedia Entry on Gewrus. WADR to Mycroft, start there and see whether the standard for Kabalas HaMitzvos is how you recently posted.

  6. JR says:

    Steve,
    I agree and I have seen no shread of evidence that Rov Rishonim or Rov Poskim, other than the few Haredi ones from the 20th century would adopt the current hard line charedi attempt to monopolize converions (i.e. retrospectively refuse to recognize conversion preformed by “unapproved” orthodox Rabbonim, meaning MO.). The Rambam is clear, “teach them SOME minor and MAJOR mitzvot…”, not every stringent detail particular to one’s yeshivish or chassidish locale. If you have any evidence that Rov Rishonim would agree with Rabbi Shafran’s definition of KAbbalat mitzvot (whatever that is, notice he hasn’t defined it, probably because there is someone on the right of him who will call him a heretic) and not RAbbi Angel’s, please bring it.

  7. yael says:

    This topic is of particular interest/concern for me as I am in the final stages of completing an Orthodox conversion. It has been a long, strange journey-one that I am thankful for but it has certainly not been painless emotionally, financially or socially. The ironic part for me is that what I thought would be the “hard part” (the real lifestyle change required in order to truly appreciate and keep all the mitzvot and/or some of the “perceived freedoms” that I would be “losing” upon taking on a Torah-observant lifestyle) has been the only thing that keeps me going most days. You see, I have found myself (and my son-I am a single mom) caught up in this current conversion crisis.

    People have been asking my opinion about all that is going on and many times they are surprised to hear what I have to say-many times they seem to be expecting (or wanting) me to condone or defend those who have done an “Orthodox” conversion yet clearly do not lead Torah-observant lifestyles. There are so many “labels” for all the levels/types of Jewish observance nowadays it’s almost (but not truly) comedic.
    Who do we think we are fooling?
    If people are doing “Orthodox” conversions for any other reason than that they absolutely intend to lead completely Torah-observant (accepting the Oral Law, too, which is an issue for many) and the Rabbis overseeing the conversions are aware then these conversions should not be allowed to go through in the first place. So many that I have seen have simply been done as “damage control”-for example, a Jewish man falls in love with a gentile woman and they want to get married. She has no intention of living a Torah-observant lifestyle but they both want to please the family, have the Jewish indentity for their children and generally appease his/her conscience. So many times the Jewish partner doesn’t even lead an Observant lifestyle in the first place!
    Rabbis may make the call in this type of situation that it’s more of a humanitarian choice to just let it (the conversion) go through. But who do they (the Rabbis) think THEY are fooling? Of course, I can understand the humanitarian aspect of such Rabbinical decisions but it still doesn’t hide the truth of what they are doing. There is a lot of pressure on the Rabbonim to be ‘yes men’-unfortunately, that is not what being a leader/teacher is all about. Choices are hard but they are choices.
    Will G-d be mocked?

    Then there is the situation where a convert appears to be sincere but post-conversion lapses in his/her commitment to the mitzvot and ends up leading a mostly secular lifestyle. Often, this is justified and supported by the influence of other non-observant Jews. I have found that many times people EXPECT this of me and they are very offended when I hold my ground about my observance standards. I realize they probably see this as a negative judgement from me as they have experienced what I call “the wall”-when Observant Jews put a wall up between themselves and the Jews who are not leading approved lifestyles. This is evidenced by the mass resentment and various ‘labeling’ within the Tribe and is (I believe) sadly yet another example of we are our own worst enemies, as Jews and humans, in general. This “us and them” mentality is so destructive-something based in ignorance and fear. Ignorance and fear breed hate. Yikes.
    I am very aware that I walk a fine line associating with Jews of all backgrounds and observance levels-it does create problems. But where is the love? Where is this thing called ‘Yiddiskeit’? This is why I teach my son to never knowingly embarrass someone who is either ignorant of or simply not committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle. I tell him to pray that they will one day see the beauty of such a life. I tell him they are not “Bad Jews”. But at the same time he understands we cannot always become more “socially intimate” with our friends who do not keep Shabbat, don’t keep Kosher or simply misbehave!
    But I refuse to write off any Jew.

    This is the part where I feel so blessed to have had the privilege of being able to choose to be a Jew. Although (as cheesy as it may sound!) I do believe that my soul has always been Jewish, that it is G-d’s Design that I should have been put on such a journey…I see so many self-hating Jews that it breaks my heart but I understand:
    It’s not a long stretch to resenting something you feel is restrictive-the old ‘grass is greener on the other side’ thing. This is again where I feel so humbled-I have been to the other side. Some of it WAS great, exciting and had it’s perceived benefits. But my soul was not at home there. Bizarrely, I discovered Judaism and have never looked back. When you have had your eyes opened you CAN choose to ignore what you’ve seen but there is ultimately no delusion that we can effect which could ever hide the truth. We cannot hide from G-d. We cannot hide from our destinies, despite our own free-will, because we as individuals are part of G-d’s Greater Plan. And rememeber, one doesn’t need to be a Jew to be righteous-a point often forgotten.
    We are responsible and accountable not just for ourselves but for each other. This is one of the reasons why on Yom Kippur (and while davening within a minyan or congregation during other times) we do what we do. We cannot go to G-d for our transgressions against each other. This makes our relationships and dealings within the Tribe (and with Gentiles) so very important. Quite frankly, we don’t have the right not to ‘do right by’ our fellow human beings.
    Sometimes this requires tough love, though. And tough love most often demands submitting to the truth. And the truth is G-d DESIGNED that we as Jews should keep the Mitzvot.
    All problems we suffer through as human beings (and especially as Jews) are due to our reluctance to really submit to G-d. Our own free will-our egos-are the source of this problem, all problems. G-d gave us this “freedom” because He wants us to CHOOSE His path. And whenever we do choose it, life takes on so much more meaning, beauty and fulfillment. It’s an ironic trick of the ‘dark side’ (!) that we perceive losing our ego-fed right to choose as a threat to our ultimate happiness.

    What does this all have to do with sincere Orthodox conversions?
    Why am I not bitter at my current circumstances-that I cannot get on with my (Jewish) life-that I cannot even think of finding a partner or having another child at this time? That I have been in this painful limbo for years now?
    Why am I not upset at the unfairness of being lumped in with non-sincere potential converts?
    Why am I not angry at all the Jewish politics going on concerning conversions?

    It strikes me as sad that the thought crossed my mind that going through a conversion the way I have witnessed it (every one is different) could very easily lead someone to become the biggest anti-semite ever! Thanks only to H’ that I have been able to survive some of the things I have been through during my conversion process. Ultimately, it has made my convictions stronger and has only provided evidence (for myself, anyway) that seeking to live by the Torah AND with the right intentions is the only successful way to be a Jew. It is beautiful and right and there is only much to be gained. It also breaks my heart to see the Tribe hurting so-which fills my heart with love for the humanity (at its worst or best) and makes me realize how important it is that we love each other. Our lives are NOT about US. This gives me so much purpose as many times (as morbid as this may sound) just living life for my sake just hasn’t seemed like enough incentive to keep going. Being a single mom is humbling, extremely hard but gives me back much more than what it costs me. Being a Jew is not always ‘easy’ but the spiritual and emotional benefits far outweigh any hardship. I simply don’t have a life outside being a Jew. One cannot ignore the pull of one’s soul. That would entail a far bigger death than losing one’s physical life. Besides, I have no life if H’ doesn’t design it that way. We are not for ourselves.

    So, I think that there should be some heavy-duty closet cleaning within the Tribe concerning conversions. If people want to do Orthodox conversions (the definition of which by my understanding means keeping the Miztvot and accepting Torah and Rabbinical Law) then there should be consistency within the process. Unfortunately, it seems unrealistic that the ‘politics’ within the Tribe will ever truly end being the ruling force concerning conversions. There is so much infighting going on and much of it has to do with ego.
    Some people are putting themselves (and their decision-making previleges) above G-d and He will not tolerate it eventually. Even this is part of His Plan. We think we are in charge but ultimately G-d will have His Way.

    Only H’ knows who is sincere and who is not. But in the meantime there are many people and families who are suffering because of this situation.
    The Tribe is suffering. How can we expect to fix the world if we cannot look ourselves in the mirror and see the true reality of the damage that is being done by ignoring what many of us know we are supposed to be doing? There needs to be peace in our tents before we can expect peace in the world. We truly are our own worst enemy.

    The Rabbis overseeing conversions have a huge ethical responsibility (I don’t envy them especially considering the current volatile political scene) and require our prayers-that they be given discernment, wisdom and love. Of course, we have the Torah to give us these tools but whether we choose to use them is another issue.
    Torah scholarship without the right intention for learning can be a recipe for disaster, especially when ego is involved.

    We need to pray sincerely for our leaders and pray for each other despite our differences. We need to also ask H’ for mercy.
    We’ve lost our focus, much as a marriage can, and the problem will not go away. Thankfully, our Marriage Partner, G-d, is determined in His Mercy and wants only to bring our marriage back on track. Sometimes this requires going through some very painful terraine.

    Just because we have allowed some “non-kosher” conversions to happen doesn’t mean we should continue to. By doing so, we are also continuing to respect the Torah and thus disrespecting G-d. We are causing grave danger to the Tribe by doing so.

    Some thoughts:
    -Once a person converts sincerely, they are always a Jew despite choosing
    to fall off the path of Torah post-conversion. The majority of modern Jews are NOT completely observant-throughout Jewish history Jews have waivered from Observance-does this cancel their Jewish status?
    -Were the Jews fully cognizant of all the Mitzvot (and understanding completely of how exactly they should be kept) when they accepted the ‘contract’ at Mt. Sinai?
    -Does a sincere convert truly require the ‘certification’ of a Beis Din in order to become a Jew? By Torah Law or Rabbinical Law? It’s no secret that the conversion process has changed drastically.
    -Is it not ironic that there are some sincere potential converts who are told that they are required to change their lifestyle (in the interim period before mikveh) and ‘prove’ their sincerity but at the same time are prevented from being able to actually do so! For example, not being accepted into Jewish schools, social groups, holiday functions, etc.. How is one to ‘learn by doing’ when these barriers are being put up? It’s one thing to test someone’s committment/sincerity but it’s cruel to ignore their human need for support and tolerance.

    There are many committed and sincere converts who are caught up in this mess. We are waiting patiently and trying to see this whole situation through eyes of love for the Tribe. We understand that there are tough calls sometimes and we pray for the Rabbis. We pray for healing and peace within the Tribe-the world depends on it.
    Healing requires going through some pain, sometimes a lot of pain.
    Peace only comes from submitting to who you really are and what you are supposed to do. Jews are supposed to cling to the Torah. Sincere converts were there at Sinai, too. For those of us who are waiting to be reunited with the Tribe this whole situation is extremely painful.

    Please pray for us.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    JR-I have no quarrel withyour presentation of R Angel’s POV or your sociological exploration into what may or may not Kabalas HaMitzos. OTOH, the issue remains-how does one define Kabalas HaMitzvos according to Rov Rishonim and Poskim.

    Baruch-is the shiur that you posted a link available as a PDF download also?

  9. Baruch says:

    Dear Rav Avi Shafran,
    Please find below a link to a shiur rhat was given by Rav Mayer Lichtenstein many will not agree with his approach but it is a good shiur and Rav Mayer Lichtenstein is a serious Ben torah and comes from good stock his father is Hagaon Rav Ahron Lichtenstein and his grandfather was Hagaon Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik Tz”l If you have some time if you could listen to the shiur. The problem with his suggestion is that it will never be accepted by all walks of orthodoxy so therefore in the long run people will start making lists of people who have the right lineage. So when people look to get married they will check this list. Here is the link.
    http://players.mediazone.co.il/media/authors/49/playlists/18767/players/22/

    Respectfully yours,

    Baruch

  10. mycroft says:

    My biggest problem is the Rabbanut in Israel changing the rules in midstream. For decades they have accepted geirut by members of the RCA-who would forward a certificate to the RCA office that they performed the geirut. The Israeli Rabbinate relied on that certificate. There is no indication that the American Orthodox Rabbinate has been engaged in admitting converts en masse. Most Rabbonim tell me that the vast majority of their converts have been either giyurei katan-where they’ve always insisted on a day school education etc and the not rare case of people who believed they were brought up Jewish-but become baalei tshuvah and find out that their mother wasn’t Jewish because their grandmother was a non Jew married to a Jew.
    These people have been converted for decades and may have lived a frum life for decades but now the chief Rabbinate is saying we don’t recognize their geirut. Smells of politics-Israel and the IDF geirut is far more problemetical. By playing their theoretical games it creates much emotional problems of acceptance by geirim.
    Going forward I might see a disadvantage to the new system-but no big deal-one at least knows what one must do to be accepted. To change the rules decades later is inexcuseable.

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I’m afraid I’m going to try and divert the discussion again. Rabbi Avi Shafran, please forgive me – I think the question I’m asking is relevant to the social context of the argument.

    What do you think would be preferable (or the lesser evil)? The fact is that Israel has a large formerly Russian population, and the majority of Chiloni Jews consider them part of the nation.

    1. Relaxing the geirut standard so that former Russians who are Chilonim can be Jews where the state of Israel forces people to go to their religious authorities (IIRC weddings, divorces, and funerals)?

    2. Drop the mandate of the religious authorities on weddings, divorces, and funerals? That way Jewish Chilonim will be able to marry former Russians, etc.

    In the Galut, Jews who don’t care about Mitzvot start their own denominations or assimilate (or both, as people here stated so many times). In Israel that doesn’t happen – but the fact of non observance remains.

  12. jr says:

    Rabbi Shafran,

    I think the point here is entirely mixed. Having read RAbbi Angel’s books I can attest that he certainly requires kabbalat mitzvot for every convert. The definition of kabbalat mitzvot is what the debate is about. If I came to a Satmar Beit din and stated that I accept Kashrut, Shabbat, Taharat HaMischpacha, and all the mitzvot and my intention is to make aliyah, serve in the IDF and then work as a physician full time in a hospital, I am doubtful as to whether I would be converted. If I came to a beit din in Lakewood and stated that I would keep my computer and TV, what do you honestly think their answer would be? You and I know that the issue here is not acceptance of mitzvot, but rather the ideology governing every aspect of one’s life (clothes, work, etc.). And as Rabbi Angel states, the Rishonim make no mention of what these minutia of life are required for conversion. Rambam states that once a potential convert replies “I am not worthy”, after being warned of the danger of being Jewish, he is to be accepted IMMEDIATELY. You teach him a few major and minor commandments and the mikvah and mila. The requirement that some of these batei dinim making on the convert to live in a haredi neighborhood, dress in 18th century black clothes, and eat only their hescher is nowhere to be found. And to top it off they are trying to disqualify, post facto, conversions performed by American Rabbonim who do not subscribe to these stringencies.
    The Poskim everyone keeps quoting are indeed 20th century HAredi poskim who agree with your own views. If you want to argue that the views of these poskim ARE the views of the rishonim, please bring proof. No one has quoted any so far. The RAmbam’s quote is certainly clear

  13. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Rabbi Shafran claried : “the large number of non-Jews in Israel from the FSU who would like to be considered Jewish demands standards for conversion regarding kabbalas hamitzvos be lowered.”

    Perhaps “different” but “lowered” is a value judgment. Is one who respects tradition and uses his learned father’s kiddush cup “lower” than one who insists on the shiurim of the Noda BeYehuda? Do you seriously think that Rabbi Angel wants theses large numbers converted without regard for halacha?

    Rabbi Shafran further clarified: “The rabbis at issue have not, to my knowledge, clearly spelled out what they would like to see as the standard for accepting the mitzvos.”

    Halacha by defintion means the traditions by which we “walk” not the texts that we promulgate. Not everything, especially those things are contextual and require judgement, lends itself to precise, public formulation.

    Should the crisis that at least some believe Israel faces, impact how a competent Posek weighs a particular issue? Perhaps those sensitivities are being questioned. Beyond all the less than helpful rhetoric, this may be the nub of the issue.

  14. SM says:

    When we talk of a ‘universally accepted halachic standard’ we are being dishonest unless we accept that what is meant is ‘a universally accepted halachic standard WITH WHICH I AGREE’. A standard can be non halachic for being too stringent as well as too lenient.

    This article has too much code in it for me. What I take from it is that the author does not like the stance of various rabbonim and so he seeks to attack their orthodoxy and their learning. I would take the points more seriously if that is what he actually said. A disappointment.

  15. Tal Benschar says:

    Mycroft, in case you have not noticed, we are not discussing a private psak halakha here which R. Angel might issue to his family or members of his synagogue. We are discussing what should be the policy of the Rabbinate of the State of Israel. The standard of conversion adopted will be used for, potentially, hundreds of thousands of converts. Those who dissent, we can be sure, will be berated as “extremist” and worst.

    R. Angel (and Prof. Ish Shalom) understand the point well — they each wrote articles claiming that their view was the consensus of halakha and that the “charedim” who have taken over the rabbinate are implementing an unusually stringent position. (I am going to ignore the ad hominems, such as labelling the other opinion “extreme,” etc.) The posters here are perfectly within their rights to point out that these views are at best marginal and most likely are outside the consensus of Rishonim and Acharonim.

    IMO, the bottom line is this. I know of no view in Shas and Poskim that kabbalas ol mitzvos is not an indispensible part of geirus, if not its very essence. In the modern sociological situation in which we find ourselves, one has to have an Alice-in-Wonderland approach to believe that anyone who does not intend to become “Orthodox” is in fact fulfilling kabbalas ol mitzvos. It’s not a matter of a “lifestyle” as some writers have characterized it, it’s a matter of basic deoraysas like Shabbos, Kashrus and, for those married, taharas ha Mishpacha.

  16. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    Rabbi Angel recently published a book on the subject of conversion:

    *Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion* (Ktav, 2005).

    Wouldn’t it be a better approach to engage Rabbi Angel in a detailed halachic debate rather than to engage in the kind of speculation here as to what the majority of poskim may or may not have held? I suggest that Cross Currents invite Rabbis Angel and Shafran to engage in a public exchange in this venue regarding this issue. As two important leaders of the Orthodox community in America they deserve nothing less from us!

    (I should add that I have not read Rabbi Angel’s book, but as a result of this essay I plan to order it shortly.)

  17. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    The discussion here has, I think, gone somewhat afield and some wrong assumptions seem to have been made by some readers. Please let me clarify a few things.

    First, the facts of the matter. The issue of my essay was not the RCA or the issue of rabbinic independence in deciding questions of halacha. I know nothing about the Israeli Rabbanut’s feelings or concerns about the RCA at any point, and have no interest in the topic. My focus was limited to a particular onslaught on the Rabbanut (an institution I have no relationship to and no inherent reason to automatically defend), by two Orthodox rabbis (neither of whom is Rabbi Ish-Shalom) who assert that the large number of non-Jews in Israel from the FSU who would like to be considered Jewish demands that standards for conversion regarding kabbalas hamitzvos be lowered.

    If anyone is making demands on anyone to “accept my own view,” in the matter, it would seem it is the two rabbis at issue. The Rabbanut certainly has every right to establish the standards it considers normative, and has done precisely that. To heap calumny upon the Rabbanut because of its convictions is simply wrong. If Rabbi A. wishes to invoke some different standard for his congregants, that is his business (and those of us who feel he is misguided will simply have to take that into account when, say, considering a shidduch with a convert from his congregation). But when he attacks others for not lowering their own standards – especially an institution whose decisions have impact on the largest Jewish community in the world – I think that bears addressing and clarification.

    The rabbis at issue have not, to my knowledge, clearly spelled out what they would like to see as the standard for accepting the mitzvos. But considering the population they want to convert (much of which, by all accounts is not interested in shouldering the mitzvos) it would seem clear that they are endorsing the sufficiency of something less than a full-hearted acceptance of the Torah’s commandments. That there are already many “converts” around who may not have met that standard certainly does not absolve the Rabbanut of hewing to what it believes to be the normative standard in the matter.

    For what it is worth (and I hope it is much, considering his stature as a posek), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in the first chelek of Yoreh Deah in Igros Moshe, writes the following:

    “… it is obvious and clear that [a non-Jew who did not accept the mitzvos] is not a ger at all, even after the fact [of his conversion ceremony]… because kabbalas hamitzvos for a ger is essential [me’akev]… and even if he pronounces that he is accepting the mitzvos, if it is clear to us [anan sa’adi] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing.”

    He goes on to write there: “I altogether do not understand the reasoning of the rabbonim who are mistaken in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to Klal Yisrael by accepting converts like these? It is certainly not pleasing to Hashem or to the Jewish people that such converts should become mixed into Yisrael. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all.”

  18. sima ir kodesh says:

    Meir Have you researched Rav Ovadia Yosef shlit”as sefer of halacha, “Yabeay Omer”? The sefrardich world has it poskim and baalei halacha as greater authorities, many stand legitimately in contrast and conflict with poskim of the Ashkenazick world.

  19. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “You know that is not how the halachik system operates-we don’t have a Sanhedrin and everyone can rely on his own Rebbe”

    I am not familiar with what Rabbi Uziel’s opinion actually is, and whether individuals can rely on whatever he said on the conversion issue in the event that it goes against other poskim. But as a general point, there is a concept of hiearchy and weight in psak, and communities have acknowledged poskim. Poskim themselves would have to weigh in on the weight to give to Rabbi Uziel’s opinion(whatever it is exactly).

    In general, there can be diversity in halacha and minhagim because of different poskim’s rulings, as opposed to bringing every question on even minor issues to a single poseik hador, provided that such diversity itself come from poskim. Of course, a theoretical legitimate machalokes haposkim that would lead to different standards in personal status issues such as geirus or mamzerus could be problematic in terms of communal unity, as opposed to disagreement on procedures in kashrus or the beracha on a type of food, so perhaps that’s a reason to adopt a single standard on conversion, even if there were theoretically a legitimate dispute.

    On the general subject of hierachy in halachic rulings, Rabbi Kenneth Auman has a letter in the Jewish Week(7/6/07):

    “…The truth, of course, as our centuries of rabbinic responsa indicate, is that each generation has always had its acknowledged religious greats. Rabbis were never afraid to ask questions and abide by the rulings of greater authorities. The fact that we today do not have a Sanhedrin composed of our greatest sages is an unfortunate result of our diaspora existence, not an ideal…”

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    Mycroft-My point is whether R Uzziel ZTL’s approach can be squared with Rov Rishonim and Poskim-Ashkenazi and Sefardi.

  21. meir says:

    Mycroft,

    I learnt the sugyos in Gemoroh, Rishonim and Achronim on the subject of Gerut. The position of Rav Uzziel is inconsistent with what is seen in the sources. Kbbalat Hamitzvot is a very strong factor even bedieved in the sources. The reinterpretation of Rav uzziel is not pashtus of what is written in the sources.

    WE don’t have a Sanhedrin but there are still issues that klal yisroel accepts upon themselves to follow either a majority of poskim or certain posskim of great caliber, at least in pure halachik issues especially on very global issues (like gerut).

  22. mycroft says:

    Rabbi Angel has been a leader of Orthodox Jews for decades. He has been a president of the largest group of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States-he has not only been on the editorial board of Tradition but for a period was its managing editor. He has written on differences between Ashkenazic Poskim and Sefardic Poskim over the decades. Agree or disagree with him- there is no evidence that he is not totally accepting of halacha.

    I would suggest that the interested reader begin with the entry on Gerus in the Encyclopedia Talmudis, go thru as many of the sources there cited and then simply think to oneself whether the view of R Uzziel ZTL is consistent with the view of Rov Rishonim and Poskim.

    Steve: You know that is not how the halachik system operates-we don’t have a Sanhedrin and everyone can rely on his own Rebbe. Remember that R. Chaim Brisker refused to join Rabbi Shafran’s organization-not because he didn’t approve of the Agudah’s anti-Zionism- Rav Chaim was a great anti-Zionist; but rather becasue of the concept of a Moetzet-that one group of Rabbonim have no authority to tell others what to do.
    R. Angel as a Sefardi is certainly following procedure if he follows Rav Uzziel rather than Rav Moshe.

  23. Bob Miller says:

    The chances of reaching a satisfactory conclusion through newspaper or blog articles and comments is pretty remote.

    I’m uneasy when a rabbi goes against most active high-level poskim—possibly nearly all—dealing with a halachic topic of interest.

  24. meir says:

    Harry,

    Yes, if the acceptance was sincere then non observance does not invalidate gerus.But when there is no acceptance there is no gerus. Verbal declarations when it is clear the fellow never intends to observe is not considered a good Kabblat Mitzvot. Look at Achiezer chelek 3 teshuva 26. One of the ways to measure sincerity is the lack of any observance right after gerut.

  25. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rudy Wagner, I use the term “Heterodox” as the opposite of “Orthodox” because, AFAIK, that’s what the word means. It spans the spectrum from Conservative Rabbis who keep Kosher and only drive on Shabbat to the synagogue, all the way to Jews who see the religion as an outdated relic and drive to a restaurant to get a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur. If I didn’t use this term or something similar such as “not Orthodox”, I’d have to use something verbose like “Conservative, Reform, Secular, or just not interested”.

    I apologize if the term “Heterodox” appears to you as a variant on “Orthodox”. That is the opposite of what I meant.

  26. Rudy Wagner says:

    Ori,

    can you please spare us from your “etherodox” mantra. Words are important! Etherodox is not a legitimate variation of the orthodox way as you seem to imply. Please call it with the right name: not-observant, secular, reformed or else. This is not judgemental on both sides. You are using the same strategy of the BBC that uses the word militants when referring to arab terrorists.

  27. dr. william gewirtz says:

    2 issues need to be separated. One concerns invalidating a conversion after the fact; a critical issue, but not where I am focused.

    The second issue, concerns the standards a beit din will apply to verify a sincere desire for Kabalat Hamitzvot. The latter has two components that raise concerns. First, would acceptance of Mitzvot at the level of Rabbi Angel while professing outrage at the treatment of Rabbi Slifkin, be an adequate Kabalat Hamitzvot? This is a straight forward question, that would help clarify positions. Second, does the current situation in Israel, neccesitate a different stance vis-a-vis geirim than has been adopted historically under very different circumstances? It is well known that a chicken can be found treif for a wealthy family and kosher for a poor family, by the same posek operating entirely with in the arba amot of halacha. The second issue is difficult to formulate let alone ascertain; but certainly raises concerns.

    These issues will eventually be solved; extreme positions on either side of the issue, the sad state of Israeli politics and those more interested in polemics than sincere debate are not helpful.

    And parenthetically, the tactic employed by Rabbi Shafran, of attacking a well known individual and not mentioning his name, perhaps under the cover of not wanting to be guilty of the sin of rechilut, is altogether transparent and one that sincere debate cannot tolerate.

  28. Steve Brizel says:

    It is all fine and well for R Angel to state that he sees nothing wrong in relying upon the view of R Uziel ZTL . The question remains whtether the stated view of R Uzziel ZTL represents the view of Rov Rishonim and Poskim and whether “Conversion Las Vegas Style” with full knowledge by a proposed convert and Beis Din that the convert will not act in any way that is consistent with a meaningful Kabalas HaMitzvos or as a Ger Tzedek is a proper means to solve Israel’s demographic problems. For more background on the halachic elements of Gerus, I would suggest that the interested reader begin with the entry on Gerus in the Encyclopedia Talmudis, go thru as many of the sources there cited and then simply think to oneself whether the view of R Uzziel ZTL is consistent with the view of Rov Rishonim and Poskim.

  29. Moshe says:

    The article quoted in Noam’s response is misleading. No one here is calling for refusing to convert people who don’t observe all of the commandments. The idea is to insist upon a baseline of shmirat hamitzvot along the lines of “miktzat kalot umiktzat chamurot” mentioned in the rabbinic literature.

    Note: I have not read the work by Zvi Zohar about conversion. I also didn’t read his article calling for men too take mistresses instead of wives, thus abolishing the institution of marriage.

  30. meir says:

    ” The requirement of kabbalat hamitzvot (accepting the commandments) is subject to a range of interpretations. (For a discussion of the halachic, historical and sociological aspects of conversion, please see my book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion.)”,

    Incorrect: The leading poskim that deal directly with this (like Rav Yitchok Elchonon Spector, Reb Chayim Oizer, Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, Reb Moshe, Michat Yitzhok, Reb Shlomo Zalman Ohrbach, Rav Elyashiv, Rav Ovadya YOssef and on and on) mostly agree that this is a requirement, and most importantly the ESSENCE of conversion. If this lacking there is no conversion even bedieved.

    ” Indeed, throughout the generations, each rabbi decided how to deal with each particular potential convert””

    Source? The truth is that he is misunderstanding a statement by Beit Yossef: Who is referring, to the discretion given to each Rabbi (“lefi reot eyney hadayon”) if there is a genuine commitment and if it is likely that the convert will observe etc.

    “There was no uniform, universal standard other than following the basic guidelines of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch – all of which gave latitude to the rabbi to use his own judgment.”

    Again the judgement given was precisely to decide that in this particular situation the convert would probably observe Mitzvot. No latitude was given for the rabbi to decide that there is NO need for kabblat mitzvot.

    “In their important studies on conversion, Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi have found that the first significant posek to equate conversion with 100% fulfillment of mitzvot was Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak, 2:100) – and that was not until 1876! He went so far as to invalidate a conversion if the convert did not scrupulously observe the mitzvot after conversion”.

    It is unbelievable: Rabbi Angel relies on Dr. Zohar and Sagi to decide that the Beys YItchok is a novel approach. Actually, although the Dr.s and Rabbi Angel try to make BEys Yitzchok look bad, they misquote Beys Yitchak:

    HE was not talking a100% fulfillment of mitzvot; he was talking about “chutz midavar echad”, which means that the convert at the time of conversion REJECTS ONE MITZVA of the Torah. This is covered in Bechorot 30!

    “Although this was a dramatic break from halachic tradition, a number of subsequent poskim have adopted this view, and this seems to be the view accepted by the current Chief Rabbinate in Israel””.

    It was NOT halachik “break” from tradition; if anything RAbbi Uziel’s position is a novel reinterpretation of tradition.

    The rest of the article does not deal with Halacha just with his editorial. He claims that the lenient position (which is the very minority of views) is a stringency in intermarriage. This is a statement that is very far from the truth. IF this would be a rare occurrence he may have had a point. But the past few decades have demonstrated that the proliferation of these fake conversion do not stem the tide of intermarriage; if anything they foster intermarriage: THe make conversion look like a joke and any prospective candidate to intermarry is not deterred by anything; he knows he will get a stamp of approval by the rabbi and he will certainly intermarry. and the facke conversions (Since he does not intend to keep any mitzvot from the very outset) does not stop intermarriage since the “convert” is a goy as she was before!

    Source?

  31. Loberstein says:

    I don’t why I am writing this, it is futile because history and reality are being re-written all over the frum world, why should conversions be an exceeption. Universal standards make sense if I want to eat kosher at a Federation event and the Reform Jew isn’t makpid to eat only treif. I can’t have a universal standard if my neighbor won’t use any eruv and I want to use the eruv. Should I not carry because he feels no eruv is good enough. Must my daughter dress like a Satmar girl so that there will be universal standards of modesty, maybe my wife should shave her hair off.
    The reality is that frum people check out shiduchim and there are many who would not only reject any convert, but reject anyone whose mother didnt go to the mikveh before this child was conceived. Should I force them to accept the shiduch so that there would be a universal standard?
    It is a red herring.
    If you don’t want your daughter to marry a descendant of a convert, that is your right. But, don’t retroactively , in the name of unity, besmirch the yichus of tens of thousands of frum Jews. You have no idea how many grandchildren of orthodox converts are “mixed in”. It is against our tradition to retroactively invalidate conversions. I am not speaking here of non halachic conversions, but of those done by Rabbi Angel, and hubndres if other orthodox rabbis over the past 100 years, whose standards you don’t approve of. He is not alone, the standards being proposed are not those that have prevailed, to say otherwise is to falsify American orthodox history.
    Does anyone care? If the universal standard is only for the most punctilious and all other views are rejecterd, we will have a much smaller Jewish community.

  32. rejewvenator says:

    It’s pretty straightforward. Either we rely on the halachic framework to accept and convert these people, or we deny their conversions on the basis of a more stringent understanding of halacha. But if we do the latter, we’re just going to have a bunch of goyim living among us, and I can’t see why that’s a good idea.

  33. Harry Maryles says:

    “(T)he director of an educational institute in Israel, vented similar displeasure with Israel’s Rabbinate. The fact that Israel has become home to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants, he argues, “demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion.” That such has not happened, the rabbi went on, is proof that the Jewish State’s rabbinic authorities “are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process.”
    Or, perhaps, more concerned with halachic integrity than with pleasing a populace.

    The image of masses of sincere neophytes yearning to join the Jewish people—but being rebuffed by small-minded religious functionaries—plays well in the press. As does the notion that commitment to Jewish religious observance is not a requirement for conversion. Both, though, are at odds with reality.

    I have to take issue with this. I read the article and although I agree with you on the Halachic requirements of conversion, I disagree on how you characterized Professor Ish-Shalom’s statements n this issue. True, he is looking for a solution to the very real sociological Halachic problems of Gerus in Israel that will impact on every single Jew in future generations. But I don’t think it is correct to say that he advocates abandoning the required commitment to Halacha that every convert must make. On the contrary, he agrees to the requirement about commitment.

    What bothers him is the kind of thing that happened in Ashdod when Rabbinic Court judge Rabbi Avraham Atia issued a ruling that annulled the 15-year-old conversion of a woman, retroactively ruling her and her till-then Jewish children non-Jews. He based it on her obvious lack of any observance what so ever since her conversion.

    Halacha seems to dictate quite the opposite. Once there is a proper conversion, then it does not matter if there was ever any observance at all. Her Judasim should not have been revoked, in my view unless it can be verified that her commitment is a fraud. That she wasn’t ever observant is an after the fact determination that Halacha does not accept. Once the Beis Din determines that her declaration to observe Mitzvos is sincere and they go ahead with the conversion process, the convert is irrevocably Jewish. If there is No observance whatsoever after that the convert is considered a Yisroel Mummer, a Jewish sinner. Profesor Ish-Shalom feels this kind of attitude is what is driving Gerus rather than Halacha. I’m not sure I agree with his assessment or solution, but to say that he advocates abandoning Halacha is incorrect in my view. I blogged about this very issue today: http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2007/07/converting-to-judaism.html

  34. Larry Lennhoff says:

    In addition to the question of the convert, many people are now putting conversion batei din under the microscope. Last summer Rabbi Amar suggested invalidating all conversions done under the auspices of the Rabbinic Council of America! Even today in the US you can be Jewish in Teaneck and a goy in Muncie depending on who sat on your conversion beit din, even if you have been shomer mitzvot the entire time.

    Both those who insist politics plays no role in this controversy and those who insist the whole issue is a power play are being disingenuous, in my opinion. We need to find the middle path.

  35. Ken Bloom says:

    I’d like to know how R’ Angel responds to the rabbis of the Syrian community, who forbid conversions and forbid marrying a convert precisely to avoid the problem of quickie conversions ruining their community.

  36. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Noam,

    While I have a fair working knowledge of halacha in this realm, I do not hold myself out as a posek (as I’m not) and thus did not express any personal halachic opinion. But I think you can understand (and the rabbi at issue should) that when the vast majority of poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, take a position, even a past president of the RCA does not have great standing to challenge it.

    Truth be told, though, what the Rabbanut (and all respected contemporary poskim) hold is not that observance has to be perfect (who among us is perfectly observant?) but rather that the kabbalat hatmitzvot be sincere. If any posek of renown holds otherwise, I have never seen it and challenge you to cite “chapter and verse” (not just Jewish Press essays, even at length).

    What is more, the rabbi most certainly did spread misinformation, as per his citation of the Rambam I noted, and his misapplication of it to a case where there was no kabbalat mitzvot.

  37. Noam says:

    Here is Rabbi Angel’s biography in Wikipedia. Note he is a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America(orthodox), on the board or Tradition(an orthodox publication), and has smicha from Yeshiva University, an orthodox institution:

    Marc D. Angel (1945- ) is Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Born in Seattle’s sephardic community, his ancestors are sephardim from Turkey and Rhodes and grew up speaking Ladino at Home.

    He received his B.A., M.S., Ph.D., Th.D. honoris causa and his rabbinal semicha from Yeshiva University and also has an M.A. in English Literature from the City College of New York. He is a recipient of the Bernard Revel Award in Religion and Religious Education. He was president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the Editorial Board of ‘Tradition.’

    Rabbi Angel represents one view of halacha, and Rabbi Shafran(or his organization) represents another view. It seems that Rabbi Shafran doesn’t think that Rabbi Angel’s view is halachically legitimate. Probably the best way to approach the problem would be to make a halachic arguement, rather than accuse Rabbi Angel of spreading misinformation. That way, the reading public could see the merits(or lack thereof) of both sides, and come to a reasoned, informed conclusion. On the other hand, this approach may let people think about the issues and the halachic proof for themselves, and they may not just accept rabbinic pronouncments based solely on the source.

  38. Noam says:

    I assume that Rabbi Shafran is referring to Rabbi Marc Angel’s article in the Jerusalem Post. I was unable to locate it online, but did find Rabbi Angel’s defense of his position as posted in the Jewish Press. Here are some excerpts:

    ” The requirement of kabbalat hamitzvot (accepting the commandments) is subject to a range of interpretations. (For a discussion of the halachic, historical and sociological aspects of conversion, please see my book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion.) Indeed, throughout the generations, each rabbi decided how to deal with each particular potential convert. There was no uniform, universal standard other than following the basic guidelines of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch – all of which gave latitude to the rabbi to use his own judgment.

    In their important studies on conversion, Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi have found that the first significant posek to equate conversion with 100% fulfillment of mitzvot was Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak, 2:100) – and that was not until 1876! He went so far as to invalidate a conversion if the convert did not scrupulously observe the mitzvot after conversion. Although this was a dramatic break from halachic tradition, a number of subsequent poskim have adopted this view, and this seems to be the view accepted by the current Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

    Many significant poskim have rejected this extreme view, relying instead on the classic halachic sources – Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. For example, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, was outspoken in his demand that rabbis convert non-Jews wishing to marry Jews, even when the expected level of mitzvah observance is not high. He was concerned with maintaining Jewish families, having children raised in Jewish homes, strengthening the Jewish people – even in non-ideal cases of conversion.

    He wrote: “I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers” (Mishpetei Uziel, 5698, no. 26).

    Rabbi Uziel viewed himself not so much as being lenient in matters of conversion as being stringent in opposing the sin of intermarriage. Decisions relating to conversion entail a balancing of values. If one is overly restrictive, this may result in the candidate opting for non-Orthodox conversion, or giving up entirely on Judaism. This approach can only contribute to an increase in intermarriage, and children from such marriages are, of course, lost to the Jewish people.

    The call for uniform standards with universal halachic acceptance leads to a constriction of halacha. Calling for universal acceptance essentially means adopting the most extreme position. This invalidates the range of legitimate halachic options and unfairly ties the hands of Orthodox rabbis who wish to help potential converts rather than drive them away….

    The requirement of kabbalat hamitzvot (accepting the commandments) is subject to a range of interpretations. (For a discussion of the halachic, historical and sociological aspects of conversion, please see my book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion.) Indeed, throughout the generations, each rabbi decided how to deal with each particular potential convert. There was no uniform, universal standard other than following the basic guidelines of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch – all of which gave latitude to the rabbi to use his own judgment.

    In their important studies on conversion, Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi have found that the first significant posek to equate conversion with 100% fulfillment of mitzvot was Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak, 2:100) – and that was not until 1876! He went so far as to invalidate a conversion if the convert did not scrupulously observe the mitzvot after conversion. Although this was a dramatic break from halachic tradition, a number of subsequent poskim have adopted this view, and this seems to be the view accepted by the current Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

    Many significant poskim have rejected this extreme view, relying instead on the classic halachic sources – Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. For example, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, was outspoken in his demand that rabbis convert non-Jews wishing to marry Jews, even when the expected level of mitzvah observance is not high. He was concerned with maintaining Jewish families, having children raised in Jewish homes, strengthening the Jewish people – even in non-ideal cases of conversion.

    He wrote: “I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers” (Mishpetei Uziel, 5698, no. 26).

    Rabbi Uziel viewed himself not so much as being lenient in matters of conversion as being stringent in opposing the sin of intermarriage. Decisions relating to conversion entail a balancing of values. If one is overly restrictive, this may result in the candidate opting for non-Orthodox conversion, or giving up entirely on Judaism. This approach can only contribute to an increase in intermarriage, and children from such marriages are, of course, lost to the Jewish people.

    The call for uniform standards with universal halachic acceptance leads to a constriction of halacha. Calling for universal acceptance essentially means adopting the most extreme position. This invalidates the range of legitimate halachic options and unfairly ties the hands of Orthodox rabbis who wish to help potential converts rather than drive them away….

    Instead of solving problems, this sort of “uniform” standard creates chaos. Adopting the most extreme position and invalidating the range of legitimate halachic views is not only bad for halacha, but bad for Judaism and the Jewish people.

    Whose “universal acceptance” are we talking about?…

    The point is: how can “universal acceptance of standards” ever be achieved when there is such a strong tendency to keep adding new layers of restrictions and to invalidate conversions that don’t achieve the particular standards of the most stringent batei din?

    What may seem “universal” today will be trumped soon enough by a posek or bet din that adds even more restrictions. No convert is “safe,” since twenty or thirty years from now more layers of stringency may be added, leading to the retroactive invalidation of conversions. Is this the sort of “universally accepted” standard that halacha mandates or desires? Certainly not.

    We must always do our utmost to inspire converts to be faithful to the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot. But we do not live in a perfect world, and we often have to deal with real people in less than ideal situations.

    The Chief Rabbinate should not be imposing an extreme, monolithic “universal standard” that eliminates halachic options and contracts the ability of rabbis to cope responsibly with the many cases that come before them. It should not, wittingly or unwittingly, turn potential converts away from Orthodox rabbis, or increase intermarriage, or jeopardize the Jewish future of children of would-be converts, or be oblivious to the genuine pain caused to converts and potential converts.

    We teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and all its paths are peace. We must also strive to live by this ideal – which indeed should be our uniform and universally accepted standard.”

  39. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Avi Shafran: Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should, and prevent the Jewish People from becoming, G-d forbid, a multitude of “Jewish peoples.”

    Ori: That has already happened. Heterodox Jews and Orthodox Jews disagree on the status of Heterodox converts and people whose sole connection to Judaism is a maternal-line ancestor. In Israel, Chilonim see Russian immigrants who speak Hebrew and work along side them as part of the people, regardless of whether they are Jewish by Halacha or not.

    I don’t think we’ll be united unless:

    1. Mashiach comes

    or

    2. All Jewish groups but one disappear, as happened after the destruction of the second temple

    We just need to learn to live with it.

  40. Garnel Ironheart says:

    I have to register some disagreement with this article. The Orthodox rabbonim in question are not looking to make the process of conversion more lenient or to take people who only want to go through the motions and make them Jewish. It is unfair to accuse them of this as well as inaccurate. Am I to imply that Rav Shafran believes there are rabbonim out there who will gladly perform faulty conversions?

    (Other than ones belonging to the Rabbinate, as has been detail over the last year in the Israel press)

    Far from being under seige, the Rabbinate has placed other organization, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, in a difficult position, essentially saying “Do conversions our way or we won’t recognize them.” The RCA, which is staffed by fully obsevant, albeit non-Chareidi rabbonim, has been understandably angered by this position.

    What the rest of the frum world is interested in is an accepted standard of conversion that allowed genuine candidates to join our people. Efforts by one group to force its standards on another and then cry “victim” when rebuffed an unhelpful to the process.

  41. joel rich says:

    “Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should”
    =================================================

    Interesting thought. Of course application of this standard (here and in other cases) ensures that the most extreme defintion must rule. Will belief in evolution, rejection of daat torah in its strongest form,saying the tfilah for the State……… be basis for rejection?

    I also understand that certain groups of the eidot hamizrach will not accept conversion for marriage purposes. Will this be part of the standard as well?

    I’m not at the pay grade to make determinations of public policy and halacha, but iiuc public policy and halacha often exist in a symbiotic condition (meaning that part of the algorithm in reaching the ultimate halachik position within the range of halachically supportable positions will be public policy considerations)

    KT

  1. August 27, 2007

    […] But I wonder how our critics would have us address the following, real-life situation. Several weeks ago, Rabbi Avi Shafran published a piece called “Conversion Confusion,” which eventually made its way into the august pages of the New York Jewish Week. In that article, Rabbi Shafran deflected criticism—from certain Orthodox Rabbis—of Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate for “raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold.” In it, Rabbi Shafran made reference to an obvious point about conversion: “Sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah’s laws—or ‘kabbalat hamitzvot’—is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.” […]