Conversion To Judaism: The Need For A Uniform Standard

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Three weeks ago, Rabbi Marc Angel, the retiring spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel argued in the Jewish Press (“Conversion to Judaism: A Discussion of Standards“) that: (1) there is a multiplicity of standards for conversion within halacha; and (2) the determination of what standards to apply is best left to the discretion of every individual rabbi. Both claims are dubious.

The most widely revered contemporary poskim – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and yblch”aת Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv have all written explicitly that a full acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos is the fundamental requirement of geirut (conversion). Without the acceptance of mitzvot, the various technical requirements of conversion — milah (circumcision) for men; tevilah (immersion in a mikveh) for men and women in front of a qualified beit din — are meaningless.

A convert need not know every mitzvah, but he or she must accept the entirety of the halachic system as binding upon him or her. As the Gemara in Bechorot (30b) makes clear, the rejection of even one mitzvah at the time of conversion renders the would-be convert unfit.

The view of the poskim cited above is not, as Rabbi Angel suggests, a modern day chareidi invention, but one held by the greatest halachic authorities across the Orthodox spectrum. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, the towering figure of Modern Orthodoxy and long-time head of the American Mizrachi Movement, viewed the requirement of kabalat ol mitzvot as axiomatic. (See Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofeik fn. 22.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik was not expressing his own opinion but offering his understanding of the Rambam. The Rambam explicitly likens conversion to the process by which the Jewish people accepted the yoke of mitzvot and entered under the wings of the Shechinah at Sinai.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was also of the opinion that acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot is required. When the overwhelming majority of Jews were shomrei mitzvot and Jews were a downtrodden people, it could be safely assumed that anyone who came forward to convert did so with the intention of being shomer mitzvot, he writes. Today, however, when neither of those factors pertain, no such assumption can be made and we must be much stricter about the acceptance of converts.

Rabbi Angel apparently rejects the halachic conclusions of all the great talmidei chachamim mentioned above. While we should do our utmost “to inspire converts to be faithful to the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot,” he writes, “we do not live in a perfect world, and we often have to deal with real people in less than ideal situations.” Sometimes, that is, we have to accept those who have no intention of becoming shomer Torah u’mitzvot.

Apart from a smattering of teshuvot within the last hundred years, Rabbi Angel cannot point to any source in halacha for the idea that conversion standards can be lowered as a cure to prevent either individual tragedies (e.g., intermarriage) or a national tragedy (e.g., the hundreds of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel).

RABBI ANGEL IS an ardent proponent of rabbinic autonomy: Let every congregational rav do what is straight in his eyes. But that system has proven a disaster. Nearly twenty years ago, even before Rabbi Angel’s term as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA undertook to establish a series of regional batei din to deal with conversion – an effort that is only now beginning to be seriously implemented.

Congregational rabbis who perform conversions are vulnerable to unbearable pressure from powerful congregants who want their child’s non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend converted – no questions asked. Savvy communal rabbis – Rabbi Emanuel Feldman when he was a rav in Atlanta comes to mind – avoid the problem by announcing a blanket rule against performing conversions.

A second problem is the danger of conversion mills – rabbis whose primary livelihood comes from performing hundreds of conversions a year. Such conversion mills have also been operated by those possessing semichah from Orthodox institutions. The RCA does not allow its members to offer their private kashrut supervision. There is no reason to follow a different rule with respect to conversion.

But the strongest argument in favor of establishing fixed regional batei din commanding wide respect across a communal spectrum is that only such a structure can offer the degree of the finality that all agree is a crucial desideratum in the conversion process. Once converted, the convert should be like any born Jew: No matter what he subsequently does, his status as a Jew remains. (The only exception would be where the “convert” ignored very basic mitzvot from the very beginning, and thereby demonstrated a lack of sincere acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot at the time of conversion.)

An infinite variety of standards is a recipe for tragedy. Even the most sincere convert may face a situation ten or twenty years down the line where she or her child is rejected by a potential spouse, even though they have been fully observant for decades. Why? Because the rabbi who oversaw her conversion is known to follow questionable standards for conversion, thus raising an issue as to whether any beit din on which that rabbi sat is a valid beit din for overseeing a conversion.

Without a system of fixed batei dinim, it is possible to multiply such tragic scenarios almost ad infinitum. Every single convert would go through life with a constant cloud over his/her geirut.

Nearly a decade ago, Uri Regev, today the head of the international Reform movement, urged the necessity of two types of conversion: one for those who are interested in accepting the yoke of mitzvot and one for those who are not. It would be a great tragedy if an Orthodox rabbi of Rabbi Angel’s distinction and long record of communal service were to appear to offer support for such a proposal.

Appeared in the Jewish Press.

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11 Responses

  1. jr says:

    this is why “need for uniform standard” is code word for “charedi standard”. often simply craziness…

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3433061,00.html

    Please, someone explain this Chiddush to me, and what about shul and other places to “mingle”. I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Angel.

    And Rabbi Adlerstein, WADR I am sure you cringed when you read the article, stop kidding yourself you have a lot more in common with Rabbi Angel than these folks.

  2. Larry Lennhoff says:

    I share the concerns voiced by Garnel in comment 7. There are requirements that it is reasonable for a beit din to impose on a prospective convert (live and be a part of an Orthodox Jewish community, keep kashrut, shabbat, and Taharat Hamispacha, accept in principle the binding nature of the Orthodox understanding of halacha) and others I feel it is not (give up TV, send your children to a school that does not have a secular education component, keep chalav yisrael and beit yosef shechita, follow Litvish minhagim regardless of the community one joins and ones ethnic origin).

    If the quest for universal acceptance means that effectively only one particular approach within the O spectrum is acceptable for O converts, then the price is too high.

  3. Loberstein says:

    “Congregational rabbis who perform conversions are vulnerable to unbearable pressure from powerful congregants who want their child’s non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend converted – no questions asked. Savvy communal rabbis – Rabbi Emanuel Feldman when he was a rav in Atlanta comes to mind – avoid the problem by announcing a blanket rule against performing conversions.”

    If he didn’t perform them, then who did? Congrtegation Beth Jacob of Atlanta has numerous gerim among its membership. Some of its frumest and some of its most generous members are converts, some more stricly observant than others. Atlanta and many other “baalei teshuva” oriented communities have a much higher share of converts than in Boro Park. Who converted all of them and how did they become members if what you say 9is true? Something essential is missing.

  4. Shlomo says:

    JR: would you still be in favor of regional batei din if they were dominated by rabbis from Yeshiva University/RIETS, rather than from whatever yeshiva you went to?

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    I thin the concern from Rav Angel is this: a group of Chareidi leaders will decide what they consider to be the bare minimum standards for someone to be considered a valid convert. They will then present this standard to the leadership of the non-Chareidi Torah observantworld and state that unless the prospective converts follow it, ie. promise to live Chareidi lifestyles afte conversion, that they will not recognize those conversions. If this is the case, I can see why Rav Angel and the RCA are bristling at the Rabbanut’s perceived overlordship of the issue.

  6. mycroft says:

    What does Mr. Rosenblum suggest be done in the case of frum gerim who were converted by supposed ‘conversion mills’? The situation today is that now some of us are being told by some rabbonim that we’re fine/it doesn’t matter while others (including the rabbanut) claim we must convert again. Even though it may not be apparent, these are people’s lives here.

    In this discussion of conversion, everyone seems to be addressing hypothetical converts while no one has addressed those already living frum lives in the midst of the Jewish people.

    Comment by TheGer — July 23, 2007

    Very well put-exactly the problem with what the rabbanit is now doing-expecially questioning geirut of existing gerim who followed the then Rabbanuts procedures. I can’t think of a greater way of oppressing the ger.

  7. TheGer says:

    What does Mr. Rosenblum suggest be done in the case of frum gerim who were converted by supposed ‘conversion mills’? The situation today is that now some of us are being told by some rabbonim that we’re fine/it doesn’t matter while others (including the rabbanut) claim we must convert again. Even though it may not be apparent, these are people’s lives here.

    In this discussion of conversion, everyone seems to be addressing hypothetical converts while no one has addressed those already living frum lives in the midst of the Jewish people.

  8. BY says:

    ““Uniform standard” is fatally flawed simply because by definition it requires the most chumradike position always be adopted. This is untenable.”

    S. has identified a major drawback of Reb (Rabbi?) Rosenblum’s proposal. However, since there must be some system of conversion, to discredit the “universal standard” would require presenting a superior system or acceding to the present one.

    Rosenblum has proven to my satisfaction that a universal standard would be preferable to the current chaos.

    Ori:

    The analogy from the field of kashrus is particularly compelling. For most orthodox individuals there is a person entitled “rabbi” whom he or she would not trust to regulate his or her food. Ought he or she willingly give him or her the power to regulate Israeli citizenship? In my mind this is the most important issue, since in marrying off their children everyone will rely on his or her own Rabbis’ assessment.

  9. meir says:

    Jonathan: THANK YOU!

    Ori,

    If the Rabbis who performed the conversion do a lot of non kosher conversions their status as kosher dayonim may be questionable.

  10. S. says:

    “Uniform standard” is fatally flawed simply because by definition it requires the most chumradike position always be adopted. This is untenable.

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum: Even the most sincere convert may face a situation ten or twenty years down the line where she or her child is rejected by a potential spouse, even though they have been fully observant for decades.

    Ori: Why is this such a big deal? Observant Jews shouldn’t have a problem telling a rabbinical court that they accept Halacha. The Mikveh is not a problem either. The drop of blood that takes the place of circumcision for already circumcised gentiles is unpleasant, but any man who’ll refuse to do that for his bride’s sake, which expecting her to undergo the pains of childbirth, is not worth marrying anyway.

    The only real problem is in the case of a Cohen groom. It is already doubtful that the previous conversion was done improperly. Can anybody here whose Halacha knowledge exceeds mine (= almost everybody) find another doubt? If we have two, wouldn’t that make the marriage permissible?