Rabbi Feinstein Speaks

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A recent attack on Israel’s Chief Rabbinate invoked the late and revered American Orthodox decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

The attacker was Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the director of Israel’s Institute for Jewish Studies, an agency charged with offering a course of Jewish study to non-Jewish immigrants interested in conversion. What provoked him was the set of standards employed by the Rabbinate for conversions.

In a flattering Jerusalem Post interview — the reporter took pains not only to cite the professor’s scholarship, soft-spoken nature and religious piety but to describe for readers the “centuries-old Talmuds and well-worn works on Jewish philosophy and history” that line his office — Professor Ish-Shalom blasted what he calls the “humiliating” conversion process in Israel, dismissed religious court judges as insufficiently humble and declared that the Rabbinate is rendering Jewish religious law “irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel.”

Professor Ish-Shalom further described a judge who invalidated a years-old conversion as embodying (in the Post’s paraphrase) “blindness and even halachic ignorance”; accused Israel’s religious court judges of fostering desecration of G-d’s name; and dismissed Israel’s Chief Rabbis of just being “loyal to their haredi masters.”

The purportedly soft-spoken professor’s harsh words emerged from his concern over the estimated 300,000 non-Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1990s amid the massive immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Professor Ish-Shalom considers it imperative to convince as many of those non-Jews as possible to undergo a conversion process. He hopes to attract 100,000 of the younger immigrants.

The trenchant question, of course, is whether persuading non-Jews who have no intention of becoming Jewishly observant — like many, if not most, of those targeted by the professor’s conversion plan — to undergo a conversion process in fact results in new Jews. Conversion, after all, is no simple matter of self-identification but a distinct religio-legal process; it is governed, no less than any area of religious law, by requirements, some of them essential and incontrovertible.

One is “kabbalat hamitzvot,” or “acceptance of the commandments,” the central element in a Jewish conversion. To the question of whether a seeming lack of such commandment-acceptance might render a conversion void, Professor Ish-Shalom responds by citing Rabbi Feinstein.

In a responsum, the venerated decisor deals with the case of a woman who converted through an Orthodox court but then married a non-observant Jew and fell into non-observance. Asked if the woman’s conversion should be considered invalid, Rabbi Feinstein responded no.

The point of Rabbi Feinstein’s reasoning upon which Professor Ish-Shalom seizes is that a convert need not know all that is entailed in accepting the mitzvot; he or she need only accept the Torah’s commandments in a general sense. So even if the woman in question had not realized precisely what Jewish observance entails, her undefined acceptance sufficed to render her, at least post facto, a Jew.

What the professor chooses to not dwell upon, however, is the clear implication that where in fact there was no genuine kabbalat hamitzvot (and that would include the rejection, at the time of conversion, of any individual mitzvah) there is no conversion, even post facto. Thus, were a non-Jew to be convinced to undergo a conversion ceremony but is fully aware (as are most people living in Israel) that driving on Shabbat or eating shellfish is forbidden by Jewish religious law and has no intention of observing those strictures, his or her mouthing of a mitigated “kabbalat hamitzvot” does not result in a conversion.

Were such “conversions” to be performed en masse, it would result in a large group of people who might be considered Jewish by Professor Ish-Shalom, his interviewer and others, but who would be regarded as non-Jews by most other observant Jews. What is more (and perhaps worse), suspicion would be cast on the Jewishness of all converts in Israel.

As it happens, there is indeed a responsum of Rabbi Feinstein’s that speaks directly to the professor’s plans. It is in the first section of his collected responsa, Igrot Moshe. In number 157 he writes:

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

And Rabbi Feinstein, poignantly, concludes:

I altogether do not understand the reasoning of rabbis who err in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to the Jewish People by accepting such ‘converts’? It is certainly not pleasing to G-d or to the Jewish people that such ‘converts’ should become mixed into [the Congregation of] Israel. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all.

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26 Responses

  1. Leib Shmukler says:

    Morai Veraboisai!
    Don’t you find it interesting that Russia, friend of Hamas, Ahmadinejad, Syria, under both Yeltsyn and Putin, dumps its “non-Jews” whom it cannot support, on Israel.
    Can’t Professor Ish-Shalom add two plus two?

  2. Daniel Eidensohn says:

    You might be interested in the related issue of encouraging participation in kiruv programs of non-Jewish offspring who view themselves incorrectly as Jews. There are kiruv programs that allow or encourage such participation. Rav Moshe Sternbuch has recently issued a ruling criticizing such an approach.

    The original letter of Rav Sternbuch as well as my authorized translation will be sent to anyone whwho requests them. [email protected]

    It is also currently being discussed at http://haemtza.blogspot.com/

  3. HILLEL says:

    ORI-2:

    By the way, here is an article that will be very interesting to you, in your situation. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he’s a terrific guy, who I greatly respect:

    http://lazerbrody.typepad.com/
    I love my brother dearly, he’s an outstanding, loving person and we have a deep connection. Unfortunately, our life paths led us in different directions. He became a ‘Ba-al teshuva’ in Israel and I’m on my own spiritual journey in Canada. I have married out of the religion. My wife, a special individual herself, is trying to do her best to understand our culture and religion. As you can imagine there was friction and emotional storms in the family…

  4. HILLEL says:

    ORI:

    Politicians pander to increase their voting numbers–It is a fact of life. Pandering to a voting group almost always works.

    I’m not running for political office, so I can afford to give my own real opinion–not yours, or anyone else’s.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    SM said “The former Soviet Jews cannot be dismissed as a group bought in to achieve some sinister purpose”

    But I had written earlier about “…the many non-Jews brought in for the unstated purpose of keeping Israel’s orientation secular”

    Shouldn’t it be obvious that non-Jews are not Jews?

  6. HILLEL says:

    Loberstein:

    We agree on goals, but we disagre on how to reach those goals.

    You don’t inspire Jews by giving them low standards–watered-down Judaism. They already know more about low standards than you do.

    They need inspiration–elevation, real spiritual goals, not fake ones.
    Fake judaism will never attract the soul of a lost Jew. That is why assimilation is raging in the Reform/Conservative Jewish community.

    By the way, with my attitude of “HaKol MuTar,” I would make a lousy Rabbi!

  7. SM says:

    The former Soviet Jews cannot be dismissed as a group bought in to achieve some sinsiter purpose – which seems to me to exist only in the minds of the conspiracy theorists. I agree with Loberstein: the issue is complicated because Jews in the former USSR were systematically stripped of their identity. That being so, many of them intermarried.

    What we do about it is a test of us. Do we say ‘Well because of what the anti-semites did to them they aren’t Jewish so we have no responsibility for them?’ Kol Yisrael….

    If not then what stance do we take about those who, through no fault of their own, are not as educated or as Jewish as we would want them to be? It is a more difficult question than the Shoah. As regards the Shoah we can all unite in despair and sympathy for the victims and hatred of the perpetrators. It is morally clear cut. These people have survived. We have to deal with them.

    Rabbi Shafran has taken one view. I am afraid that, respectfully, I think it is wrong. We have an obligation to those carried away as captives. If it takes 3 generations to destroy them then why are we insisting that it should only take 1/2 a generation or less to bring them back?

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    HILLEL: Ish-Shalom is not a man of Shalom—Peace. He is, in fact a man of MilChaMa—War, who seeks to integrate these Russian Goyim into the fabric of Jewish life, so as to create total confusion in the ranks of Orthodox Jewry.

    If he succeeds, it will be a political bonanza for the secular parties, who will reap a voting bonanza.

    Ori: I think you have your tenses wrong – it has already happened. The formerly Russian immigrants are already part of Israeli chiloni society. In contrast to the Arabs, they live in Hebrew-speaking chiloni neighborhoods. Their children to go regular chiloni schools and serve in the military. The same is true for the “voting bonanza”. The vote depends on Israeli citizenship, not on one’s status as Jew or Gentile.

    Halacha may not be able to handle this. But the fact remains that chilonim, by definition, do not observe Halacha.

  9. Mike S says:

    If one looks at the full set of writings in Igrot Moshe about Kabbalat hamitzvot, one is struck by several things. One is the absolute centrality of Kabbalat hamitzvot to Geirut, and Rav Moshe’s tight standards for same. But it is also clear that he holds that what is proper l’chatchila and binding b’dieved are somewhat different. Also, in a context very different from that under discussion here, (a sincere convert who, at the time of conversion felt, but did not voice, a need to show up for work for one yom tov that was occurring shortly after her geirut, being careful to minimize violations) Rav Moshe held that d’varim she belev einam d’varim. That would at least make me wonder if the convert said he or she would accept the mitzvot, both to the Beit Din and to his or her circle of acquaintances, whether subsequent failure to observe would b’dieved invalidate the conversion, even if it became clear after the fact that the convert’s verbal acceptance was insincere. The “anan sahadi” comment in the t’shuvah you cite seems to mean that the beit din is aware at the time of conversion that the convert is insincere. If, however, the beit din is snookered by an insincere acceptance of the mitzvot, I am not sure Rav Moshe would hold the geirut invalid post facto.

    Of course, I am not enough of a scholar to know what Rav Moshe would rule in some of the cases that have recently been under discussion. But I do think we are doing Rav Moshe’s Torah a disservice if we just pick isolated snippets from one or two t’shuvot in an area in which he wrote more than two dozen, rather than consider his writings on Geirut as a whole.

  10. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Ariel,

    Rav Moshe is clear that kabbolas hamitzvos is a sine qua non for conversion. The woman at issue may not have realized that everything rabbonim asked of her was indeed required by halacha, but she did know that some things were — and those things (whatever they may have been)were accepted by her at the time of her conversion — and only later abandoned.

    Hope that helps,

    AS

  11. Loberstein says:

    I want to thank Hillel for offering to be my great Jewish leader and then giving me a heter to do whatever I want. You’d make a great rabbi.

    There is a fundamental difference between two types of looking at Klal Yisroel. Today the one that puts religion above all else “ein umasainu uma eloh batorah” is dominant, not in numbers but in confidence and triumphalism. This view was once derided but seems to have the last laugh. I am glad I joined that club, wing, faction of the community,as it is good to be a card carrying member of the winning team.

    However, klal yisroel is not only for the observant. Ther frum make up a very small percentage, especially the ones who don’t believe in Evolution, a miut of a miut even of the believing Jews. They may make the most noise but I for one will not abandon my people, the amcha. The overwhelming of Jews for the past 200 years have fought a difficult and often losing battle to preserve our numbers in the face of all kinds of enemies. Our former “soviet”Jews suffered for generations and didn’t even know how to say the Shema or know the difference between yom kipurim and purim. They are my flesh and blood, their parents intermarried due to the horrible situation they faced. If they have a spark of Jewish identity and want to reunite with our family, I will not spit at them for not keeping yoshon. There are halachic constraints but what bothers me is not the inability to help them, it is the lack of achrayus and achva for them. So, they are ot fully Jews, who knows how many of us are fully Jews after all these years of exile. We have a lot of gentile blood in all of us. We can naturalize them if we really cared. After the holocaust, we have to do something and legalisms will only make it impossible. You may win the battle but don’t gloat.

  12. ClooJew says:

    “This argument seems to give ground that we can remove from the religion any Jew who both knows that driving on Shabbos is wrong and yet still persists in behaving this way.” – Loberstein

    Um, no it doesn’t.

    It gives ground only to remove so-called converts, who never actually converted. Jews from birth cannot be “removed.” For you to draw such a conclusion from Rabbi Shafran’s piece calls into question both your knowledge of Jewish Law and your reading comprehension.

    “It won’t happen not because there is no room in halacha, but because today’s rabbis seem more interested in bans on concerts and ostracizing anyone who thinks differently….we are a dor yatom.” – Loberstein

    No we aren’t. We are guaranteed “dor dor vedorshav.” What is missing is humility on the part of the people to surrender their “open-mindedness” to the strictures of halachah.

    Rav Moshe, zt”l, was as creative a poseik as can be. Anyone with even limited exposure to his teshuvos is aware of this.

    Learn, Loberstein, learn! Then speak.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    I should have written “Russian Jews” above, since “Soviet” is an anachronism (Thank G-d!).

  14. Bob Miller says:

    The Soviet Jews who need to be saved are the actual Jews among the Russian immigrants, not the many non-Jews brought in for the unstated purpose of keeping Israel’s orientation secular. We as a people owe these non-Jews nothing whatsoever. We have no obligation to create someone’s interest in joining Klal Yisrael.

  15. Ephraim Osgood says:

    I was extremely disturbed when I read the original article in the Jerusalem Post. Thank you very much Rabbi Shafran for addressing this issue. It seems that people (usually the Jerusalem Post)can say whatever they want about Halacha no matter how distorted their view is. For anyone who can I urge you to do your own research into Rabba Shafrans sources. The good Prof. predictably doesn’t give any Maare Mekomos. The Emes will win out as long as we have someone standing up for it.

  16. HILLEL says:

    Dear Mr. Loberstein:

    I see that you’re looking for a great Jewish Leader who you can follow.–Well, here I am.

    As far as I am concerned, you can enjoy life as much as you want–no great sacrifices demanded here!

    As for the Russian immigrants in Israel, a recent YNet article admitted that the sole purpose of bringing-in hundreds of thousands of Russian Goyim to Israel was to dilute the explosive growth of the Hareidi Jewish population, which threatens to overthrow the secular ruling power structure.

    Ish-Shalom is not a man of Shalom–Peace. He is, in fact a man of MilChaMa–War, who seeks to integrate these Russian Goyim into the fabric of Jewish life, so as to create total confusion in the ranks of Orthodox Jewry.

    If he succeeds, it will be a political bonanza for the secular parties, who will reap a voting bonanza.

  17. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Rabbi Oberstein,

    I’m not sure I understand what a reported ban on concerts has to do with geirus, but being upset at the reported ban (of whose details I am unaware) should not lead any of us, I think, to impugn “today’s rabbis” (by whom you seem to mean the Gedolei Torah of our age) for some lack of concern, chas vishalom, for Israel’s demographic future. We are not placed here to undermine halacha for some goal we think is good. We are here to do Hashem’s will. And, as always, in social issues, the judgment of what His will is comes from those more steeped in Torah than we.

    The only dor yatom today are those who choose to reject their parents.

    The more pertinent phrases here, I think, are binyan ne’arim stira and stiras zekeinim binyan.

  18. Ariel says:

    Why does one have such a strongdesire to push these people to fully convert, why not simply encourage them to observe 7 Mitzvot Bnei Noah study parts of Torah permited for Bnei Noah and those of them who will be genuinly inspired to convert will do so.
    PS. In the case described in the article the woman didn’t accept the mitzvot

    Asked for a specific example, Ish-Shalom tells of the ruling of the great American haredi posek, or religious decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, found in his book Igrot Moshe. “There’s a question there about a woman who converted in an Orthodox court, and then married a non-observant Jew. After the conversion, she, like her husband and their Jewish friends, were not observant. Some rabbis sent Rabbi Feinstein a question: Do we cancel this conversion? Rabbi Feinstein replied that it’s impossible to cancel the conversion. He based his ruling on a passage in Tractate Shabbat about a non-Jew who converts but continues to live among idol-worshippers, doesn’t keep Shabbat and even participates in idolatry. The Talmudic question is a side point in a debate over whether someone who forgot about Shabbat is responsible for every individual infringement of Shabbat laws or for one overarching infringement. In this context, with the example of a convert among idolators, the Gemara rules he’s still a convert.

    “What was Rabbi Feinstein’s reasoning? That she wanted to join the Jewish people and be like all Jews. Like which Jews did she want to be? Like those non-observant ones she knows. So” – since the intent was valid – “the conversion is valid.”

    But Rabbi Feinstein was challenged on his opinion. She was clearly taught that she would have to observe the commandments, the original complainers argued. “He answered them by saying that she didn’t know she had to keep the commandments. They said, ‘But she was taught this by the rabbis!’ Yes, he said, ‘but she didn’t believe the rabbis. She just thought this is the job of rabbis – to demand observance.’

    “So that’s how he understood her mind. She thinks it’s the rabbi’s job to tell her to keep the commandments, but she doesn’t think failing to obey makes her a bad Jew. She sees lots of unobservant Jews, and they’re good Jews. So the conversion is valid because her desire was to join the Jewish people. This comes from a haredi posek, who I’m certain would not have converted her had he known she would not keep the commandments. However, this refusal would not have been due to the validity of the conversion, but just because he wouldn’t want more non-observant Jews. But since he understood the Halacha, he wouldn’t cancel a conversion.”

    I don’t understand Rabbi Shafran’s interpretation of the above quote to mean that she accepted mitzvot in a general way.
    It seems clear she didn’t accept them.

  19. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “How can this be? It hurts one’s emunas chachomim and that is so sad.”

    Tzaras rabim chatzi nechama.

  20. Loberstein says:

    Now that Israel has 1,000,000 Russians, most of whom are eithr Jewish or who have Jewish ancestors, what do you suggest? Perhaps Prof. Ish Shalom is suggestion that this situation requires creativity and a willngness to help these people become part of Klal Yisrael. It won’t happen not because there is no room in halacha, but because today’s rabbis seem more interested in bans on concerts and ostracizing anyone who thinks differently. This generation desperately needs great leaders, does anyone think that those whose main concern is running Shweky out of town are up to the challenge of saving Soviet Jewry. we are a dor yatom.

  21. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Dr. Gewirtz,

    If you care to specify what you think I misrepresented in my article, I will be happy to respond the the charge, either by pleading guilty and thanking you for calling my attention to the error[s] or by defending what I wrote. But simply insinuating that the interview was not accurately portrayed is a rather too vague accusation to address.

  22. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I read a psak din in Hamodia that concerts are forbidden even if there is separate seating”.

    LOberstein,

    This is a thread about conversions, not concerts :)

    But there is some shaychus(relevancy). I admit that it sometimes requires effort for many Right- of- Center Jews to see beyond the Slifkin, Concert bans,etc, and come together for issues like EL Al or Conversions, where there is much broader consensus.

    There is a price to be paid for the disunity on the more minor issues, and other inter-haredi schisms such as Lubavitch vs. rest of Charedi world, or Boro Park eruv(I understand this is a serious halachic issue), Satmar vs. Satmar–all of which takes a toll on Orthodox and Haredi unity. I am glad to leave the decison when to make a public issue out of something in other, far more capable hands!

  23. dr. william gewirtz says:

    In my mind, the debate around conversion revolves around three related but distinct areas. 1) Minimum halachic criteria that define Kabbalat HaMitzvot. 2) The ideal or desired profile of a potential convert. 3) The assessment of the individual situation, and according to some the larger societal context, and a determination of how to proceed with a candidate for conversion that falls somewhere along that spectrum between 1) and 2). I can even imagine someone arguing that 1) and 3) are the same. All of this frames the debate, in a manner that at least I find useful.

    Keeping all that in perspective, R. Shafran has chosen to take Prof. Ish Shalom to task in his post. Please don’t accept my impressions but read the entire interview in the Jerusalem Post with particular emphasis on what the reporter put into quotes.

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1182951035705&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FPrinter

    Then ask yourself the following four questions:

    1) Was Prof. Ish Shalom implying that RMF supports his views on conversion or was he quoting RMF only wrt the annulment of a (15) years-old conversion by Ashdod Rabbinic Court judge R. Avraham Atia?

    2) Does Prof. Ish Shalom acknowledge circumstances under which a conversion can even be invalidated though probably not precisely as defined by RMF in 157? [I would hope so given the Langer case!]

    3) What issues beyond the standard agunot, shmittah, conversion, etc. drive Prof. Ish Shalom to assert that “Halacha is declaring itself irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel”? [Ironically, he is calling for more daat Torah, not (necessarily) as Psak but as input.]

    4) Out of the 300,000 Russians, how many does Prof. Ish Shalom “ideally hope” to convert per year?

    As I had read the Jpost interview a while back, I assumed there might have been another interview but then saw the details pointing to the same article. I for one believe that the post and the article leave you with a different assessment of Prof. Ish Shalom’s position. I do not expect R. Shafran to agree with Prof. Ish Shalom. But, I would prefer if the professor was more accurately portrayed; his position and the issue is difficult enough.

  24. Bob Miller says:

    For a halachic decision, go to a posek recognized by his peers as an expert in the subject matter at hand, not to a professor (however brilliant) whose job it is to advance a secular government’s agenda.

  25. LOberstein says:

    Could someone please explain to me what in the world is going on in Israel. I read a psak din in Hamodia that concerts are forbidden even if there is separate seating. From Arutz 7 I gather that the concert refered to was by Shweky and Fried, two very respected performers here in the USA.
    What really bothered me was that it gave no reason but it demanded that these performers be ostracized, given no honors, not allowed to daven,etc. To me the rage was apparent, this reminded me of the exact same venom against Slifkin, very personal. Not against the cause, but to hurt the person. How can so many gedolim sign such a mean spirited cruel decree?
    I cannot imagine Rav Moshe Feinstein ever signing such a decree, and certainly never ever Rav Yaakpv Kamenetzky. It bothers me that so many gedolim signed this psak din , do they know these performers, were they accurately informed. Either they signed based on misinformation or they aren’t sensitive to the hurt they are causing not to a performance but to a performer, who is observant and respected for years in the USA chareidi world. How can this be? It hurts one’s emunas chachomim and that is so sad.

  26. Joshua Josephs says:

    I am curious how it is to be decided just how good a knowledge of Halacha a convert must have before their word on accepting kabbalat mitzvot can be invalidated. Also, I find the attitude here difficult in the treatment of non religious Jews. This argument seems to give ground that we can remove from the religion any Jew who both knows that driving on Shabbos is wrong and yet still persists in behaving this way. Furthermore, if we are to say there must be acceptance of Kabbalat mitzvot completely and totally, how do we deal with what happened at Har Sinai, the nation said Na’aseh v’Nishmah a seeming complete acceptance of the commandments, and then proceeded to commit the extremely grave mistake of worshiping the Golden Calf.