Halacha is Not a Chinese Menu

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Most issues raised by Rabbi Marc Angel’s recent essay on conversion standards are not going to change the quality of your life, unless you are a candidate for conversion. One issue does, and it deserves the attention of all committed Jews.

First, we turn to the background. It gives me no pleasure to have to take strong issue with the author of that piece. Rabbi Angel has a distinguished record of service to the rabbinate in general and as the spiritual leader of Cong. Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese in Manhattan that is so saturated with history, that it deserves a place in the hearts and minds of all traditional Jews, Askhenazic and Sephardic.

Many have already taken issue with a number of points he made. Rabbi Angel laments that there is increased pressure to restrict conversion to those who commit themselves to a fully halachic lifestyle. “[The] narrow view gained traction only as recently as 1876 when Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes ruled that conversion was to be equated with an absolute commitment to observe all mitzvot. Any candidate for conversion who was not committed to becoming fully Orthodox in observance was to be rejected.” He treats this as an aberration of halacha, because “great rabbinic voices opposed this radical change in approach. They favored maintaining the far more flexible and inclusive views of the Talmud, Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch.”

No person who has ever worked through any of the responsa of the Bais Yitzchok could believe for a moment that he would decide against “the Talmud, Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch.” Rabbi Angel means that while those texts all make it abundantly clear that a convert who rejects any part of the Torah he or she has learned, it is not clear from a simple reading of them that the court needs to project whether the candidate will comply with what he has not yet learned about. Silence about this leaves room, in Rabbi Angel’s opinion, for differing opinions.

Yet, as the Gemara says, words of Torah on a given topic are often sparse in one place – but abundant in another. Sleuthing what the Gemara actually holds about an issue is what responsa are all about, and precisely what Rabbi Shmelkes does in his masterful responsum. He culls the evidence, abundant in other places in the sugya, as to what acceptance of the mitzvos is all about, and reaches the conclusion that he does. Whether one accepts his conclusion or not – and the vast majority of those who followed him did – it is meant of explain the Talmud, Maimonides and Shulchan Aruch, not to differ with them. The Bais Yitzchok did not seek to innovate, so much as to explicate.

I am personally unaware of “great rabbinic voices” who embraced a different conclusion, other than the single voice cited by Rabbi Angel – Rabbi Benzion Uziel zt”l.

The issue that does affect everyone (is transformative, as we say here in California) jumps out at the reader in one sentence: “Historically, the halacha has allowed rabbis to draw on the full array of halachic sources; to consider the nuances of each individual conversion case; to use their own judgment on whether to accept or reject a candidate for conversion.”

I don’t know what Rabbi Angel meant, but the words themselves can easily be misunderstood as supporting a misconception of halacha that often surfaces on Orthodoxy’s left-most fringe. Bluntly put, there are people who believe that as long as you play the game of halacha by its general rules, every one is a winner. Ask the question, apply halachic “procedure,” and what ever bottom line you come up with is fine with G-d. In complex areas, this means treating halacha like a Chinese menu: take two poskim from column A, and one from column B.

Halacha, of course, is not a Chinese menu, and its rules call for assigning weights to different opinions. Without, chas v’shalom, taking away from the kavod of poskim many times greater than this author, all decisors are not created equal. There is room for embracing a lesser opinion, and even a minority opinion, especially by students, members of that rav’s community, and in times of dire necessity. When the stakes are unusually high – such as affecting the ongoing behavior of thousands of people over a long period of time (e.g. eruv), or the personal status of generations of people interacting with the larger Jewish world (e.g. conversion) – it becomes more important to follow the arguments with the most halachic presence. Making decisions about whose opinion means more has been a feature of psak for centuries. Poskim had to decide which Rishonim trumped other Rishonim; how much extra weight to assign to the Magen Avraham and Taz, and even how to choose between them when the arguments seemed fairly evenly matched, and each enjoyed many adherents.

In many cases, the answer was generally clear cut. Take a hypothetical dispute that boiled down to the opinion of R. Akiva Eiger against the Minchas Elazar. All other things being equal, I cannot imagine anyone going with the latter. Neither, for that matter, could I imagine too many going for R. Uziel, כבודו במקומו מונח, over the Bais Yitzchok.

It is, I think, quite dangerous to suggest that as long as the opinion of R. Uziel is available, there is no bar to the Israeli Rabbinate – charged with setting policy on personal status of the largest community of Jews in the world – embracing it, regardless of the cogency of arguments to the contrary.

Rabbi Angel quite likely meant something else. Until we find out, however (and he would certainly be welcome to respond here), it is important for the rest of us to understand that halacha is not like shopping for a can of beans in a market. Not all brands are the same.

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11 Responses

  1. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Maybe you’re not giving enough weight (to follow your line of explanation) to Rav Uziel. In addition to simply being a great talmid hacham and posek, he was the Rishon L’tzion. It seems to me that having occupied that position, with all the influence it had, especially in Israel back then (I think the positions of the rabbanim rashiim have been greatly eroded) gives Rav Uziel much more weight than you are recognizing.

    Comment by Mordechai Y. Scher

    Your comment brought a smile to my face, remembering a talk former Chief Rabbi Lau gave to a group of us Americans visiting him in his office. Speaking quite candidly, he said explicitly what many of us already knew: the Chief Rabbi is the rabbi for those who do not have or want a rabbi. The haredi community has its poskim; so does the Daati Leumi. Neither of them flock to the CR for psak, with a few notable exceptions like R Avraham Shapiro zt”l who were well established as major figures in their community before becoming CR. The sad fact is that the office does not go automatically to the most stellar halachic luminary, or even at times anyone even close. Rav Uziel’s yichus comes from his seforim,I’m afraid, not his office. The fact that many people may have been more disposed to listening to him once he became the Rishon LeTzion, if true at all, would not cause other poskim to assign him more weight.

  2. meir says:

    1)Regarding the phenomenon of a convert who does not know about Shabbat:
    In addition to what has been said, that this is in a situation expost facto, where he mistakenly wasn’t made aware that this is part of jewish tradition, (and even so, if it is a situation where he knew but rejected it will render the conversion invalid expost facto), but one should not set lechatichila such a system for conversions,

    It appears that even under Reb Moshe’s words of accepting the convert on an ex post facto manner in a way that does not render the rabbis officiating the conversions “worse the hedyotot”, this is only if the Rabbis actually told the convert about shbbat and it’s laws but the convert mistakenly thought that it is not so important (since the spouse is also not observant), and obviously it probably means in a situation where there was serious instructions on part of the rabbis to the prospective convert, then one can say that there a serious attempt by the rabbis to make it happen that the convert accepts the laws but they did not succeed due to a mistake in part of the convert. But if the case was: The RAbbis did not tell her about seriousness and the importance and the need and alws of shabbat for instance, because the rabbi knew ahead of the game they will not attempt to tel them about it because they will not accept it, then it appears from Reb Moshe that these rabbis are worse that hedyotot (rendering the conversions void).

    Likewise: if the attitude of the convert is, that although he/she knows that judaism really requires shabbat etc. but she will not accept to practice it (and she knows that the husband also does not “accept” it) then there would be no justification even in the eyes of Reb Moshe. This is especially so, when the convert is not ready to do anything in judaism (when it is hard to fathom that she really feels that all of judaism is only a “good custom” and not mandatory).

    2) REgarding the general statement by R. Angel: he makes an erroneous link to a statement by Posskim that the covnersion should depend upon the eyes of the individual dayan: that does *not* mean that the Dayanis entitled to bend the laws of kabbalat hamitzvot to accept the convert even when the convert does not accept the laws; it rather means that if he/she accepts to live by the laws of torah but there are other rabbinical problems with gerut, then the dayan has discretion to rule on a specific case. Also: The dayan is given discretion to decide this fellow really acceepts the laws of Torah (when others may think that he/she is not yet ready to accept the mitzvot). But it does NOT mean that he can covnert a person who is not ready to accept mitzvot for other (even important) reasons).

  3. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Rabbi Alderstein – 3 points:

    1) Your formulation mentions but under emphasizes one critical aspect that impacts how a psak is arrived at: how the circumstance is viewed/evaluated – how important, how urgent, how critical, how extraordinary, how different? Geirut or any area of halacha, despite your assertion somewhat to the contrary, is not different in substance -perhaps quantitatively but not qualitatively; urgency, criticality is perhaps given less weight by a posek, but the circumstance and how a posek evaluates it, is always critical. The critique by some outside the chareidi community often focuses on that point.

    2) The nub of the dispute is caught up in an academic view of the history of halacha /psak versus a more traditional approach. Academics read texts differently than those of us trained traditionally. Using your terminology, an academic may view a Posek’s “explication” of a text as a rather “innovative” and modern reading. This is not the venue for that discussion; I doubt that an academic’s view would be acknowledged by a vast majority of poskim. For some, however, it might provide a justification to rule differently in a difficult circumstance.

    3) The seminal issue in my mind is/was the training of Russian Olim and the stance towards broad participation in their education. Even if I were to acknowledge the positions on geirut, I would argue that those decisions to oppose training with participation by conservative and reform Rabbis have a decidedly weaker basis and are indicative of how the current context was evaluated.

  4. Yossi Kagan says:

    “Neither, for that matter, could I imagine too many going for R. Uziel, כבודו במקומו מונח, over the Bais Yitzchok. It is, I think, quite dangerous to suggest that as long as the opinion of R. Uziel is available, there is no bar to the Israeli Rabbinate – charged with setting policy on personal status of the largest community of Jews in the world – embracing it, regardless of the cogency of arguments to the contrary.”

    With all due respect, Rabbi Alderstein, there is a lot of presumption in these words!

    The first presumption is that the mesorah represented by the Bais Yitzchok is more important than the mesorah represented by Rav Uziel. But is that true? Maybe in California where all the rabbonim learned in litvishe yeshivos. But the rabbanus harashis is in Israel, where the sepahardic mesorah was always more lenient on gerus (regardless of what the Syrians did in America), and R. Uziel was taken quite seriously. Rav Chaim Dovid Halevi shared the mesorah and went in the same direction. All of this is well known to people in yeshivah circles in Israel.

    “Regardless of the cogency of arguments to the contrary” — quite a few people think that R. Uziel’s opinion is quite a cogent reading of the mekoros. Are there arguments to the contrary? Of course. But also great arguments in support. That is how Torah works.

    “Neither, for that matter, could I imagine too many going for R. Uziel” — The rov of Haifa, Shear-Yoshuv Cohen, a highly respected posek in “dati” circles, has come out publicly in favor of it, and a lot of other rabbonim strongly sypathize with him. Some of them sit on a beis din too.

    Rabbi Alderstein, you have the right as an American dayan to follow the Bais Yitzchok in America. Israeli rabbonim have the right to follow other poskim in Israel. Don’t fall into the trap, so common nowadays, of trying to delegitimize torah scholars you disagree with (like Rabbi Angel or like the Israelis) by disqualifying their approach to conversions. Gerus was never meant to used as a cherem, and just like the charedim shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t do it either. You have your approach to gerus, other Torah scholars have theirs. Respect them too.

  5. Mordechai Y. Scher says:

    Rav Adlerstein,

    Maybe you’re not giving enough weight (to follow your line of explanation) to Rav Uziel. In addition to simply being a great talmid hacham and posek, he was the Rishon L’tzion. It seems to me that having occupied that position, with all the influence it had, especially in Israel back then (I think the positions of the rabbanim rashiim have been greatly eroded) gives Rav Uziel much more weight than you are recognizing. De facto, a position taken and implemented by the rav rashi and head of the batei din must have pretty far reaching implications. What’s more, I think that in Israel we gave him more weight than folks in hutz l’aretz.

    The only thing thing that might be unusual in Rav Angel’s reliance on him is that a rav in hutz l’aretz is relying so heavily on a hacham/posek in Israel. I think that even that was more genuinely common in Sefardi circles than Ashkenazi ones.

    ???

  6. Seth Gordon says:

    I cannot imagine, for one minute, however, that a convert in our times who produced a certificate from an Orthodox beis din but who was ignorant of the basic mitzvah of the Sabbath would be considered a valid convert by anyone.

    Funny you should mention….

    Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh Deah vol. 1 siman 160, discussed the case of a convert who turned out to not be observing Shabbat after conversion. If I am reading the excerpt before me correctly, he ruled that because since the woman’s husband was also not Shabbat-observant, there was reason to believe that the woman didn’t understand that Shabbat was, as they used to say, “not just a good idea, it’s the law”. And, he said, in a case where the convert misunderstands the commandments, but does not reject the commandments, the conversion is still valid.

    (If I am not reading this correctly, I hope one of the learned rabbonim here will help me out.)

    On the one hand, it seems to me that even if a bet din could make valid conversions without inquiring too deeply into what the converts think they’re getting into when they accept the yoke of the commandments, it would be a bad idea to let this happen too often.

    On the other hand, how far should we go to prevent such errors? Does every prospective convert need a course in all the rules of p’sak halakha along with Maimonides’ thirteen principles and, oh yeah, some practical advice on how to keep Shabbat and kashrut? If a convert is perfectly middle-of-the-road Orthodox in his/her observance of practical halakha, but is philosophically inclined toward “a misconception of halacha that often surfaces on Orthodoxy’s left-most fringe”, does this belief invalidate the conversion?

  7. nachum klafter, md says:

    Ori: The Mishna states the case of one who has no knowledge of the existence of shabbos with respect to korbanos for an aveirah be-shogeg, and the gemara offers ger she-nisgayer le-vein ha-nokhrim and tinuk she-nishba as two possibilities for how someone would be ignorant of shabbos. Therefore, it is clearly a realistic case. I’m sure the rishonim must ask the question because it is immediately apparent that the notion of a ger who does not know about the mitzvah of shabbos could be possible.

    The gemara is obviously describing a peculiar case for the sake of the halakhos of the korban chatas for chilul shabbos, and is not describing ideal standards for conversion. It is a long, long way to go from a strange case in the gemara to establishing the halakha for how conversions must be done, and an even further distance to develop ideal uniform standards for conversion in order to avoid division in kelal yisroel.

    Ultimately, I suppose one must say that this gemara is describing the case of a ger who was mekabel ol mitzvos but did not yet have full knowledge of the mitzvos. It is therefore theoretically possible that he was aware of many mitzvos but not yet shabbos, and that a beis din converted him because of his sincerity and devotoin to all mitzvos before knowing what they were. Nevertheless, it does paint a very peculiar picture of what could be considered a valid conversion be-dei’avad. Imagine if such a person nowadays showed up in Yerushalayim and appeared before the Chief Rabbinate’s beis din, and didn’t know about shabbos! Ultimately, I suppose one must say that this gemara is describing the case of a ger who was mekabel ol mitzvos but did not yet have full knowledge of the mitzvos. It is therefore theoretically possible that he was aware of many mitzvos but not yet shabbos, and that a beis din converted him because of his sincerity and devotoin to all mitzvos before knowing what they were. Nevertheless, it does paint a very peculiar picture of what could be considered a valid conversion ex post facto. It seems so wildly irresponsible. Imagine if such a person nowadays showed up in Yerushalayim and didn’t know about shabbos.

    I have no interest in arguing in favor of more lenient standards. This sugya simply came to mind when I read Rabbi Adlerstein’s piece on Rabbi Angel in the middle of the night. As a frum balabus who has seen what happens when conversions are murky, I am in agreement with the need for uniform standards. I definitely support the RCA regional beis din system in coordination with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

    However, I am very skeptical of the Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) proposals because their “standards” would possul the majority of American Rabbonim, and their policies are also considered unacceptably liberal to the Eidah Chareidis of Yerushalayim. Therefore, EJF has basically alienated everyone, right, left, and center, in their attempt to create unity in kelal yisroel.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    When one reads R Angel’s articles in the Forward and the JW on this issue, it is evidently clear that he has read a book piblished by two Israeli academics that was published by the Shalom Hartman Institute that basically contended that there was no uniform standard for gerus from the Talmudic era until the mid to late 1800s. WADR to both authors and R Angel, there are standards set forth in Shas, Rishonim and Acharonim as well as many Sifrei ShuT( both pre and post Beis Yitzchak)as to what Kabalas Ol MItzvos means in meaning and committment required by a Ger Tzedek. If one goes thru these sources, R Uziel ZTL and his position is manifestly a Daas Yachid as well as one that can be legitimately critiqued as watering down the element of Kabalas Ol Mitzvos to the equivalent of Hataras Nedrarim or Meciras Chametz for someone completely unaware of the consequences of his or her actions. One can seriously argue that such a standard would render the term Ger Tzedek completelty devoid of meaning and consequence.

  9. Ori says:

    Nachum Klafter, was the issue of a convert who didn’t know what Shabbat was a realistic question, or a hypothetical one? Does the Talmud pose unlikely hypotheticals?

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein said,

    “Take a hypothetical dispute that boiled down to the opinion of R. Akiva Eiger against the Minchas Elazar. All other things being equal, I cannot imagine anyone going with the latter.”

    The “all other things being equal” is important to consider. There are areas where a “lesser” Gadol has more expertise and can muster a more compelling argument than a “greater” one.

  11. nachum klafter says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein: What do we make of the sugya in Shabbos about a ger she-nisgayer le-vein ha-nokhrim (a convert to Judaism who continued to live among the Gentiles) and who does not know about the general concept of the Sabbath (“ha-shokhe’ach ikkar shabbos”), and therefore proceeds to violate every Sabbath for a long period of time until he is made aware of the mitzvah of shabbos. Isn’t it shocking that the gemara treats this conversion as valid?

    I have not read Rabbi Angel’s articles. Perhaps this is one of his sources.

    I cannot imagine, for one minute, however, that a convert in our times who produced a certificate from an Orthodox beis din but who was ignorant of the basic mitzvah of the Sabbath would be considered a valid convert by anyone.