About 20 years ago, I read an article in Tradition magazine in which the author posed the following “contradiction” in Maimonides’ Mishna Torah: We see that the Rambam usually adopts the “liberal” position. And yet in this case he takes a “conservative” position.
Now, posing apparent contradictions in the Rambam and reconciling them has occupied the finest yeshivot minds for 900 years. But it had never before occurred to any scholar to challenge the Rambam according to some table of contemporary values, rather than in terms of the legal principles he enunciates and the Talmudic sources from which he derives those principles.
I was reminded of that nearly forgotten article recently by media coverage of the decision of the Rabbinical High Court of the Chief Rabbinate, affirming an earlier decision of an Ashdod beit din. The earlier decision nullified a conversion overseen 15 years earlier by Rabbi Haim Druckman.
Needless to say, most mainstream journalists are totally lacking the ability to read, much less evaluate, the halachic sources upon which the Rabbinical High Court based its decision, and could care less about the halachic issues involved. As a consequence, they placed a decision about a halachic issue onto a template more congenial to them, and reported it like a sports match or political contest: In this corner the “tolerant” Rabbi Druckman, and in the other corner “hard-hearted” haredi judges engaged, as always, in ruthless power grabs.
Even on its own terms, the World Wrestling Federation metaphor cannot be sustained. Rabbi Avraham Sherman, author of the Rabbinical High Court decision, served for many years as an IDF rabbi, and once spent a sabbatical at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy.
Another one of the judges graduated the national religious hesder system. Finally, the High Court’s decision was endorsed by the European Conference of Rabbis, hardly a haredi organization, which issued a statement that the conversions performed in Europe by Rabbi Druckman and other Israeli rabbis have shown a consistent ignorance of local realities – i.e., the likelihood of the candidates becoming mitzva observant.
Finally, the evidence that Rabbi Druckman signed conversion certificates falsely attesting to his presence at conversions – a practice which has already been the subject of a sharp censure from Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz – came from national religious rabbis within the Chief Rabbinate.
TUESDAY’S EDITORIAL in The Jerusalem Post claims that all sides of the Orthodox world agree that conversion requires acceptance of the “yoke of Torah, meaning an Orthodox lifestyle” – as if the issue in dispute were whether wearing a knitted kippa is sufficient or one must don a shtreimel and kapote on Shabbat. The distinction, the editorial argues, is between the national religious who “want to bring as many as possible into the Jewish fold” and the haredi world that does not.
One would never know from this account that Rabbi Sherman was stating the overwhelming weight of halachic opinion that a mere pro forma declaration of one’s commitment to full mitzva observance is inadequate, and that a beit din must assure itself, after searching inquiry, of the candidate’s sincere intention to take on full mitzva observance. As the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Herzog wrote, the burden on the beit din is much heavier in contemporary times, when a convert is not necessarily joining an overwhelmingly observant Jewish community.
Rabbi Druckman apparently does not share that view. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, perhaps Rabbi Druckman’s most distinguished defender, tacitly admitted as much when he said, “When did we ever hear that someone who relies on a minority opinion against the commonly held one is considered a willing heretic?” (Rabbi Lichtenstein’s father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, considered it axiomatic that conversion requires a full acceptance of mitzvot.)
If anyone is being political, it is Rabbi Druckman, not Rabbi Sherman. The evidence is overwhelming that a large majority of those converted by Rabbi Druckman were never mitzvah observant. And that is not merely an unhappy coincidence. The Conversion Authority, the special conversion track created in the IDF, the joint conversion institutes, in which students are instructed by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform instructors, and which work closely with the Conversion Authority were all new frameworks created by the Israeli government for the express purpose of solving the problem of 300-500,000 non-Jewish immigrants living among us via mass conversion.
Haredim would be thrilled if tens of thousands of non-Jewish Israelis made the monumental commitment to truly accept the yoke of mitzvot; we await the day when knowledge of God fills the entire world. But until then we are deeply skeptical that the miraculous individual decision to join the Jewish people through a full commitment to mitzva observance can ever be mass produced or subjected to numerical goals of the Israeli government.
TWO WEEKS ago, I spoke in Montreal for an organization called the Eternal Jewish Family, which has invested millions of dollars in working with intermarried couples where the non-Jewish partner is contemplating conversion or already in the process. I pointed out to a group of such couples that most ba’alei teshuva came from homes with a strong Jewish identity, which helped propel their decision to become fully observant. But a convert cannot draw on the desire to link more fully with his people, since he was not born Jewish.
That makes the decision of a non-Jew to fully accept the yoke of mitzvot both more awesome and rarer. National religious rabbis who claim it is possible to convert tens of thousands of immigrants without compromising on the requirement of a full commitment to mitzva observance must explain why they have produced so few ba’alei teshuva in Israel.
Undoubtedly, declaring a conversion invalid after the passage of years, as in the Ashdod case, is always a tragedy. But the blame does not belong to the bearer of the message. Orthodox rabbis have long criticized heterodox rabbis for not informing “converts” that their conversions will not be recognized by a large segment of the Jewish world, and thereby paving the way for future tragedies. And the same can be said of an Orthodox rabbi who follows a single opinion against the overwhelming weight of historical and contemporary halachic decisors.
(With obvious indebtedness to Rabbis Eytan Kobre and Yitzchak Adlerstein)