The Conversion Progress Report


Several weeks into the current conversion fracas, and I have participated in a webcam debate, read two of Rabbi Sherman’s piskei din, plus teshuvos both modern and pre-modern, several articles in Techumin, a few chapters of an academic work on conversion standards, and several screeds that drip with more violence than a remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The questions, however, continue apace.

Strip away all the detail, and the conflict boils down to two hostile assessments of what the other side stands for. Haredim believe that the dati-leumi (DL) camp is prepared to subvert “real” Torah to the dictates of non-religious and anti-religious forces in the government. They charge that when Torah matters are left in the hands of members of the DL orbit, issues of State ultimately trump issues of halacha. Gerus is just the latest in a series. The DL camp, on the other hand, believes that haredim have turned a deaf ear to concerns of Israeli society as a whole, content to contribute their mitzvos and learning, but nothing in areas of the enormous political, military and social issue that face Israel. At the same time, haredim have moved to assert greater control over a Rabbinate that their own people do not use, while attempting to impose their piskei halachah (e.g. the attempt to ban all Shemitah produce that relies on the heter mechirah) on a public that needs all the flexibility that halachah can legitimately deliver.

In duking it out in the current imbroglio, both sides have simply reinforced the stereotypes held by the other. In alienating the other, both sides deserve near-perfect scores.

Rabbi Druckman’s supporters have not responded to a single one of Rabbi Sherman’s charges in halachic language. They have thus added fuel to the fire of those who believe that the DL camp is incapable of dealing responsibly with sophisticated Torah thinking. Rabbi Sherman may or may not be right, but he raises important issues. Rav Druckman, to the best of my knowledge, is a fine gentleman, but not one of the halachic luminaries of the DL world. Professional politicians and MK’s – of any religious party – rarely are. The DL world suffers from no shortage of real bnei Torah and a group of authentic poskim who could and should be dealing with Rabbi Sherman’s point in halachic language.

The have compounded this error by taking comfort in the Israeli Supreme Court’s move a few days ago to freeze Rabbi Sherman’s decision. This should not have been a cause for celebration. It is harder to imagine a less appropriate deus ex machina to answer haredi critics. Rather than winning in the milchamtoh shel Torah, the DL world cheered as Big Brother showing up carrying a big, secular stick.

Many years ago, one of Rav Shach’s, zt”l, addresses enraged the Israeli public. He had dismissed kibbutz-members, cultural icons in general Israeli society, as “rabbit eaters,” devoid of all spiritual content. The nation was enraged. For weeks, people castigated R. Shach and the haredim, while touting the accomplishments of kibbutzniks on the battlefield. One journalist finally pointed out the irony. He observed that all the commentors were actually proving R. Shach’s point. All that the kibbutz defenders could point to was physical prowess and might. Nobody praised them for any spiritual accomplishment. You could imagine R. Shach getting up after all the charges and recriminations, and with a smile on his face saying, “The prosecution rests.” Nothing could make the haredi argument more effectively than a few rallies to support the honor of Rabbi Druckman, speeches denouncing the cold-heartedness of the haredim, appeals to a secular agency to trump the authority of a beis din – and silence on the substantive halachic issues.

To compound the injury, various writers in the DL camp have called for a new Israeli disengagement – this time, from all things haredi. Some have used militaristic vocabulary, speaking of the drawing of battle lines, and the waging of war against the forces of darkness and oppression in Bnei Brak. They’ve called for asserting their independence from haredi influences, of purging the country of their influence, of asserting that the haredim are alien to Torah, and that the real traditional Jews are the dati-leumi (DL), while the haredim are really Saducees. (Last time we heard this, it was Robet Gordis at JTS, I believe, saying the same about Orthodoxy in general back in the ‘30’s.) The writers may have felt better after venting, and may have scored points with their constituencies, but speaking in such terms about the most accomplished halachic minds of the generation – no matter how foreign some may find their attitude towards the State and modernity – does not create the impression of a whole lot of Torah depth.

On the haredi side, the silence has been equally disturbing and revealing. There have been no soothing voices allaying the fears of thousands of converts now in limbo. No one has insisted to the general public or to the DL community that the needs of the rest of the country concern haredim as well, but halachic principle rests atop a list of priorities. No one has answered all the pain and indignation expressed by good people within the DL world. Silence is the worst form of contempt.

Weeks into the controversy, I am left with more questions than I began. Does the DL world really expect decisions by a conversion court to be forced upon dayanim of other courts just because the former have government sanction? Even if they satisfy themselves (and I don’t understand how they could) that minimalist standards are enough to declare conversion candidates Jewish, can they expect that a dayan should now be compelled to officiate at such a convert’s wedding? If not, can he compelled to recognize such a convert’s wedding? Why do some in the DL camp point to liberalized standards of conversion as the solution to the crisis of several hundred thousand non-Jewish Russians living in Israel? Do they not recall that our last experiment in quickie mass conversions (over two thousand years ago) gave us not loyal Jews, but an Idumean fifth column and the reign of Herod the madman?

In the other corner, I do not understand how Rabbi Sherman can speak of “all” poskim rejecting conversion without proper acceptance of mitzvos. Did he not realize that his decision would be pored over by hundreds of people checking for integrity? What would he have lost had he conceded that there are one or two voices in the other direction who are so outweighed that they cannot be relied upon, even when conditions press for a leniency? Rabbi Sherman cites important poskim that flouting accepted halachic norms invalidates a person’s reliability as a witness, and therefore as a dayan as well. He concedes that these same poskim allow for the possibility that if a person thought he was doing a mitzvah by ruling leniently, he does not lose his reliability. Rabbi Sherman then goes on to differentiate between the reliability of witnesses and judges, but offers no evidence for the distinction other than his own opinion. Regardless of whether he is correct or incorrect, should not a decision that affects the lives of tens of thousands of people rest on something stronger than his own opinion?

At the real core of the matter is the status after the fact of hundreds, if not thousands, of converts whose acceptance of mitzvos is suspect. Take a hypothetical person who converted ten years ago. He watches television on Shabbos, but doesn’t drive. He eats kosher – most of the time. If he comes to Rabbi Sherman and asks him to be able to walk out of his marriage, marry a non-Jewish woman, and allow his present wife to remarry without a get, will Rabbi Sherman give him the green light? In similar cases in the United States, we have treated such people as safek gerim, questionable converts. We would never sanction such a person to “drop” his Yiddishkeit, nor on the other hand marry a Jewish woman without redoing the conversion. In both the Ashdod and Rechovot cases, the convert would never have gotten past the recognized batei din in the US, in either yeshivish or centrist forms. But in both cases, the convert did show some changes in behavior – changes that Rabbi Sherman rejects as cultural, rather than religious. Is this distinction sufficient to invalidate the candidate with absolute certainty, or only misafek? I ask (and I am asking, not stating) particularly in the light of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s zt”l position (Igros Mosher, YD3, #108) that to invalidate a conversion after the fact (which he does, in fact hold is possible, like so many others), the evidence of insincere kabbalas mitzvos has to go beyond a clear umdena(legal presumption), and rise to the bar of an anan sahadi (presumptive certainty)!

The only glimmer of hope comes from the realization that both sides, further apart from each other than ever before, are animated by exactly the same concern! Both sides feel that the other is compromising Torah and creating chilul Hashem. Haredim feel that nothing can ever trump halacha, and that DL playing fast and loose with halachah compromises the integrity of Torah. The DL world argues that the inability of haredim to come up with a modus vivendi for so many issues plaguing the State implies that our Torah is antiquated and not a Toras Chaim that can shine Divine illumination upon the issues over which we agonize. Each side sees the sanctity of the Torah violated and desecrated, and abreacts in pain.

If only we could both sides to realize that precisely what separates them is what unites them – a deep commitment to the eternity and centrality of Torah. If only they could use that common enthusiasm for Torah to mend the breaches and work together for the benefit of all of Klal Yisrael!

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7 years 3 months ago

Rabbi Alderstein, here is an article more or less along the lines of what you are looking for, full of serious mekoros, by Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin.

Bottom line from the article:

Is it really pshat in the Rambam? Yes.

Is it really a serious halachic viewpoint, even if a minority one? Yes. (And it is certainly not just “one or two” lonely voices.)

Is there any validity to what Rav Sherman did? No.

Rav Sherman, by the way, is being accused of very serious moral breaches in his conduct as a dayan:

For a lecture about who Rav Druckman shlit”a is and also his approach to giyur, see here (Rav Rakeffet on “Nationalistic Geirus”):

This lecture is from long before the current controversy, and reflects the essentially positive approach that one would expect regarding something like this, had power-politics not gotten involved.

Rabbi Alderstein, I really think you should apologize for what you wrote: “Rav Druckman, to the best of my knowledge, is a fine gentleman, but not one of the halachic luminaries of the DL world.” He is a posek easily of the stature of some of the best in North America.

Chareidi Leumi
7 years 3 months ago

Here are Rav Eliezer Melamed’s articles on the issue. He takes what seems to be a mainline stance on kabbalat haMitzvot but strongly critisizes R’ Sherman and his beis din.

I also read through R’ Elyashiv’s opinion on the Langer case again as well as R’ Yisraeli’s counter-opinion. It seems that R’ Elyashiv’s position contradicts that which is attributed to him by R’ Sherman. What is most amazing is that R’ Elyashiv gives a high level of importance to the society in which the ger lived in after the conversion. To the point that he does not mind if the ger ignores major portions of Torah law as long as he displayed some level of change. Rav Yisraeli takes issue regarding this point – how can the red line be so subjective?

I have also spoken to several rabbis who have worked with R’ Drukman’s beis din and they all claimed that the assertion that the beis din does not take seriously the issue of kabbalat haMitzvot is slanderous. They had all sponsered potential gerrim and were asked about the gerim’s progress in the community and their dedication to mitzvot.

What they DO advocate, however, is a sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude beDiavad. The sort of equivalent to how we treat a get after its complete – we rip it up so that no mistakes can be found later on. This is of course a matter of public policy and needs to be decided by bodies such as the chief rabbinate. Of course, if it can be shown that a beis din converts gerim who consistantly make no change in their lives, then such a beis din should be “taken off duty.”

7 years 3 months ago

I made it very clear there that only in matters that affect the nation as a whole do I see the need for convergence around a common (yes, machmir) position.

I know this is off topic but might you go into more depth on this?

One man’s pshat is another’s krumkeit

Correct, so why not leave each group to their own devices and if/when their paths cross it is up to each individual to look out for themselves?

7 years 3 months ago

Regarding Rav Ovadya: His position reagarding past conversions in general seems to be in between, it depends to the “chozek hooomdenah” (strength of the assessment ahead of time ) that the convert is not accepting the yoke of torah and mitzvot only that he makes a verbal declaration but his heart is remote from it (“bepiv ubissfatav kibduni veliboy rachak mimenee”) and “anan sahadi” that they never intended to keep mitzvot in practice then it appears that even bediavad there is no conversion; if however there is no “umdenah demuchach” at the time of conversion then even if at the end it was known to us his intentions their law is like a yirael mumar… And he writes that this is the opinion of Rav Kook that “bistam” one should not rule lekulah that they are not jews; implying that if we have a clear knowledge about his intentions at the time of conversion then Rav Kook would hold that the conversion is null and void even bediavad (contrary to what was said here in his name). The content of this one can find in periodical Torah She Baal Peh in the year 5731 where there is an article by Rav OVadyah on this matter.

One more important opinion on the matter is Rav ISrael Rozen’s opinion on similar issues in the past (a person in the centre of this debacle) : IN TEchumim VOl. 23 page 198-202 (one can see page 201 for the conclusions of his opinions) where he is extrmely stringent on these matters:

1) a constant situation of contravening laws of torah cannot be equated to a situation of “onness”.In addition there are many who hold that if a ger cannotwithstand to an onness (where he is mandated to withstand) there is a problem in the kabbalat hamitzvot.

2) Where the prospective convert knows the strignency of the prohibition and willfully deceives the beit din that is certainly “anan sahadi” that there is no kabbalat hamitzvot. He does not accept even bedieved conversion done with umdenah demuchach that there will be no kabbalat hamitzvot.

3) He does not accept even bedieved “deah dechyuyah yechidait” (a sinlge REJECTED opinion) that the concept of Kabbalat Hamitzvot refers to accepting the punishment for violating the mitzvot when there is no intent to keep and perform the mitzvot.

This is an opinio of Rav ROzen REligious Zionist RAbbi as recorded in the aforementioned periodical.