Conversion Standards, Hockey Bats, and the Academic Approach to Halacha

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Where do we set the bar of observance for would-be converts? The row over standards waxes and wanes, but never quite disappears. A recent article in Tradition did not make the waves it should have. In an understated manner, it placed – not threw down – a gauntlet in a simmering conflict between two approaches to halacha that just do not talk to each other. I wish the author (my friend, frequent disputant, and oftentimes writing collaborator, Rabbi Michael Broyde) had finished the job he ably began. Without consulting him, I will herewith attempt to do just that.

Rabbi Broyde (together with Shmuel Kadosh) took sharp aim at a work that has proved nettlesome to many who engage in serious halacha, although most of them have never heard of it. When Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a member of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinic Court, invalidated some of Rabbi Chaim Druckman’s converts, he touched off a firestorm of criticism that has not abated to this day. At the eye of the storm was an assumption that if it could be determined by the later behavior of a convert that he or she had never fully accepted the yoke of mitzvos, then the conversion was of no legal validity ab initio. Many not particularly learned articles appeared, decrying this “innovation” in halachah behind Rabbi Sherman’s psak – part of a plot by the mullahs of Bnei Brak to beat the long-suffering masses of the general Orthodox community with cudgels of chumros. [Note: this is not an endorsement of Rabbi Sherman’s psak. He doesn’t need my approval – I do not approach his level of competence – but if asked, I would have a hard time giving it.] Without passing judgment on the specific application of halachic principle in Rabbi Sherman’s cases, it remains arguably true that a conversion, like other important changes in legal status including marriage and divorce, can be challenged and retroactively invalidated. There is nothing novel in this at all.

Many of the articles, written by people who identify with Orthodoxy and those who do not, make liberal use of Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition From Gentile to Jew, by Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, two professors at Bar-Ilan. It is not a short work, and people – particularly those who are not at home with primary halachic texts – cite it as the last word, the exhaustive and definitive study of legitimate and exaggerated requirements for conversion.

Rabbi Broyde pulls no punches in his review in laying bare the serious methodological errors and simple misreadings that invalidate the work. The Conclusion section puts it simply and directly. “Its basic argument…is without precedent and includes glaring misunderstandings of the Jewish legal system.” Having read a few chapters of their work (I went straight for the halachic material), I would have been even less generous.

I believe that having started the job, Rabbi Broyde would have done us all a favor if he would have finished it. Although he knows quite well what the core problem is, Rabbi Broyde’s more accepting spirit did not allow him to say it. The Sagi and Zohar work is not an isolated incident of bad Torah scholarship, but the customary and usual from people who reject halachic methodology, whether through ignorance or by choice.

The simple truth is that the academic world just doesn’t regard halachic process the way halachists do. Trading arguments with them is as futile as trying to do karaoke with friends who only know Gregorian chant. What comes out does not sound pleasing.

Most of us have seen the tendency in academic circles to take different but somewhat related authors/ musicians/ thinkers/ concepts and turn them into Two Opposing Conceptual Schema. Unconsciously, we absorbed the technique when we had to write research papers, particularly in the humanities. If we could uncover the inevitable borrowing and influence from some other names, we were on the way to a successful paper. We knew we hit pay dirt when we could make the argument that Schema A was influenced by X, while Schema B was influenced by Y because the respective authors/ designers of those schema were products of the special conditions of their times.

Should it surprise us when people operating within this mindset turn to Torah and do the same? Sagi and Zohar claim to have found two sources in the gemara, and turned them into two different shitos regarding conversion requirements. Alas, say the authors, halachic thought jumped ship in the late 19th century (motivated, of course, by waning rabbinic authority just as it had to confront the dizzying new choices of modernity) and opted for the more onerous set of rules.

Halachists, of course, do not approach text this way. Neither do ninth graders with serious gemara background. When they see conflict between sources, they generally endeavor to reduce the tension as much as possible, sometimes by successfully harmonizing sources, and where that is impossible, reducing the intellectual distance between the opposing viewpoints as much as possible.

In a word, where the academic world looks for maximum spread between viewpoints, the traditional Torah world looks to reduce it. To the halachist, there was never any contradiction between the sources, and never any question about the crucial importance of acceptance of mitzvos in conversion. The seeds of retroactive undoing of a conversion go back to the gemara’s discussion of the status of the Kusim, and the motivation and legitimacy of their first (and second!) conversions. Proponents of the academic approach are free to make their arguments, but they can’t use assumptions made only by them – and completely at variance with standard, accepted halachic protocols- to “prove” that the halachists are up to some newfangled mischief. Sagi and Zohar are free to argue that their understanding of a tension between sources is the more correct way to look at the matter. Halachists will be just as vocal in denying that understanding. Neither side is likely to convince the other. It makes no more sense, however, for Sagi and Zohar to to criticize halachists operating within the assumptions of their opposing system than for Dodger fans to criticize hockey players for not using baseball bats to deflect pucks.

Rabbi Broyde’s review should be appreciated for what it really is. It is not a narrow defense of the primary role of full acceptance of the mitzvos in conversion. It is a broadside at an often competing way of examining sources that has little to say to the serious halachist.

My objective in this piece has nothing to do with conversion, Profs. Sagi and Zohar, or sniping at the academic world. It is, rather, an illustration of but one way of looking at halachic sources in a manner that is foreign to the traditional halachist. The real culprit will emerge in the continuation of this essay.

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30 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    i don’t know if anyone is still looking at this site,but this article in Haaretz is absolutely correct. The orthodox establishment might think that making conversion nearly impossible will strengthen Israel, in fact, it will have the opposite effect. I think that a major split is under way, the increasing chareidi’isation of religion and the increasing alienation from that religion by so many Israelis.
    Beware of what you wish, it may come true.

    Despite the ultra-Orthodox By Alexander Yakobson
    The strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis are winning the debate over conversion, or so it seems. But this is a pyrrhic victory. The more the ultra-Orthodox take control of conversion, the more conversion becomes irrelevant. People who find the religious door to the Jewish people closed will come in through the civil and secular door, over which the rabbis have no control: The door to integration into Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli society. This door is not mentioned in any law but exists in Israel’s social and cultural reality. This reality is stronger than the High Rabbinical Court.

    Mass immigration from countries with a high rate of intermarriage inevitably means that many non-Jews under rabbinical law come here. Many of these people are sons or daughters of Jewish fathers, have Jewish surnames, have often seen themselves as Jewish and have even suffered from anti-Semitism. The Law of Return, however, applies to many others because of family ties to Jews who did not have any significant Jewish identity or awareness before they came to Israel.

    What happens to the ones who fail under rabbinical law, from the moment they arrive? The vast majority of them want to become part of the Jewish Israeli majority here; over time they achieve this in a process that has become known as “sociological conversion.”

    They live here as an integral part of society, they speak Hebrew, their day of rest is Saturday, the calendar they live by includes the Jewish holidays, and Independence Day is their national holiday. Their children attend Hebrew-language schools, and when they complete their studies they enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. They adopt many elements of Israeli Jewish culture, including celebrating the Jewish holidays – which is not dictated by rabbinical law.

    Most of them fully identify with the state: If there is a problem, it has to do with excess patriotism to the point of nationalism, not with its absence. In this they are no different from Jewish immigrants from the same places or previous immigration waves. In the next generation, it is reasonable to assume that this too shall pass. Experience suggests that over time successful integration into Israeli society also means a moderation of political views.

    If these individuals do not belong to the same people as Israel’s Jewish majority, to which people do they belong? They received citizenship in the Jewish state upon arrival. They do not belong to any national minority. The “nationality” line on the Israeli identity card has been scrapped. What remains is the registration of nationality in the Interior Ministry’s population registry; it is ridiculous to argue that this determines national identity.

    True, when they wish to marry the rabbinate reminds them that they are not Jewish under rabbinical law. This does not mean they do not marry. They get married in Cyprus, register as married at the Interior Ministry, and like many other Israelis, they get angry, rightly, at the religious establishment.

    The absence of civil marriage is a nuisance to them and a blow to their rights; it is not an obstacle to their integration. On the contrary, anger at the religious establishment is an important cultural marker of Israeli Jewish society. This is also a kind of integration.

    In the Israeli reality, it is no longer true that the only way to join the Jewish people is to adopt the Jewish religion.

    The situation in a sovereign state must be different on this issue from Diaspora communities, and indeed, it is different. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis are doing their thing, and the reality is doing its. We’ll see who wins.

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  2. dr. bill says:

    Joel Rich, We may not disagree; I repeated endless times, typing my little fingers off, that not academics, but gedolai haposkim, decide halakha. The fear is that somehow academics will discover something poskim will not be able to handle. Now who has less emunat chachamin – me who says show me such a case or those who are still afraid? Every case that I know is resolvable within the halakhic framework.

    IMHO, as God told Abraham, listen to your wife. This whole area of academic and yeshivish study of talmud is very early. I am certain, that in the next generations more than few top talmidim in “Joelland” will benefit from both Prof. Elman and RHS. and btw, tell your wife he wants to call it Kiryat Joel.

  3. YM says:

    In the beis medrash, we look at the words of our holy and pure tanniam and amoriam as speaking words of Hashem; even when they, as men, may have been intending to say one thing, as mouthpieces of Hashem, they may have actually said something else entirely. As this and this are both the words of the Ribbono Shel Olam, we of course are trying to reduce the differences down to the minimum to see the light of Hashem in the smallest crack, in the white spaces between the black letters.

    Academic works are tamei by their own definition; they are interested in the men and not in Hashem or Ratzon Hashem. If truth is defined to mean factually correct, there may be some truth in their works; I don’t think that Emes means factually correct. I believe it means eternal and connected to the source of all life.

  4. Joel Rich says:

    5) IMHO the root cause is fear of what academics might find.
    ======================

    Dr. Bill,
    First thanks for doing the heavy lifting and saving my typing time :-) but on this we disagree. IMHO the root cause is that by definition the “baalei mesorah” must be the keepers of halchic and hashkafic truth (as it should be). In “Joelland” (as my wife refers to it), the baalei mesorah would take the work of “academics” into account(a la the GRA on girsaot). In “realworld” IMHO we tend to try not to grant any legitimacy to those who are viewed as a threat.

    Now a technical point for R’YA – do you understand that the baalei hatosfot would reconcile positions that they had a mesora were different? That they had a 95% certainty?

    It would be interesting to take a few academic differentiations and a few from R’ Chaim, have someone restate them in similar styles and do a taste test on a random group of 9th graders (and talmidim who were unfamiliar with these particular positions)

    KT

  5. mycroft says:

    “I still spend more of my time in the classic halls of the beis medrash, so I’m not the one to ask. I did read several works of Professor Katz years ago. I found much that was interesting, but disagreed about pshat in about every area that I had personal familiarity. I just didn’t see the same sources the way he did. I have no idea as to whether there was some real disagreement there, or I was reading things the wrong way, or picked the wrong works and chapters.”

    But clearly, there are those talmeidei chachamim who have a more positive view of Dr. Katz.-For example, Rabbi Dr Solowveitchik studied under him-he refers to him in some of his works.

    “I am curious, though. If you don’t know R Broyde, how can you speculate on what he does or does not believe about academic study.”

    I don’t know and probably have not met most of the cross current contributors -but on many issues it is quite clear what they believe in.

  6. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Alderstein, Thank you for your response. 5 points of clarification.

    1) Two longer halakhic works of professor katz that i have read are about an early maariv and amira leakum. his comments on stam yainam are hardly that critical any more given the major work by dr. solveitchik. except for some chumrot he did not actively advocate, his works were hardly threatening. on the other hand, he (and some of his students) did point out changes in methodology by certain poskim.

    2) I was implying as you note that the method of the baalai tosefot was an innovation. (prof. urbach’s work on the baalei tosfot studied this but i have heard similar comments, hardly as thorough as a two volume sefer, from “traditional” RY.) It was certainly, like brisker conceptualization, a major innovation with very broad influence. many academics tend to stress other rishonim, later and earlier, who saw more diversity of opinion (as well as development of an idea over hundreds of years) in talmudic texts. In my mind this penchant for consistency is a major issue raised by others above. it is perhaps a seminal divide between those left and right of center, wherever that shifting line happens to be; a deeply philosophical, hashkafic area.

    3) If i understand you correctly, most poskim you spoke to did not agree with the passeling of R. Druckman. Of course, some, including R. Lichtenstein, saw this in the other direction where his action was so egregious as to passel him.

    4) few academics, reach halakhic decisions and most, like prof. katz, who may have been most qualified, carefully avoid it. In this regard Sagi and Zahor are unique to a fault.

    5) IMHO the root cause is fear of what academics might find. This fear has has some validity. Famously, R Yitzchak Elchanon validated the use of thsuvot hageonim that were lost for centuries. however, this fear has yet to materialize and you have to wonder if it ever will. what happens in reality is that academic findings do not overturn time-honored psak. Instead, it may strongly bias in favor of one shittah over another. It is here where academic research can be melded effectively with psak, something only now (rarely) beginning. (I consider R. Tukatzinsky sefer on Bein hashemashot an early example by one not normally classified as an academic. i tend to include those who actively use science as academics.) Most who engage in such studies, will say, with some sincerity, that poskim ought to weigh this. i have many examples particularly in areas I have personally studied, zemanim and shiurim, where hard core academic disciplines can be helpful. does the work favor practice A over B, in areas where dispute is still present, certainly. It may on rare occasion, even favor a less prevalent opinion. But its real value could come if used by poskim to decide new cases. I have a hard time fearing anything that is factual; but I strongly agree that many, myself included, can be easily biased by our preconceived notions reading any text. Psak, with its reliance on tradition, has an effective way of dealing with that.

  7. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Dr. Bill’s points are important. Most were raised by other commentors whose letters were not published. I will try to address some of them. Before turning to then serially, I must clarify the single most important point. My post was not a wholesale condemnation of academic contributions to Torah study. Academic study has much to contribute in many areas, and there are some wonderful people dealing with it. (I avidly read and listen to anything by Dr Shnayer Leiman I can get my hands on; one of the only blogs I read is Seforim. I do believe that we have to take from that world with great caution.) My post took issue only with what I called the academic approach to text – specifically a predilection for not harmonizing different texts (and I meant Talmudic texts, not later), but seeking the opposite. Sagi and Zohar’s central thesis is that the Talmud includes two different and competing views of conversion criteria. There is no mention of this in the Rishonim, and indeed no reason whatsoever to assume this. The two sources speak of two different aspects, not two different systems.

    Q 1) I am curious what you think of prof. katz ztl and the academic approach to psak he and his students follow? IMHO Sagi and Zahor are closer to the conceptual style of brisk, which also rarely creates poskim, than to some of the methodology of prof. katz.

    I still spend more of my time in the classic halls of the beis medrash, so I’m not the one to ask. I did read several works of Professor Katz years ago. I found much that was interesting, but disagreed about pshat in about every area that I had personal familiarity. I just didn’t see the same sources the way he did. I have no idea as to whether there was some real disagreement there, or I was reading things the wrong way, or picked the wrong works and chapters.

    Q 2)I notice you wrote “invalidated some of Rabbi Chaim Druckman’s converts.” He also passeled R. Druckman and hence all the conversions?? Do you still believe that was correct or even tolerable?

    I don’t think it is fair to crucify R Sherman on a blog. Write him a letter, and get his response. I do think that it was counterproductive for the MO and DL camps to yell how unfair it was, without offering chapter and verse to refute his central contention that if R Druckman signed his name to documents that he could not have witnessed, he invalidated himself as a dayan. I said as much in two public panels – one of them webcast around the world. It took me months to speak to a few people who are ba’alei halachah and who were familiar with the case. Those that I spoke to did not think that R Druckman would have become invalidated for what he did.

    I have heard very distinguished talmedai chachamim (in addition to almost all academics) who pinpoint when it, like the brisker method centuries later, the appraoch you describe was innovated! Does it dominate traditional psak – certainly; but many a great posek has taken a bat and driven that puck out of the park.

    I have no idea what you mean. The approach I speak about suffuses the output of the Ba’alei Tosafos. When it comes to consistent commentary on the blatt, we don’t get much earlier than that.

    I do not know R. Broyde, but i doubt he as dismissive of academic study of talmud or poskim; he certainly is aware that like poskim, academics take very different approaches.

    As I said above, I am not dismissive of academic study. I am dismissive of criticizing ba’alei halacha for not coming to the conclusions that a particular academic bias would produce. I am curious, though. If you don’t know R Broyde, how can you speculate on what he does or does not believe about academic study.

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    “In a word, where the academic world looks for maximum spread between viewpoints, the traditional Torah world looks to reduce it.”

    As I recall from R. Klugman’s biography(Artscroll), Rav Hirsch had a criticism of Graetz to the effect that according to the latter, “this Amora was always smiling, and the other one was always depressed”. In other words, it’s quite a stretch to project personalities and/or broad academic schemas and perspectives onto gemera and halacha.

    However, R. Daniel Eidensohn and R. Berel Wein have noted the opposite problem in some of the frum world when it comes to “reducing spread”:

    R. Daniel Eidensohn wrote on his blog(12/4/08):

    “Finally let me mention my experience with writing and publishing my sefer Daas Torah. When I first started working on it I consulted a [well-known educator]. He told me point blank – “you are a danger to klall Yisroel. You are going to cause confusion and doubt by telling people that there are multiple ways of understanding fundamental hashkofa issues.”

    I consulted with Rav Bulman. His response was, “You will never get away with presenting multiple views. The yeshiva world holds that there is one right answer. You are following in the approach of Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook. But I want to buy the first copy. You hear I don’t want a present I want to buy the first copy.”…

    I then went to Rav Eliashiv – he told me simply that there is no problem of raising issues and presenting multiple alternatives – as long as the source material was from mainstream accepted views. He did not see a problem “as long as I did not present sources from the Cairo Geniza.” In regards to the issue of confusion – he said simply “let them ask their rebbes and rosh yeshiva.” You don’t avoid teaching Torah because it raises questions.”

    R. Berel Wein wrote in The Jeruslaem Post(11/4/05):

    “As a reaction to Graetz and his followers and to the secular Zionist movement that purposely negated all the past Jewish history of Jewish accomplishments in the Exile, the religious Jewish world began to construct its own works of history…It allowed for no unpleasant details and no human deviations and/or failings from exemplary pious behavior. Great disputes within the religious Jewish world were ignored or whitewashed.”

    My conclusion is that some of the frum world may have something to learn from the academia–not in distorting the halachic process or ikkarei emunah. Rather, the academia(despite its biases and distortions)does not have the bias of being afraid of “caus[ing] confusion and doubt”, as the educator told R. Eidensohn.

    I think that the solution to any “oversimplification” is not negativity and to attack anyone(that would cause divisiveness and be detrimental to ahavas Yisrael), but rather to create alternative publications which offer broader perspectives, as I think that the OU has started to do. Perhaps this will have a ripple effect, as other communities will see that one can still be frum and present for the multitudes (what one believes is) a highly sophisticated and non-sheltered approach to hashkafa and emunah. They might even want to emulate it too :)

  9. dr. bill says:

    I think it is clear that the CI rejected the research of manuscripts and textual accuracy as having a valid place in the Beit Midrash. There are a few letters from the CI to R’ Shaul Lieberman (his cousin) where he rejects such academic methods.

    Comment by Chardal — June 21, 2009 @ 4:34 am

    Doron Beckerman quotes the letter(s) to which you are probably referring (assumed by most to be written to prof. lieberman) and it clearly does NOT declare absolute opposition; just insisting that the Ikkar is stressed over the Tafel and that he finds such study of of limited value and suspect. indeed, they are, but in many areas, they are quite helpful, nonetheless. Despite his POV, his other letter (not quoted above of which there likely many that are lost) explicitly addressed to prof. lieberman acknowledges the correctness of one of his chiddushim.

    your characerization of the CI’s opposition to the brisker methodology is hardly addressable in a quick note. Despite isolated naysayers, currently, most believe that commonly accepted brisker conceptualization is reconcilable with psak. In any case, I have read other theories for his opposing brisker conceptualization, irrelevant to this thread.

  10. Natan Slifkin says:

    “In a word, where the academic world looks for maximum spread between viewpoints, the traditional Torah world looks to reduce it.”

    Yet very often this is taken too far, and the positions of some authorities are distorted in order to bring them in line with others. For example, the deep disputes between Rambam and Ramban on many issues are upsetting for some Torah scholars, and they therefore try to bridge the gap by reinterpreting Rambam in a way that is utterly unconvincing to those who are more familiar with his writings and worldview.

    [Note from YA – Reb Natan, I think you are supporting my point more than refuting it! It is clear that the approach of halachists – with a written record of this going back at least to the Ba’alei Tosafos – is to look for harmony between viewpoints. Looking for it doesn’t mean you’ll always do such a good job finding it! Some attempts are more successful than others!

    Rambam/Ramban is not such a good example. I was talking about mishnaic and amoraic material, which is where Sagi and Zohar did their thing. Clearly, Rishonim and Acharonim disagree. Three quarters of yeshiva learning is about trying to define the point of contention, although in most learning circles, there is still an attempt to avoid sevaros hafuchos, and to find defintions of principle that are as close as possible, rather than antipodal. I would not make the same argument about areas of hashkafa (although some might disagree), where there clearly are wide divisions on some matters.]

  11. dr. bill says:

    1) Doron Beckerman, he is talking specifically about those who make philology/linguistics primary and analysis secondary and reveals his motivation, fearing the impact on psak/practice. Both prof. lieberman and the Gaon, that i cited can hardly be accused of that! Both embellished their incredible analysis/iyun with knowledge of linguistics and/or accuracy of texts. How RYYW used academic sources in psak, is a separate discussion.

    Nonetheless, he says not to rely HEAVILY and chose instead to rely on the works of poskim. Ironically, he was strongly opposed by RTPF and RCN who demonstrated he did not behave that way wrt to his psak on the size of the egg. Read the long tshuva by R. O Yosef in Yechaveh Daat who reviews this issue in detail. BTW, discoveries of the very coins, Rambam refers to, appear to prove RCN and RTPF correct.

    2) Raymond, i think you are refering to academics in general. i agree with you that their drive-by comments on our traditions, may be very shallow or biased. I am talking about serious academics of judaic studies. In any case your characteriztion of “some professor with a secular socialist agenda” clearly proves we are not talking about the same people.

    3) It’s a big problem and the Israeli rabbinate is no longer headed by a Rav Herzog or a Rav Kook. If they were alive, they would know how to deal with this . Woe to the ship that has lost its captain.

    Comment by L. Oberstein — June 19, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Could not agree more. in a similar vein, R. Moshe lichtenstein (i will not characterize his two short essays in Daf kesher whose halakhic views will suprise many) politely suggested (a manner of speaking we can all learn from) that the decision made by R. Druckman, required “breiter platzes” so to speak. However, Yiftach Bedoro has to address what is becoming a yet more convoluted situation.

  12. Chardal says:

    >The opposition of the CI ztl for example to the methodology of Brisk, made him closer in methodolgy to an number of who you would label as academics

    Actually, the CI’s main opposition to Brisk seems to be in that they made (what he felt was) an artificial seperation between lamdus and psak. I think it is clear that the CI rejected the research of manuscripts and textual accuracy as having a valid place in the Beit Midrash. There are a few letters from the CI to R’ Shaul Lieberman (his cousin) where he rejects such academic methods.

    Of course you are right that the Gaon was VERY interested in establishing the correct text before delving into its meaning as did countless other achronim. Its just that we live in a frum world that is a result of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. Personalities such as the sridei eish who were able to integrate the academic world with the beit midrash are few and far between.

  13. Doron Beckerman says:

    “The opposition of the CI ztl for example to the methodology of Brisk, made him closer in methodolgy to an number of who you would label as academics – perhaps for example prof. lieberman ztl and in the opinion of many the Gaon of Vilna… if i can be imprecise – those who fear academic approaches seem to comfortable with artscroll. Those who fear artscroll, tend to be comfortable with academic atudy of talmud and halakha. It is a poor analogy and there are many differences, but i like to remind people which one requires yegiah.”

    אגרות חזון איש חלק ג’ אגרת יט

    אם אמנם הבלשנות ותרגום המילים נוטל חלק בתורה שבע”פ לאחר שנתנה לכתוב, אבל הרצים אחריה מידה ואינה מידה, ואין התורה מצויה בין אלה שעושים את מלאכתם קבע ואת העיון העמוק ארעי, או אינם מתעמלים בו כלל. ולאלה שעמלים בתורה אין פרי עבודתם של חוקרי הלשון מועיל רק לעתים רחוקות, ובדברים קלי ערך, ומגמת המתעמל להתוכן ולא לתרגום המילה שהיא בבחינת תיק…

    אין אני רגיל בחיפושים ובחקר קדמוניות, ואני מתנגד לדרך זו, כי איננה בטוחה

    אגרות חזון איש חלק ב אגרת כג

    והדבר ידוע בעניני הלכה שלא לסמוך הרבה על מציאות חדשות, רק על ספרי הפוסקים שנמסרו מדור לדור בלא הפסק

  14. Charlie Hall says:

    “At the eye of the storm was an assumption that if it could be determined by the later behavior of a convert that he or she had never fully accepted the yoke of mitzvos, then the conversion was of no legal validity ab initio.”

    I don’t think this is correct. The big problems from where I stand look like the following:

    (1) that Rav Sherman’s opinion has been interpreted as pasuling every conversion ever done by Rav Druckman, without looking at each individual case, which seems to be a requirement of Jewish jurisprudence.

    (2) that the Rabbinical Council of America, and most of the leading Sefardi and Dati Leumi rabbis in Israel have publicly opposed Rav Sherman’s opinion, yet the Ashkenazic charedi community refuses to back down, insisting that the rest of the Jewish world conform to what seems to be a minority viewpoint.

    “The seeds of retroactive undoing of a conversion go back to the gemara’s discussion of the status of the Kusim, and the motivation and legitimacy of their first (and second!) conversions.”

    I hope nobody seriously suggests that Rav Druckman has the status similar to that of a Kuti rabbi!

    “Sagi and Zohar claim to have found”

    I have found a source that unquestionably proves that 2000 years ago, converts were expected to be fully observant. But although the source is well known, with no question regarding either its authorship (a non-Jew) or its authenticity, it is from outside our mesorah. Can we ever use sources from outside our mesorah to assist in resolving halachic controversies?

  15. Raymond says:

    In response to Dr Bill, I never heard Rashi, the Ramban, or Rav Hirsch? I may not be a Torah scholar, but I have attended countless Torah classes in which Torah commentaries such as those were explained, plus I have studied such Torah commentaries on my own. Why would I need some professor with a secular socialist agenda to explain those commentaries to me? On the contrary, my experience is that profesors mock those Torah giants. When I challenged them on occasion, their sole reaction was to be stunned and flustered, not expecting their audience to actually know anything about the subject. And no, of course I will not name names, as I do not know who reads this forum, and would not want those who run it to be put in any kind of awkward position. Besides, naming them is irrelevant, as such professors are apparently all cut from the same anti-religious cloth.

  16. dr. bill says:

    1. Isn’t it ironic that some of the same people who claim to have solved the agunah problem through retroactive annulment are so vociferously against a psak which retoractively annuls (actually, finds invalid) a converion?

    2. The distinction between academic and halakhic approaches to the Talmud is a solid one.

    Comment by Tal Benschar — June 19, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    1. analogies are often weak. even comparison to R. Goren’s ztl famous Langer case, though closer had the major difference of casting doubt on the very existence of a geirut and using a methodology that applies uniquely to cases of mamzeirut. your analogy lacks even a sembelence of validity. supporters of rabbi rackman’s ztl approach are few and far between. (despite that read R. Broyde’s moving rememberance.) (also read tnai benesuin uveget by rabbi dr. berkovitz ztl with a haskamah from RYYW ztl to see that argument made at its strongest.) If you count the MO community in the US and israel you will find opposition to Rabbi rackman and strong support for rabbi druckman. your use of the phrase “retroactive annulment” is nothing more than sophistry. we do not make a gezarah shaveh without a mesorah for a reason!

    2. The range of both academic and as u label it “halakhic” approaches to talmud is broad. comparing one to the other without differentiating the differences within each category is not helpful or accurate. The opposition of the CI ztl for example to the methodology of Brisk, made him closer in methodolgy to an number of who you would label as academics – perhaps for example prof. lieberman ztl and in the opinion of many the Gaon of Vilna. many like RYYW ztl and Dr chaim soloveitchik to name two giants, fit easily in both camps. I know academic study of talmud and psak is very troubling to many. if i can be imprecise – those who fear academic approaches seem to comfortable with artscroll. Those who fear artscroll, tend to be comfortable with academic atudy of talmud and halakha. It is a poor analogy and there are many differences, but i like to remind people which one requires yegiah.

  17. Steve Brizel says:

    R Adlerstein deserves a huge kudos for alerting the readers of this blog to R Broyde’s excellent article. The article deserves the widest circulation inasmuch one hears the unsubstantiated but quite PC claim that Kabalas Ol Mitzvos was a 19th Century Charedi ideologically motivated doctrine.

  18. L. Oberstein says:

    Is it the goal of the rabbinical leaders of the Jewish State to find a solution to an intractible problem, such as the problem of shmita in an earlier generation? Or, maybe, the rabbis must not look for leniencies, but keep our camp holy. Is there a halachic way if there is a rabbinic will or is that a lie perpetrated by cynics?
    After 2,000 years of exile, we have our own state, but it was founded by secular zionists and then they brought in these “undocumented aliens”. Should we spit them out, even if we could or should we recognize that, inevitably, they will merge into the body of the Israeli nation through the fact that they live in Israel, serve in the army ,participate in the economy and are as Jewish as most Israelis in their life style. It’s a big problem and the Israeli rabbinate is no longer headed by a Rav Herzog or a Rav Kook. If they were alive, they would know how to deal with this . Woe to the ship that has lost its captain.

  19. Moshe Otero says:

    Yitchol Alderstein presents a good argument in the discussion of where do we set the bar of observance regarding converts. In the back lash of invalidating Rabbi Chaim Druckman’s convert, which can be seen as a means to cool off and warn Orthodox Rabbis of their conversionary activity, or rather the quality of the convert themselves, has in fact been a good thing for the convert who know wait in line to measure up to the new standard. However, it is unfortunate that the issue of Anusim and Jews of Spanish land by the Sephardic Rabbinate has yet to establish a process of welcoming back into the fold those who have documented evidence of matrilineal Jewish descent but have lived a life forced by their cultural environment. This will be the next issue which eventually the Halakhic world will have to in practicallity resolve. As communities of Anusim are being established where they are not welcomed in countries where Takkanots exist prohibiting conversion or a formal return process ( Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, Central America, and many others). Many of these indiidual when entering the United States are treated as regular converts, or needing to under go a “doubtful” conversion thus causing more harm then good. Some Rabbis are encouraging that they create their own Jewish Communities apart from the other existing Communities.
    No one can doubt that Jewish Community is experiencing a wave of converts, and I expect this trend to grow with more intensity as we move closer to the time of the advent of the Mashiach. Some wish to apply this to the post six day war success. I would say that it is due to the fact we are be rushed toward the advent of the Messiah.
    We have an obligation towards all Jews to bring them back to observance, how much more in the context of a time where antisemitism is at an all time high, assist those altruistic converts complete their journey, as they come requesting to be part of our people,

    Shabbat Shalom,

    R. Moshe Otero
    Los Caminos De Israel

  20. Tal Benschar says:

    Three thoughts:

    1. “[I]t remains arguably true that a conversion, like other important changes in legal status including marriage and divorce, can be challenged and retroactively invalidated. There is nothing novel in this at all.”

    Isn’t it ironic that some of the same people who claim to have solved the agunah problem through retroactive annulment are so vociferously against a psak which retoractively annuls (actually, finds invalid) a converion?

    2. The distinction between academic and halakhic approaches to the Talmud is a solid one. Unforunately, I don’t think that R. Adlerstein appreciates just how much of an issue this is in the MO world. When I was in YU some ten to fifteen years ago, there were a sizable group of persons (often of the more intellectual bent) involved in academic Jewish studies. Many of these same people went on to become rabbis and even in a few cases Roshei Yeshiva. There was also an element that strongly opposed this current. My understanding is that this dispute has deepened, if anything.

    3. On the issue of conversion itself, the root of the modern day problem is in large part Zionism and the “Jewish” state. You now have a competing definition of what it means to be Jewish — not a member of the Torah Covenant, but a member of a national/ethnic group.

    Consider a Russian immigrant to Israel, maybe his grandfather was Jewish but he is not. But he has moved to Israel, served in the Army, learned Hebrew, votes in the election and is part of Israeli society. He is sociologically as “Jewish” as many native born Israelis. Who are the rabbis to tell him he is not a member of the “Jewish” nation? It is akin to the United States government telling Jews that they are not full Americans unless they convert to Christianity.

    So you have a massive political pressure to “solve the problem” by bending halakha (which is supposed to define who is Jewish) to fit the needs of a secular polity.

    The words poseiach al shtei ha seifim spring to mind.

  21. tzippi says:

    Re Nathan (6): this may or may not be true, but if it is, only for so long. I wonder how much of a factor the Six Day War played for converts from 1990 on(think Scuds and the Intifada, among other things).

  22. dr. bill says:

    In my humble opinion, the REAL converts to Judaism were those who became Jewish BEFORE 1967, when Jews were considered to be eternally persecuted losers.

    Comment by Nathan — June 19, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    Your opinion may be humble but it is also very possibly a violation of a biblical commandement. ask your local rabbi and please tell us what he says.

  23. dr. bill says:

    To put it bluntly, I have the distinct impression that these professors have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

    Comment by Raymond — June 19, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    Raymond, Do you care to name one? Are you sure it is the whole group? I thought it is impolite to color a whole group so casually?

    You never heard rashi or the Ramban or R. Hirsch. perhaps the academics can help you understand what they said. as one late academic scholar wrote in a review of a MHK volume of the ritva: the manuscript work is very good, but the commentary told us what everyone living AFTER the ritva imagined he said. i am more interested in what the ritva read versus what others wrote about him. it is very likely to help me understand what he meant.

  24. Nathan says:

    Before 1967, converts to Judaism were extremely rare.

    When Israel won the Six Dar War in 1967, Jews were transformed from eternally persecuted losers to winners, and converts to Judaism suddenly became numerous.

    In my humble opinion, the REAL converts to Judaism were those who became Jewish BEFORE 1967, when Jews were considered to be eternally persecuted losers.

  25. Ori says:

    This is the kind of insight that makes cross-currents.com so valuable for me. I wouldn’t have thought of this difference between Academics and Halachic experts as the difference between an expectation of diversity vs. one of unity.

  26. Raymond says:

    My reaction to this is not regarding the specific subject of conversion, yet it line of thought does remind me of my experience listening to professors discuss the Torah itself. Their way of looking at the Torah is so different than anything I ever heard Rashi, the Ramban, or Rav Hirsch say, that I feel as if those professors are talking about a completely different book. I learn more Torah from a single, informal class with a local, even inexperienced Rabbi, then I couuld learn from many semesters of Old Testament Studies with some scular professor. To put it bluntly, I have the distinct impression that these professors have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

  27. dr. bill says:

    2 questions and some comments:

    Q 1) I am curious what you think of prof. katz ztl and the academic approach to psak he and his students follow? IMHO Sagi and Zahor are closer to the conceptual style of brisk, which also rarely creates poskim, than to some of the methodology of prof. katz.

    Q 2)I notice you wrote “invalidated some of Rabbi Chaim Druckman’s converts.” He also passeled R. Druckman and hence all the conversions?? Do you still believe that was correct or even tolerable?

    COMMENTS: my own assumption is that R. Druckman’s conversions certainly did not depend on the ideas of R. Uziel or on those of the professors. Many assume they are consistent with RCOG and RSK among others. In fact, in the letters between one of the dayanim on R. Druckman’s batei dininm and R. Moshe Lichtenstein, he claims they were yet more careful in their process and insisted on full kabbalat hamitzvot (not chumrot).

    As to the academics, as will become clear as more is written, they are not alone in their radical approach. A few distinguished talmedai chachamin have asserted a similar view, particularly of Rambam. Such views may well be incorrect as R. Broyde argues, but the professors are not entirely alone in some of their opinion.

    Your general observations of ninth graders and beyond and how halakhists learn, is a topic for another day. It is certainly traditionally believed; but its origin is at best debatable. I have heard very distinguished talmedai chachamim (in addition to almost all academics) who pinpoint when it, like the brisker method centuries later, the appraoch you describe was innovated! Does it dominate traditional psak – certainly; but many a great posek has taken a bat and driven that puck out of the park.

    I do not know R. Broyde, but i doubt he as dismissive of academic study of talmud or poskim; he certainly is aware that like poskim, academics take very different approaches. Studying an area where societal/technological/economic/intellectual shifts occurred, the methodology of some academics is extremely beneficial to understanding the halakhic process. I suggest ‘The Shabbos Goy’ by prof. katz. it is not light reading, but it helps undersatnd an approach to psak that is enlightening.

  28. Chaim Fisher says:

    If I had written this it would have barely stirred an eyelash. Chaim Fisher is always seen to be beating the drum for ‘traditional,’ read, ‘Jewish Taliban,’ forms of logic, forcing us into retrograde practices ignoring present-day realities just because Maran said so like mehadrin buses and so on.

    But this is not me writing. Here Rabbi Adlerstein himself orders his more modern camp to do vidui on their modern Jewish scholarship because it has nothing to do with halacha. Wonderful.

    Nothing has isolated the modern camp more from the rest of us than their insistence on making traditional Judaism follow the rules of American intellectual thought. Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for crying ‘foul’ on this, indeed, quite erroneous approach, and may Hashem give you the strength to follow your idea wherever it leads…

  29. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I really appreciated your perspective on the cognitive gap between the academic and halachic approach toward scholarship. It should be pointed out that there have been “heterodox” non-Torah views in the academic world in opposition to the historicist-relativist position that the writer was totally a function of his time. The absurdity of this position is the total lack of awareness of the possibility that the present-day critic, while pigeonholing the Gemara or (lehavdil) Plato as being historically limited, fails to consider that today’s political correctness or pluralism or whatever is motivating said critic. How can we get these diverse positions to communicate with each other, or at least leave each other alone?

  30. Chardal says:

    Beautifully stated, Rav Adlerstein. This is similar to R’ Shagar’s critique of academic study of Talmud that was just recently published posthumously.