Guest Column: 'Who is a Jew' once again

The controversial conversion ruling sets rabbi against rabbi

Druckman 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Druckman 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The latest round in the "Who is a Jew" controversy began last May, when a three-judge panel of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate ruled that all the conversions performed by Rabbi Haim Druckman and the National Conversion Court since 1999 were retroactively annulled and that Druckman and his fellow judges were dayanim pesulim, disqualified judges. In the past, the Chief Rabbinate maintained that Conservative and Reform converts were not Jewish. Now, haredi rabbis within the Chief Rabbinate are claiming that converts converted by their religious Zionist colleagues in the Chief Rabbinate's own conversion courts are not Jewish. Jonathan Rosenblum defended that decision in these pages ("On Halacha, no compromises," May 30 ) as if it affected only one convert in Ashdod, and as if presiding judge Rabbi Avraham Sherman was stating the overwhelming consensus of halachic opinion. But in fact, not only does the ruling affect thousands of converts, both it and the article present this complex issue one-sidedly and inaccurately. RABBI SHERMAN's ruling rests primarily on one major premise: A convert must accept upon himself all the mitzvot before converting and observe them all after converting. If not, he is not Jewish and his conversion can be retroactively annulled. Furthermore, judges who perform conversions without this requirement are ipso facto disqualified from serving as judges. He relies on Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, Moshe Sternbuch, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Ovadia Yosef, Ya'acov Yisrael Kanievsky, Eliezer Shach and Shlomo Elyashiv - almost all haredi figures opposed to modernity, Zionism and the State of Israel. Their strict approach to kabbalat [accepting] mitzvot stems from two sources: Rabbi Yitzhak Schmelkes penned a revolutionary responsum in 1876: "A person who converts and accepts the yoke of the mitzvot but does not intend in his heart to observe them - God desires the heart, and he is not a convert." This approach has no precedent in 2,000 years of halachic discussions about conversion. Indeed, Rabbi Schmelkes was aware that his ruling contradicts the well-known halachic principal that "devarim shebalev einam devarim" (things of the heart are not things). The second source for the haredi position is a passage in Bechorot 30b: "Our sages taught: ...if an idol worshiper came to accept (lekabel) the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him. R. Yossi ben R. Yehuda says: Even if the exception be one of the minutiae of the scribes [i.e. the sages]." The major medieval codes of Jewish law such as Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Aruch ignored this passage. It was revived by 19th-20th century rabbis who wanted to reject most converts. Thus, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein repeatedly states in his responsa that a convert must accept all the mitzvot - "and without accepting mitzvot, even one detail, behold it is written in Bechorot 30 that we do not accept him..." THE NORMATIVE position, however, is found in another passage in the Talmud - Yevamot 47a-b. If a person comes to convert, you ask him if he knows that the Jewish people is "persecuted and oppressed." If he replies, "I know and yet am unworthy," he is accepted forthwith and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments... He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments... And... he is informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment... He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. Kibel [if he accepted/consented], he is circumcised forthwith... [Afterward, when he is immersed] two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects..." This baraita, from the second century or earlier, was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Aruch. The key phrase is "<>kibel" - if he accepted/consented. This obviously does not refer to acceptance of all the mitzvot because he has only been instructed in some of the minor and some of the major mitzvot. So what does it mean? Meir Benzion Uziel (1880-1953), the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, explained as follows: It is clear from [Yevamot 47a-b] that we do not demand of him to observe the mitzvot, and it is also not necessary that the bet din know that he will observe them, for if not, no converts will be accepted in Israel, for who will guarantee that this gentile will be loyal to all the mitzvot in the Torah? Rather, they instruct him in some of the mitzvot so that if he wants he should go away, and so that he cannot say later, "If I had known, I would not have converted." And this is before the fact, but after the fact - if they did not instruct him, it is not indispensable... [It] is permissible and a mitzva to accept converts even though we know that they will not observe all the mitzvot because in the end they will observe them... Other prominent Orthodox rabbis who have taken lenient approaches towards kabbalat mitzvot include Rabbis Isser Yehuda Unterman, Shlomo Kluger, Yosef Mashash, Moshe Hacohen, Eliezer Berkovitz and Marc Angel. The entire house of cards built by Rabbi Sherman rests on a foundation of just one: that all poskim agree that all converts must accept all mitzvot. True, this is the position of most Ashkenazi haredi rabbis since 1876. But it is not normative Jewish law. Normative Jewish law for 2,000 years has followed Yevamot, that a convert accepts the halachic system and its rewards and punishments, not all of the mitzvot which he has yet to learn. To say that a rabbi who rules differently is unfit to judge is the equivalent to saying that a person who waits three hours instead of six between meat and milk does not keep kosher. Different halachic rulings are based on different sources, and they are equally legitimate. THROUGH GREAT effort, the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies (set up after the Ne'eman Commission in 1998) and the National Conversion Authority converted thousands of the 300,000 halachically non-Jewish Russian immigrants who made aliya under the Law of Return. These converts all studied for one to three years in very serious courses. This ruling is a desecration of God's name as it makes a mockery of these converts and the hundreds of teachers and rabbis who worked so hard with them. It will deter future candidates for conversion: If a conversion can be annulled many years after it is performed, it means that all conversions are conditional. Why bother converting at all? This ruling demonstrates once again that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which was founded by religious Zionists, is now a haredi institution opposed to all lenient approaches within Jewish law. I hope and pray that the Supreme Court will overturn this mistaken and destructive ruling. I hope and pray that the State of Israel will start to appoint modern Orthodox and other qualified rabbis as dayanim. If not, the Chief Rabbinate will have to be abolished because it will have cut itself off from most of the Jewish people. Finally, I hope and pray that the State of Israel will make every effort to welcome converts for "a convert is more beloved by God than the multitudes who stood at Mount Sinai," and "a convert who comes to convert, one reaches out a hand in order to bring him under the wings of heaven." The writer, a rabbi and professor of Jewish law, is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.