'Up Front' letters, June 8: Conversion and subversion

Sir, - I am sure that Jonathan Rosenblum and myself share the same commitment to Halacha.

letters 88 (photo credit: )
letters 88
(photo credit: )
Sir, - I am sure that Jonathan Rosenblum and myself share the same commitment to Halacha. Nevertheless, and because of that, I find his casting aspersions on the official Orthodox conversion court responsible for converting the woman whose conversion was recently retroactively annulled nothing short of slanderous ("Who's really to blame?" June 1). To add insult to injury, he included the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren in his J'accuse. Every case in Halacha is sui generis. Where the status of aguna ("chained wife") and mamzerut (bastardy) is involved, every loophole must be resorted to in order to prevent the permanent validation of such a status. To even suggest that an Orthodox beit din was unaware of the halachic requirements for conversion is mind-boggling. My only explanation is that Mr. Rosenblum's Halacha is politically motivated by the fact that the rabbis involved are not identified with the haredi Aguda rabbinic establishment, but belong to the "open-minded" national-religious rabbis he so sneeringly refers to in his column. ARYEH NEWMAN Jerusalem Sir, - Jonathan Rosenblum calls for "a universally recognized standard of conversion." But can there really be such a thing? Rosenblum seems to question (or realize that many others will question) conversions by progressive rabbis, national religious rabbis, many "long-white-bearded Orthodox rabbis," and even those of former chief rabbis of Israel. We are aware that the current Chief Rabbinate has placed obstacles in the road to aliya of those converted in the States through the RCA (the most influential Orthodox rabbinic association). So what Rosenblum is calling for is a standard that will fit what may be referred to as "the frummest common denominator." This would be conversion courts made up of haredi rabbis only, subscribing to an approach that follows the strictest application of Jewish Law, which often goes well beyond a normative standard. But, most problematically, many of these rabbis are anti- or non-Zionist, and often anti-State of Israel. I, for one, would not be able to accept this as a universal standard any more than I would accept glatt kosher meat as the only meat Jews could eat. Rosenblum states: "It is not those who uphold strict standards for conversion who show a lack of love and concern for the convert." He is correct about this. It is those who uphold unduly strict standards, and show contempt for those whose understanding of Judaism may differ from their own. RABBI ANDREW M. SACKS Jerusalem Sir, - Jonathan Rosenblum is at it again, trying to justify the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's excessively stringent conversion policy by referring to it as "a universally accepted standard of conversion." Only if we capitulate to the rabbinate, he implies, can we hope to prevent "immense personal" tragedies, casualties of Israel's rabbinic rejection of all conversions, including those performed by Orthodox rabbis, which do not meet those standards. He disingenuously concludes that the imposition of those standards is "irrefutable proof" of the rabbinate's great "love and respect for the convert." It would be wonderful, indeed, if we could find a way to establish "a universally accepted standard of conversion," which is exactly what the Neeman Commission attempted to do in 1998. But it got shot down by the Chief Rabbinate only because its standards for conversion were regarded as worthy of being considered universally acceptable. Let Mr. Rosenblum direct his pleading to the rabbinate, which has many halachic precedents of great poskim at its disposal for greater leniency in conversion standards, to "lower the bar." That would demonstrate an even greater commitment to the mitzva of ve'ahavtem et hager - "Love the convert." And while he is at it, perhaps he could also pursue an Orthodox "universally accepted," "one-size-fits-all" kashrut endorsement in Israel, so we won't have to consult with our haredi children as to which kashrut stamp they are prepared to accept every time we invite them for dinner. That would also show real "love and respect" for the community Orthodoxy purports to serve. RABBI DR. STANLEY M. WAGNER Jerusalem Sir, - I am an Orthodox convert. I have always been in good standing - until last year, after reading in Mei Shiloah a statement by the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who quotes, in the biblical portion of Beha'alotcha, Rabbi Chelbo's famous saying about converts: "Proselytes are as difficult for Israel as a sore on the skin" (Nidda, 13b) and adds: "It says in Isaiah 14:1 "and the strangers shall be joined to them, and they shall cleave" - nispehu, which also means causing a sore on the skin - in the house of Jacob." I knew both statements from before converting. What I didn't know was Rashi's comment on these statements: "Because [converts] will not be expert in the mitzvot, and will bring misfortune; and further, Israel may learn bad behavior from them." Rashi ends by saying, "All Israel are responsible for one another, but not responsible for the proselytes." Since reading this, in July last year, I haven't been able to interact within a legitimate Jewish community. I keep Shabbat, kashrut and nidda, the family purity laws (my wife also converted, along with our four boys), but... I just can't get to go to a shul, I just daven by myself. I also decided not to let my kids attend any Jewish school. Why spend $25,000 a year, per child, just to be told (but are you really told?) that the people you chose to be part of are not going to be supportive of you? Since then I have been mulling over the issue, without getting much sleep. I don't think I was told the truth about my future status as a convert. I also realized that there is a lot of gray area about this issue, a lot of half-truths. For instance, you are told that you don't need to convert as long as you keep the seven Noachide laws. Then you read that the reward for doing so is not a full one, that resurrection is for the Jew only. Converts are constantly reminded of the seriousness of the step they are about to take, or have taken. But are "the natives" serious about converts? Could it be that dislike of the non-Jew reaches so far that the convert has to live the rest of his days as a sort of "scapegoat" for his ancestors' sins? In light of this I have come to regard my conversion as "invalid," not because of a lack of will on my part, but because of a lack of accountability on the part of the converting authorities. Can I or should I return our conversion papers to the legitimate beit din that issued them? NATAN PANDOLFI Bloomington, Indiana Sir, - The subject of conversion is discussed by Joseph Karo (Shulhan Aruch, Yore Deah, Chapter 268) and by Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Unions, Chapter 13). Both authorities emphasize that the beit din should reject any candidate for conversion who does not intend to observe the Halacha. These authorities then rule on a case in which the beit din did not examine the sincerity of the candidate, or in which it was known that the candidate had no intention of ever keeping the Halacha, but the beit din nevertheless performed the conversion ceremony. What is the status of such a "convert"? Both authorities rule unequivocally, using identical language, that such a conversion is valid, writing (Maimonides, paragraph 17; Karo, paragraph 12): "Even if the candidate's intentions were not examined, and even if it were known that he did not intend to keep the Halacha, since he has been circumcised and immersed in a mikve before a proper beit din, his conversion is valid. Even if the convert worships idols after his conversion, he is a Jew, no different from any other Jew who does not observe the Halacha, and one may marry such a convert." Specific examples are brought by Maimonides (paragraphs 14-16) and by the Vilna Gaon (Commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, paragraph 12) in which this ruling was implemented. NATHAN AVIEZER Petah Tikva