What Rabbi Feinstein said

Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Israel's official conversion teacher, misreads the position of a great sage.

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A June 29 UpFront magazine article, "Divided we fall," contained an attack against Israel's Chief Rabbinate and invoked the late and revered American Orthodox decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The attacker was Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the director of Israel's Institute for Jewish Studies, an agency charged with offering a course of Jewish study to non-Jewish immigrants interested in conversion. What provoked him was the set of standards employed by the Rabbinate for conversions. In a flattering Jerusalem Post interview - the reporter took pains not only to cite the professor's scholarship, soft-spoken nature and religious piety but to describe for readers the "centuries-old Talmuds and well-worn works on Jewish philosophy and history" that line his office - Professor Ish-Shalom blasted what he calls the "humiliating" conversion process in Israel, dismissed religious court judges as insufficiently humble and declared that the Rabbinate is rendering Jewish religious law "irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel." Ish-Shalom further described a judge who invalidated a years-old conversion as embodying (in the Post's paraphrase) "blindness and even halachic ignorance"; accused Israel's religious court judges of fostering desecration of God's name; and dismissed Israel's Chief Rabbis of just being "loyal to their haredi masters." The purportedly soft-spoken professor's harsh words emerged from his concern over the estimated 300,000 non-Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1990s amid the massive immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Ish-Shalom considers it imperative to convince as many of those non-Jews as possible to undergo a conversion process. He hopes to attract 100,000 of the younger immigrants. The trenchant question, of course, is whether persuading non-Jews who have no intention of becoming Jewishly observant - like many, if not most, of those targeted by the professor's conversion plan - to undergo a conversion process in fact results in new Jews. Conversion, after all, is no simple matter of self-identification but a distinct religio-legal process; it is governed, no less than any area of religious law, by requirements, some of them essential and incontrovertible. One is kabbalat hamitzvot, or acceptance of the commandments, the central element in a Jewish conversion. To the question of whether a seeming lack of such commandment-acceptance might render a conversion void, Ish-Shalom responds by citing Rabbi Feinstein. In a responsum, the venerated decisor deals with the case of a woman who converted through an Orthodox court but then married a non-observant Jew and fell into non-observance. Asked if the woman's conversion should be considered invalid, Rabbi Feinstein responded no. The point of Rabbi Feinstein's reasoning upon which Professor Ish-Shalom seizes is that a convert need not know all that is entailed in accepting the mitzvot; he or she need only accept the Torah's commandments in a general sense. So even if the woman in question had not realized precisely what Jewish observance entails, her undefined acceptance sufficed to render her, at least post facto, a Jew. WHAT THE professor chooses to not dwell upon, however, is the clear implication that where in fact there was no genuine kabbalat hamitzvot (and that would include the rejection, at the time of conversion, of any individual mitzva) there is no conversion, even post facto. Thus, were a non-Jew to be convinced to undergo a conversion ceremony but is fully aware (as are most people living in Israel) that driving on Shabbat or eating shellfish is forbidden by Jewish religious law and has no intention of observing those strictures, his or her mouthing of a mitigated kabbalat hamitzvot does not result in a conversion. Were such "conversions" to be performed en masse, it would result in a large group of people who might be considered Jewish by Professor Ish-Shalom, his interviewer and others, but who would be regarded as non-Jews by most other observant Jews. What is more (and perhaps worse), suspicion would be cast on the Jewishness of all converts in Israel. As it happens, there is indeed a responsum of Rabbi Feinstein's that speaks directly to the professor's plans. It is in the first section of his collected responsa, Igrot Moshe. In number 157 he writes: "… it is obvious and clear that [a non-Jew who did not accept the mitzvot] is not a convert at all, even after the fact [of his conversion ceremony]… because kabbalat hamitzvot for a convert is essential ['me'akev']. And even if he pronounces that he is accepting the mitzvot, if it is clear to us ['anan sa'hadi'] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing." And Rabbi Feinstein, poignantly, concludes: "I altogether do not understand the reasoning of rabbis who err in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to the Jewish People by accepting such 'converts'? It is certainly not pleasing to God or to the Jewish people that such 'converts' should become mixed into [the Congregation of] Israel. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all." The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.