Monday, May 19, 2008

Raising the Bar on Conversions

Converting to Judaism is not a trivial matter. It is a very serious one that should not be treated lightly. And it has been in the past - by a lot of well meaning rabbis who took questionable shortcuts when converting certain people. The results in some of those cases may very well have had tragic consequences. People who thought they converted and had in some cases been leading observant lives must now reconvert and – in the case of a female convert - all of her children must now convert too. If one of them married a Kohen they must divorce. No matter how loving the family relationship is.

But it doesn’t matter. If the conversion was somehow invalid, that is the result.

As most people know by now the mass influx of immigrants from Russia to Israel has resulted in thousands of people who intermarried and now live in Israel as Jews. That was a matter of great concern in Israel because the numbers of these people and their children was so high that it would actually threaten the Jewish character of the State at some not too distant point in the future. The vast majority, though living as Jews culturally, are not observant - nor do they want to be. So conversions according to Halacha would be extremely difficult if not impossible. The government of Israel turned to the rabbinic courts to see if there was anyway these people could be converted without too many impediments.

That resulted in the creation of special conversion authority to expedite conversions using any leniencies possible. And that resulted in a near cathartic rejection of this court by rabbinic leaders who considered such conversion a complete sham.

Meanwhile back in United States many conversions were starting to be questioned by the Israeli rabbinic courts as well. This is due to the fact that unregulated indenedant rabbinic courts presided over many questionable conversions over the years - where ‘converts’ were not observant and supposedly never intended to be.

After an initial clash between Israeli courts and the American rabbinate via the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) - a compromise was reached that would assure that all future conversations would be legitimate. That is a good thing. To continue questionable conversions would have put the entire Jewish people in danger. Continuing along this path could mean that in a few generations it will be almost impossible to know who is really a Jew and who isn’t. I only wish the story could have ended there.

But it doesn’t. An organization called the Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) was created. And that’s when everything seemed to go south. I am not prepared to condemn the entire enterprise yet. But with each passing day I am beginning to question it more and more.

Based on recent events I have to question some of the things being done. One of the more nefarious things happened at a convention where Rabbi Norman Eisenstein - supposedly in the name of Rav Elyashiv - said that anyone who believes in an ancient universe (older than 5768 years) is disqualified from being a Dayan, a judge in a conversion court. That would disqualify some of the biggest names in the Torah world. Names honored by virtually all Charedim. Were Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan alive today, he would be disqualified.

But it isn’t just EJF. It is their spiritual kin too …as in the recent outrageous Psak by Israeli Dayanim invalidating masses of conversions which were done by a Dati Leumi (Israeli - modern Orthodox) Rav. Even those who were sincere, promised to be observant, and kept their promise. That Psak was widely condemned by rabbinic leaders like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. And it was strongly condemned by the RCA. And it that decision was was over-turned by the Israeli chief rabbinic court judge, Rabbi Shlomo Amar. But that didn’t stop Rabbi Eisenstein and EJF from publicly supporting the Psak even after it was over-turned.

Here is how Hirhurim’s Rabbi Student put it:

Let me point out that EJF has publicly supported the ruling (link). No surprise, since EJF is run by one of the leading antagonists of R. Natan Slifkin (not the antagonist recently arrested but a different one). My impression is that the organization simply rejects Jews who don't follow their "Da'as Torah".

The most recent event reported in the media – if true - is quite shocking. It should put to bed any doubt about whether there is a war against modern Orthodoxy by certain Rabbanim in the Charedi world. Rabbi Leib Tropper, founder and head of EJF nullified one of his own conversions. The reason? According the article:

Tropper did not revoke Sarah’s conversion because she bowed down to idols, accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior, or identified with the atheist philosophies of Christopher Hitchens. She didn’t renounce any universally accepted tenet of Judaism. Sarah’s conversion was ruled invalid because she did what many Modern Orthodox women do every day: get dressed and go out of the house. Sarah’s conversion was reversed because Tropper heard that she had worn pants, and occasionally—only when shopping outside the Jewish neighborhood—she had left her hair uncovered.

So there you have it. If this story is true, a convert was stripped of her Judaism even though she was observant of Shabbos, Kashrus, and Taharas HaMishpacha. And so too were her post conversion children stripped of their Judasim.

That is how her husband reported it. According to one of the authors who contacted me - attempts to reach Rabbi Tropper for comment were unsuccessful. He apparently refuses to deny or confirm any part of the report. And as if that weren’t enough there is another horror story about EJF and Rabbi Tropper reported there as well. Read it and weep!

I hope this story isn’t true. I hope that if a conversion was revoked that it was for some more serious violation which is missing from the story. Or that this report is some sort of hoax perpetrated by people out to ‘get’ EJF. But I fear it is true. A fear based on EJF’s attitude and behavior till now. Where will all this end?