Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oppressing the Convert

There is something definitely wrong with this picture.

Once again a convert to Judaism has had her conversion annulled by Rabbi Avraham Sherman (pictured left).

For those who don’t remember, he is a Charedi Rav who sits on the Rabbanut Beis Din and last year decided that the hundreds conversions by Rabbi Chaim Druckman were null and void - retroactive to 1999.

At the time - that of course created an immediate outrage. Charges were flying back and forth.

But I am not here to discuss that particular outrage. Nor do I even want to discuss the current one. It may very well be that this particular convert was insincere.

What troubles me is that there seems to be a witch hunt in place now to seek and destroy all converts that are caught violating any Halacha at all. This is what happened last year when EJF founder Rabbi Leib Tropper allegedly annulled the conversion of his one of his own converts - a married woman he caught walking around in a remote part of town without a hair covering and wearing pants.

The Halacha is very clear. Those who wish to convert to Judaism and accept the burden of Mitzvos upon themselves – go through with the proper ritual procedure and they become a Jew in every sense of the word. If they sin completely in every matter immediately afterward they are treated as any Jew who sins.

So how could any of these conversions be nullified? It is a question of sincerity. How sincere is a convert who says he will accept and obey the Mitzvos? The nullification of Rabbi Druckman’s converts were made because of this very issue.

He was given a mandate by the Israeli government to do something about a national identify crisis. There were so many immigrants from Russia that were married to women who thought they were Jewish but for various reasons were not. That threatened to change the Jewish demographic in Israel. And it created all kinds of Halachic problems about their children getting married. And for those who managed to do that, the status of their children’s Judaism was in doubt.

So Rabbi Druckman found a way to be lenient. Rabbi Sherman decided that because very few of these converts followed Halacha, that all conversions by Rabbi Druckman were invalid.

What about the Halacha of sincerity at the moment of conversion being enough? Rabbi Sherman questioned it in all of Rabbi Druckman's converts.

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a Teshuva ( Halachic ruling) discussing this issue. If I recall correctly he said that one who is converted in a sham conversion whereby they say they are accepting the Mitzvos and immediately ignore it after the ritual is performed - proves that there was never any real acceptance. And such conversions are invalid no matter what these ‘converts’ said at the time.

I believe that Rabbi Sherman very likely used on this kind of thinking to nullify all of Rabbi Druckman’s conversions. One can debate whether he acted properly or not.

But the current case sounds like a witch hunt.

Now, I do not question the serious nature of the problem. We are talking about the very definition of Judaism. Who is a Jew? ...and who is not. I completely understand the worry of those like Rabbi Sherman and his mentors. But when a legitimate concern turns in to a witch hunt - I think even his supporters should concede that his zealotry has gone too far.

Where will it end? Today it was a violation of Hilchos Niddah. What will it be tomorrow? A woman caught wearing pants? Wearing a blouse that is not buttoned at the neckline? Participating in the ‘Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor of Sherut Leumi? Wearing a too glamorous Shaitel? Walking on the wrong side of a sex segregated street?

Rabbi Moshe Klein Rabbi Moshe Klein, former deputy head of the Chief Rabbinate's conversion program was prompted to say the following:

(This) ruling was "one of the last nails in the burial coffin of conversions in Israel."

Klein called on people seeking to convert to Judaism to wait, because in light of the present situation there was no guarantee that their conversion will eventually be approved.

What must it be like for the many sincere converts who now question their own conversions. Can anyone imagine what it must be like for a convert who reads this article and thinks about how he sometimes forgets to make a Bracha? Or ate outside a Sukka on Sukos one time in a moment of lapse? Will his conversion be nullified too? What about his children? Are they Jewish (assuming his wife is a convert under suspicion too)? What if his daughters married Kohanim?

Kohanim are forbidden to marry a convert. So even if they convert as an extra measure of safety will some Rav Like Rabbi Sherman come along and nullify their mothers conversion because she once went out of the house wearing pants?

I can’t imagine what it must be like for sincere potential coverts in Israel. They must feel like dirt. Here they are coming to Judaism from a lifestyle of freedom and taking upon themselves the difficult task of a lifetime full of many strictures. They have come – on their own – to find the truth of Judaism. They now believe they have found it. And this is how we treat them?

How many of those of us who were born into Judaism have even thought about it? We are Jews at birth and raised religiously by parents and teachers. We live in religious environments. Most of us do things out of rote behavior. We are used to the strictures. How many of us would give up a permissive lifestyle we were used to and become part of a minority religion that has been persecuted for millennia? That’s what these people are doing. But because of this current witch hunt – they are basically being told: Convert at your own risk – No guarantees.