Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who is a Jew in Israel?

I cannot ever remember such a mish-mash on so vital a matter to the Jewish people as there is now with respect to conversions. Ironically it is because of the sincere efforts by all involved to do the right thing by God.

Gerus - converting to Judaism should really be a simple matter. There is not all that much written about in the Gemarah or in Halacha. It involves three basic elements to which a Kosher Beis Din of three Orthodox Rabbis must be present and witness.

1. Acceptance of the requirement to follow all the Mitzvos of the Torah.
2. Bris Mila - circumcision for a man
3. Tevila – immersion in a Mikva.

Halacha says that once the convert accepts observance – he is taught a few of the major and minor Mitzvos and then completes the ritual process. The convert is a full-fledged Jew. If he then goes on to violate every single Mitzvah in the Torah he is still a Jew no matter what.

End of story? Not exactly. Rav Moshe Feinstein issued a Psak to counter what was becoming a major epidemic of insincere conversions by some Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Rav Moshe said that an insincere ‘lip service’ declaration means nothing. The way to judge it is by seeing no change in the non Halachic behavior after the conversion. This - he said -bears witness to the lack of sincerity.

As simple as conversions should be in theory - it has become mind bogglingly controversial in our day. So much so that the very controversy itself seems to violate the Torah prohibition of mistreating the Ger.

In the spirit of Rav Moshe’s Teshuva there were condemnations against Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a religious Zionist rabbinic leader accused of illegitimately converting masses of insincere immigrants from Russia for nationalistic rather than Halachic reasons. By de-legitimizing Rabbi Druckman - all of his converts were retroactively de-legitimized as well, no matter how sincere they were.

Rabbi Druckman’s name was dragged through the mud at the time. I can only imagine the pain and suffering Rabbi Druckman, his family, and all of his converts have gone through.

As if that weren’t enough - a new controversy has erupted. But this time it wasn’t between right and left. It was between two legitimate Gedolim. One Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – although I don’t think ethnicity played a role in their decisions. Rav Elyashiv remained consistent in his approach. IDF converts were insincere; they had no intention of keeping the Mitzvos, and therefore were not legitimate converts. Rav Yosef said that the IDF converts are sincere and their conversions valid.

It is a now a battle between two giants. Two Gedolim on opposite sides of the debate on an issue that is vital to the very definition of ‘Who is a Jew’. All the arguments about Halacha trumping national interests that were used against Rabbi Druckman have fallen by the wayside. No one can accuse Rabbi Yosef of selling out to political interests the way a religious Zionist rabbi like Rabbi Druckman might.

Of course it is an outrageous canard and a completely unfair accusation to make against a man like Rabbi Druckman in any case. He is a Rosh Yeshiva with a life-long commitment to Halacha and serving his country and his people. But he is in fact a religious Zionist Rabbi and accusations like that are going to be made by the right. Rav Yosef is not a religious Zionist. No one can possibly accuse him of politicizing his Psak. He is about as outspoken as anyone can get about any and every issue and has taken some very unpopular positions in the past because he believed in them.

Instead of leaving this to the two major Gedolim of our day, Rav Yosef and Rav Elyashiv, the Edah HaCharedis has gotten involved. They have an agenda. It is to undermine the State of Israel whenever they can. They have prevailed upon Rav Elyashiv to call for mass protests on the part of the Charedi public. They have also prevailed upon Rav Kanievsky to join him.

This is not the way to settle Halachic issues. It is however the way to bring out mob violence. It is a way to disturb the peace and bring out the worst in people. The rabble-rousers who burn dumpsters must be salivating at this opportunity to show ‘Kavod HaTorah’. Who will they spit on first? How many cars are going to be pelted with rocks? How many people will suffer smoke inhalation from burning dumpsters? It all remains to be seen. But even if it is as peaceful as can be since when do protests and rallies determine Halacha?

I completely understand the passion here. But I do not understand the agreement with the Edah HaCharedis to call for a protest. Do they really think that Rav Yosef will change his Psak based on a public protest?

Meanwhile the Ger continues to be on the receiving end of all this – wondering whether his own conversion will ever be fully accepted no matter who was on the Beis Din. What if one of the Dayanim on an IDF conversion was on his court? Will his status be questioned at some time in the future because of it? Even if he is a Ger Tzedek? It is certainly possible.

And then there is this story. A sincere Ger has been denied immigration to Israel under the law of return. His conversion now deemed invalid even though he fulfilled all the requirements of conversion in front of a Beis Din of observant Jews. Why? Because the rabbi who performed the conversion was a Musmach of YCT.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi - Rav Shlomo Amar who is in charge of all Orthodox foreign conversions has rejected it. It was done outside of the RCA and is not recognized by them either. The Israeli Rabbinate does not accept any conversions done outside of an RCA approved conversion Beis Din.

Does that mean the convert is not Jewish? That is what the State of Israel says. Ironically the State of Israel does accept foreign Conservative or Reform conversions. Those converts are accepted as Jews by the State.

What a holy mess!