Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Rabbinate's Unreasonable Standard for Conversions

Alin Levy - Photo Credit: Jerusalem Post
How far must a potential convert go to please a court that will convert them? In what has to be one of the clearest departures from common decency regarding conversions, the Israel Chief Rabbinate has once again disappointed me.

The primary requirements of conversion are as follows. Circumcision (for men), immersion in a Mikva and a declaration that they intend to follow the Mitzvos of the Torah. Even if they do not know what those Mitzvos are and will be in violation of many of them after they convert, once these requirements are executed they are accepted as full fledged Jews. We are only required to inform them of a few basics before the actual conversion. They then continue to learn more and do more after the conversion. If upon conversion a convert immediately violates all Halachos. He is called a Yisroel Mumar – a blemished (sinning) Jew but still a Jew in every respect.

It should be noted that there is some controversy about the need for the acceptance of Mitzvos. But for purposes of this discussion, let us stipulate that this is indeed a requirement. That is in fact how the vast majority of conversion courts operate.

It should also be noted that Rav Moshe Feinstein who was by many considered the Posek HaDor ruled that any potential convert that declared his intent to observe Mitzvos and then after the ceremony would celebrate by violating clear Halacha that they promised to follow – such as eating a non Kosher meal – that is the strongest evidence that their declarations were insincere and that their conversions were not legitimate. 

Which brings me to the situation at hand.

As reported in the Forward, 23 year old Alin Levy is the product of an intermarriage. Her parents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. She was 4 at the time of their arrival in Israel.  Her father is Jewish. Her mother is not. But she is not just a person that wants to be Jewish in name only.  She wants the full package. To that extent she strated becoming observant. From the Forward:
Alin said she had felt Jewish all her life in Israel. It was during her military service that she began to be troubled by that fact that as far as the Chief Rabbinate was concerned, she was not Jewish.
It upset her that she wasn’t ‘officially’ considered a member of the religion, and, according to the interview, she determined to become a full-fledged kosher Jew, she began the procedure for Orthodox conversion, studying Torah three hours each week, dressing modestly, making blessings over her food and began to observe Shabbat. Asked if she might become fully Orthodox in the end, she responded “I can’t rule it out.”
The process is standard operating procedure for secular Israelis who want to complete conversion. In order to do so, they are required to adopt a lifestyle that is far more observant to become Jewish in the eyes of the stringent conversion court.

So far so good. But what happened next is in my view a complete distortion of the requirements of conversion - even by the Rabbinate’s standards.  They informed her that her career choice of becoming an actor was unacceptable and that they would not go forward with the conversion if she continued on that path. Why? Here’s what they said:
“An acting career does not go together with the spirit of the religion.”
The best way to sum up their ‘reason’ is with the phrase ‘Es Past Nisht’. Her goal of becoming a trained actor was deemed unacceptable.  I do not recall that portion of the Shulchan Aruch that says that becoming an actor is a disqualification for conversion. That’s because it doesn’t exist.

There are reports that the Rabbinate has denied that this was their reason for the rejection. But if this story as reported in the Forward is true, this takes the rabbinate’s license to disqualify converts to a new low. It is an abuse of power. A low that rejects exactly the kind of people we should be seeking to join us. People who should be role models for those of us who were born Jewish and raised in observant homes. We take our Judaism for granted. And many of us perform our religious duties by rote behavior. We do not have the inspired drive and devotion of someone who  sees the beauty of Judaism to such an extent that they are willing to radically change their lives to live a fully Jewish life.

Now I will admit that becoming an actor is not exactly the most accommodating profession for observant Jews. In the case of a woman issues of modesty are an additional complicating factor. So I understand why such a career is completely frowned upon in the Charedi world. But it is not impossible for a woman to be an actor and be fully observant - and even Charedi.  There are hundreds of opportunities for women to perform before women only.

The rabbinate should not be looking at how much they dislike a profession or how inappropriate it is for a woman to be in it. What they should focus on is enforcing their own rules about the sincerity of commitment to Halacha by the potential convert.

I therefore see absolutely no justification for the what the rabbinate has done. It is hurtful to the convert and it is hurtful to the Klal in that it will discourage good people from even considering conversion.

And it isn’t even only acting that is a ‘forbidden’ profession for a potential convert. From the Forward:
Levy’s story is far from unusual, says Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization ITIM helps people navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy.
“It is a complete absurdity” Farber said, for someone to be rejected as a candidate for a conversion because of choosing a career in acting, but he has seen similar occurences (sic).
“We’ve had people who work as nurses being told they couldn’t convert because their job requires them to work shifts on the Sabbath,” he said.
I guess the Rabbinate never heard of Frum nurses before. I am once again disappointed with how the rabbinate is being run. I will not go so far as to say it ought to be disbanded. I think a Jewish State needs an official rabbinate that can decide religious issues. But not one like this.

Updated: Monday March 24, 2004 5:48 AM CDT