|Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll|
Tis the season. Invariably the discussion turns to the subject of conversions to Judaism this time of year. The reason for that should be obvious. It is on the Yom Tov of Shavuos that we read the Book of Ruth. Which is the story of the most famous convert in Jewish history. A convert that had the merit to be the mother of the Davidic dynasty beginning with King David all the way down to Moshiach. That is quite the reward for Ruth’s sincere conversion.
The details of Ruth’s conversion process are not recorded in bible. Nor is it even mentioned in the Torah. The procedure is based on the sages of the Talmud and its interpretation by the Rishonim. The procedure that is widely accepted today is as follows. A potential convert has to:
1. accept upon themselves the requirement to follow all of the Mitzvos
2. undergo circumcision (if a man), and
3. immerse in a Mikvah.
This is all mentioned in the Gemarah. It should noted that with respect to acceptance of the Mitzvos, the Gemarah does not require that they become fully educated about all of the Miztvos before they convert. They are the taught some of the basics (like keeping Shabbos and, keeping Kosher) and then convert immediately. Afterward they continue to learn more of the laws and follow them as they learn them. The Gemarah also tells us that if someone converts sincerely and then moments later they decide to purposely violate Halacha, they are nevertheless still a Jew- albeit a sinning Jew.
Because of past abuse of the conversion process in the past by unscrupulous religious courts (and for reasons having to do with the conversion of non observant Russian immigrants in Israel - which are beyond the scope of this post) the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in conjunction with the American rabbinate has standardized the procedure and created a list of acceptable religious courts in America that will follow those guidelines and whose converts will be accepted.
None of this is new. I've discussed it all before.
Unfortunately these new standards have created unforeseen difficulties for sincere converts. For reasons that I do not fully understand the Chief Rabbinate has been accused of throwing huge obstacles before a potential convert that have never before been used. There have been some horror stories about how potential converts are treated. In their zeal to assure that every conversion is a valid one, it seems that many of these courts have done their level best do dissuade every potential convert from converting. While it has always been an important feature of the conversion process to explain how difficult it is to be a Jew, and thereby try to talk a convert out of it – in some cases the lines of human decency seem to have been crossed - if the stories I’ve heard are true.
That’s where things stand now. The question arises, what should a person do if they want to convert to Judaism? Should they go through the rabbinate? Or Should they spare themselves the grief of jumping through all kinds of hoops the Chief Rabbinate throws in front of them - and find an alternative route?
Much as I would like it to be otherwise, I would advise the sincere convert to go through the rabbinate. Not because their conversions are necessarily better Halachicly than other conversions. But because if they want to avoid future emotional pain in their lives - it is surely wise to get a conversion that is universally accepted. Which brings me to a very poignant article by Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll in the Times of Israel.
She tells the story of ‘Ruthie’ (not her real name). She was a sincere convert. Mrs. Keats Jaskoll was involved in her conversion (If only all converts were as sincere as this woman was!) Towards that end, ‘Ruthie’ went to Rabbi Chuck Davidson. Mrs. Keats Jaskoll described him as follows:
Rabbi Davidson has been promoting Orthodox conversion in Israel outside of the Chief Rabbinate for nearly a decade. He converts those who are fed up with the Rabbinate’s difficult and drawn-out conversion procedure, those who don’t want to be affiliated with the Rabbinate for political reasons, or those who want a friendlier yet still halachic conversion.
I don’t know anything about Rabbi Davidson. But he sounds like a good man trying to help converts. A man with the best of intentions. But is he really doing his converts any favors by performing unrecognized conversions – sincere and Halachic though they may be?
In my view he does not. If there is no universal acceptance - then his good intentions will only come back to haunt his converts later in life. That he realizes this is not a question. He actually warns his converts about it as Mrs. Jaskoll describes:
Rabbi Davidson looked at her quite earnestly and said, “Once you convert, the people that you leave behind will no longer be your people, and the people you want to join may not accept you. Especially because this conversion won’t be recognized by the Beit Din of [Ruthie’s hometown] nor will it be recognized here in Israel. You will be a Jew, but I cannot guarantee who will recognize your status.”
His convert took the plunge anyway. Her desire to be a Jew was so strong that she was willing to put up with the rejection she would get from her home town religious court and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. I would have advised her to go through the rabbinate. Even though that would have created more hardships now, her future would be a lot brighter. These were my thoughts as I read Mrs. Keats Jaskoll’s own thoughts about it:
At that moment, I feared for her. I felt that she was putting her faith in people who may never let her in and I felt, maybe she shouldn’t do this.
I too would have feared for her and would have put those feelings into action – long before she got to this point. Which is why I don’t blame Mrs. Jaskoll for her reaction to this convert’s resolve to finish the process under Rabbi Davidson:
But Ruthie didn’t flinch. She affirmed that she wanted to be Jewish and that she was committed to this course, no matter what came later. She stood and recited the affirmation and then we went to the mikveh room. I don’t know about her, but I was shaking.
If I had been involved in this and was unsuccessful in trying to convince her undergo a conversion at a universally accepted court, I’d be shaking too.