Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Collateral Damage

The conversion controversy has quieted down somewhat in recent months but it has not gone away. In fact the controversy remains one of the most contentious issues in all of Orthodoxy.

As I have in the past indicated there are valid arguments on each side. The ritual elements of conversion – circumcision for a man and immersion in a Mikvah for both a man and a woman - are not at issue. At issue is Mitzvah observance – all Mitzvos including the rabbinic enactments of the sages. Converts must be sincere about that.

Although there are modern interpretations of past minority rabbinic opinions (e.g. the Rambam) that acceptance of doing the Mitzvos is not a necessary requirement - most Poskim agree that it is.

Specifically the requirement is that one accepts all the Mitzvos of the Torah and its rabbis as binding. The Gemarah tells us that after acceptance of the binding nature of all Mitzvos - we teach them the basics and go through the ritual immediately. The convert then becomes a full-fledged Jew in every sense of the word - even before knowing how to observe the majority of the Mitzvos. He is instructed to keep learning and do all the Mitzvos as he learns them.

If at the time of conversion he denies the validity of even one minor Mitzvah it disqualifies the conversion. If on the other hand one agrees to keep them all once learned - and goes through the ritual - he is a Jew immediately. If afterward he suddenly changes his mind and does not keep a single Mitzvah he is still considered Jewish in every way and is simply a Mumer – a Jew who purposely violates the Mitzvos.

In a novel ruling Rav Moshe Feinstein stated that any conversion where only lip service is paid to Mitzvah observance with no real intent to keep them it is considered a sham conversion and the ‘convert remains a non Jew. Rav Moshe asserts that one can determine evidence of sincerity by observing the ‘converts’ behavior immediately after the conversion. If he does not observe any Mitzvos at all it is obvious that he never really intended to.

His Psak was given in response to the many conversions in this country by some Orthodox rabbis who acceded to the wishes of parents of child about to be intermarried.

The conversions took place - going through the motions - and perhaps got and received ‘promises’ (wink, wink) from the potential convert to keep the Mitzvos. But never did. To the best of my understanding - these are the conversions he rejected. Many such conversions did take place. I know of a few - right here in Chicago.

So Rav Moshe’s Psak is quite reasonable in my view. This has been a problem for decades. Nothing was ever really done to change things until it started happening en masse in Israel. A great number of Russian immigrants to Israel are not Jewish. They come as spouses of Jews - intermarried in Russia. If the non Jew was a woman - the children are not Jewish either. But in the Jewish State they all lived their lives as Jews albeit secular ones. This was – and still is - a major demographic problem. Israel could lose its Jewish majority in very short order - threatening its identity as a Jewish state.

So a conversion authority was created to convert all the non Jewish Russian immigrants using controversial leniencies in Halachic conversions.

That is when Charedi Rabbanim said: No!

But they did not only just put a stop to it. They declared every single conversion under its auspices to be null and void - ruining soe reputations in the process. In the process they cast doubt on every other conversion ever made by any rabbi ever involved in any questionable conversion. They are dredging up and examining every one they can with a fine tooth comb - nullifying them quite readily. This has blown up into a major conflagration between religious Zionist rabbis, some modern Orthodox rabbis, and Charedi ones. It remains a hotly contested issue.

It has also put dread into the heart of every legitimate convert on the planet. That is not only egregiously wrong for them - it creates a climate of fear even for the most sincere convert who will never be 100% certain that their own conversion was good enough. They will always wonder if a stray thought might invalidate their conversion.

This situation has already caused some real injustices. This happened about a year ago to a family from Lexington Kentucky. An intermarried secular woman who had a Jewish mother and grandmother became interested in leading an Orthodox lifestyle. She was asked to prove her Jewish ancestry but after trying very hard - she could not find the necessary documentation.

So she and her husband decided to convert via an Orthodox conversion. The rabbi involved insisted that he would only convert them if they would live in an environment with a religious infrastructure - including one that had a Mikvah. After promising this woman and her family that he would make Lexington such a place and starting them along the educational process he was unable to accomplish it and reneged on his promise. He them insisted the woman and her family move to Monsey New York - his home town. He had already taken their son into his Yeshiva there.

She had explained to this rabbi at the outset that it would be impossible for them to move for reasons of livelihood. In any event - she still promised to keep all of the Mitzvos and endure the hardship of traveling miles away to use a Mikva.

That was not good enough for this rabbi and he pulled the plug on their conversion. He also expelled her son from his yeshiva. I communicated with this woman recently. To the best of my knowledge she has yet to find a resolution to her predicament!

Another example of the injustice of the current conversion climate came yesterday from ‘Joseph’ a frequent commenter here who linked me to a blogpost by a young woman. She is a role model for sincere converts. If I understood her post correctly she has already been ‘converted’ in a non Orthodox ceremony.

If one reads her words one can’t help but feel that this is exactly the kind of convert Judaism seeks. One who loves Judaism but has some honest struggles with some of its laws. She therefore perceives that there will not be any Orthodox Rabbi that will be willing to convert her in the current climate.

She describes a date she had with a Yeshiva University rabbinic student who tells her on a date that he is not ‘Shomer Negiya’- he does not observe the Halachic requirements of not having any physical contact with a woman until after marriage. Though an Orthodox Semicha student - he completely dismissed an entire set of Halachos. And he will no doubt go on to become an ordained Orthodox rabbi someday. Yet this sincere young woman who struggles with these same issues can’t even become a Jew!

How sad is that. These are the kind of people we want in Judaism. Real people. Thinking people. People who believe in the principles of Orthodox Judaism. People who are honest about their emotions and abilities; strengths and weaknesses.

And these are the people we are chasing away.