Sunday, July 18, 2010

Power in the Hands of the Few – a Prescription for Disaster

Defining who is considered a Jew is an issue that goes to the very heart of Judaism. It has gripped our national consciousness and touches the very soul of every single Jew.

So… Who exactly is a Jew? Anyone born f a Jewish mother is a full fledged Jew. And anyone converted according to Halacha is considered a full fledged Jew. That sounds like a pretty simple definition. So what’s all the angst about? The answer of course for those who have been paying attention for the past few years is determining exactly what the Halacha about conversion is.

The controversy erupted when the Israeli government in an attempt to maintain Israel as a Jewish State mandated a conversion authority specifically created to deal with the many Russian immigrants whose Judaism was in question. Many of those immigrants were products of mixed marriages where the mother was not Jewish or not properly converted.

The number was so great that it was feared that their numbers would soon overwhelm the very Jewish character of the State. And since these ‘questionable’ Jews considered themselves Jewish, were serving in the army, and in every other way integrated into Israeli society a quick Halachic Conversion using the minimum Halachic standards was created and led by a revered Religious Zionist Rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Druckman. He proceeded to convert hundreds if not thousands of such converts.

The problem was that many of them were not observant of Halacha and accused of never intending to do so – a requirement of conversion according to most opinions. Charedi members of the Israeli rabbinate proceeded to invalidate wholesale all conversions done by Rabbi Druckman’s conversion authority – including any conversion ever done by him. That event resulted in a push by Charedim to establish a uniform standard for conversion not only for Israel but for the entire world.

The idea for setting a uniform standard is a good one. I am in favor of that. What I am not in favor of is what is currently happening in Israel. From the New York Times:

On Monday, a Knesset committee approved a bill sponsored by David Rotem, a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, that would give the Orthodox rabbinate control of all conversions in Israel. If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths — and, through them, the fundamental questions of Jewish identity — in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis.

I understand their argument and even agree with it. They are afraid of the Jewish people becoming unidentifiable as Jews. Jews converted illegitimately will become so integrated into society that it will be impossible to know who is a Jew and who isn’t without a genealogical investigation. Getting married will become a formidable task of unprecedented proportion - requiring a genealogical investigation in many if not most cases. It is forbidden for a Jew to marry a non Jew even if he or she was raised in the most Orthodox of Jewish traditions.

The legitimate goal of standardizing conversions is not best achieved through the current legislation in my view. Even the best of intentions can pave the way to unintended and unacceptable consequences. Although their fears are well founded I have to question their heavy handed tactics. I question whether the very standards they use will be fair. To put the fate of all conversions in Israel in the hands of a few Charedi Rabbis invites an abuse of power that enables them to effectively politicize Judaism itself.

By allowing only their own standards to prevail they will be able to invalidate conversions that were long ago accepted as valid by simply rejecting all converts of a past Beis Din they don't like. If for example they decided that a Beis din was guilty of a few conversions that they deem unacceptable that may very well invalidate all their other converts no matter how sincere those converts were during the conversion process or how religious they are now!

This can go back many generations where families were created and there are now hundreds if not thousands of offspring that will now question their own Judaism. Even worse is that bill effectively changes the attitude from one that assumes a a convert’s legitimacy as a Jew - to one of questionable status. Again -The New York Times (quoting from Ynet):

“Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.”

I therefore am opposed to this new bill. It is an example of good intentions going all wrong. There is no way that all conversions should be in the hands of a few Charedi rabbis. Even though they have already approved and accept converts from non Charedi rabbinic courts – it is only upon acceptance of their Charedi standards. The baggage and level of control given to Chardi rabbis that this bill entails far surpasses even the most stringent requirements of Halacha. Witness Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein’s invalidating a court - and thereby all their converts - if one of its Dayanim believes the universe is older than 5770 years old!

That said I want to clearly state once again my view that all conversions need to be Halachic. As an Orthodox Jew – I believe that only Orthodox conversions should be valid. But I side with the non Orthodox movements in opposing this bill. The pall this bill casts on all Jewish converts and their families far surpasses the gain they think they are achieving in retaining Kedushas Yisroel.

In this period where one should not be fostering baseless hatred this bill is doing exactly that! And worse it violates the clear Torah prohibition against ‘torturing’ the legitimate convert by presuming ‘guilt’ rather than ‘innocence’. No convert will feel safe. They will always second guess their status. What if…?

Like I said – I do think there ought to universal standards of conversion set up. But they should not be determined by a few Charedi Rabbis whose agenda may stretch beyond this issue with an eye to destroy all other Hashkafos by using their conversion powers to do so.

If any legislation is to be enacted – and I wonder if it really does need to be at this point – then I would like to see the broadest based legislation which considers the views of all segments of Orthodoxy. More importantly it ought to include peace of mind for all current converts restoring their Chezkas Kashrus – considering them all legitimate Jews. At most - examining them should only occur if and when their conversions are seriously challenged by cold hard facts.

That would make sense. But then again we are talking about a group of zealous Jews who purport to represent various Rabbinic Charedi leaders and whose ideas about what makes sense – often don’t.