Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Standardizing Conversions – Good Idea or Bad?

Yet another reason why politics and religion should not mix. Even in Israel.

What I am talking about is the refusal of the Israel’s Interior Ministry to recognize a conversion by the Orthodox Vaad HaRabonim of Queens. This does not seem to be a sham conversion. The convert in question lives an Orthodox lifestyle and wants to make Aliyah to Israel so that she and her family can live more fully as Jews.

Why has the Interior Ministry done such a horrible thing? It’s because of Charedi control over all Orthodox conversions. And it is the irony of ironies that Conservative and Reform conversions are recognized by the Israeli government and yet when it comes to Orthodox conversions they abdicate all power and hand it over exclusively to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate - now controlled by Charedi rabbis.

The Rabbinate’s intentions were good. They wanted to eliminate sham conversions. Unfortunately there have been too many of those in recent history even among Orthodox rabbis. Chicago certainly has had its share in the past. Without getting into too much detail (been there and done that) many conversions were done where converts had no intention to follow Halacha at all.

The vast majority of Poskim hold such conversions to be invalid. In order to stop this practice the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in consultation with American Charedi rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has standardized Orthodox conversions. They now only accept those conversions outside Israel that were done by an approved list of religious courts that agreed to comply with those standards.

The goal is to keep the Jewish people free of any doubt about their status as Jews. These actions were precipitated by mass conversions performed upon Russian immigrants that were seen as not being properly converted, thus tainting the gene pool. There are many instances where in order to observe Halacha properly one must know who is a Jew and who isn’t. Like the prohibition against a Jew marrying a non Jew.

This is a good illustration of why the best of intentions can sometimes pave the road to Hell. And in this case I mean literal Hell as well as proverbial Hell. Hell is where the souls of unrepentant sinners end up after they die. The sin here is Lo Sanu HaGer. The Torah mentions the prohibition against mistreatment of the convert 24 separate times. (Example - Shemos 22:20)

There are those who cite the Gemarah in Kidushin (70b) which says that a convert is difficult burden upon the Jewish people which seems to contradict the prohibition against mistreatment and would imply that one should avoid converting anyone.

Rashi explains that the reason the Gemarah states that converts are difficult for us is because they bring negative baggage of their past with them from which born Jews will inadvertently learn.

But Tosephos rejects that explanation and offers another one. The reason for saying that converts are a difficult burden for us is because of their extra meticulousness in Mitzvah observance. They make a born Jew look bad by comparison. Furthermore the prohibition against mistreating a Ger is so severe that born Jews will be severely punished when they mistreat them. And mistreat them we do. This has become painfully obvious in our day.

So while the intentions of the religious courts in Israel are good, they end up hurting the very people they are supposed to be serving – those among us who are the most meticulous in Mitzvah observance – the convert. And to what end?

If Reform and Conservative conversions are already recognized by the State, what is gained by rejecting Orthodox conversions just because they were done by a court not on a pre-approved list? And how does that even help keep the gene pool pure if there are Conservative and Reform converts in Israel that are fully recognized by the government? How can anyone really know who is and isn’t a Jew when there is no registry indicating who was converted by whom? Are we going to investigate every single couple who applies for marriage?

What kind of Pandora ’s Box will that open? This is a problem even for Charedim. It is very possible that a woman who is a Reform convert had children who became Orthodox via the multitude of outreach organizations and somehow their mother’s or grandmother’s improper conversion slipped by notice. It is very possible that many of these young men are learning in places like the Mir or Brisk.

In the process of weeding out bad Orthodox conversions the prohibition against oppressing a convert is violated many times over. Is this really how God wants us to act? I think the clear answer is no. And He tells us so 24 separate times.