Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I Disagree

Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikva (Forward) shown for illustrative purposes only
It is a principled resignation. But it is one with which I disagree. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has resigned from the Bet Din L’Giyur,  the conversion court in Bergen County, New Jersey - sanctioned by Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) and the Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by them in 2007. 

After a long explanation published in Cross Currents about his highly rewarding service in this regard - detailing some of the process itself, he now feels – if I understand him correctly - that there is an intrusive spirit in the RCA. One that emanates from sources less concerned with Halacha than they are with cultural causes like feminism. Which imputes false motives  to rabbis involved with conversions. Here is how he puts it:
Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din.
Rabbi Pruzansky feels that the standards of conversion called for by the GPS and observed by the RCA (although there seems to have been a renegade faction that did not abide by these rules) were sufficient in guaranteeing the privacy and sanctity of the conversion process. 

My guess is that he’s probably right. Indeed to the best of my knowledge there has been no significant complaint by any convert about abuses of the GPS process since it was adopted 7 years ago. And - again as he rightly points out - the recent scandal is not a system failure but an individual one.

Rabbi Pruzansky therefore objects to the formation of a new committee to review the conversion process:
(T)he RCA has just appointed a committee “that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions on women. Is there a role for women to play in “suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse”? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in “review[ing]” the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.
Here is where I part company with him. He makes assumptions about what this new committee will do and that decisions will be made by laypeople with agendas rather than by rabbis with the knowledge and expertise about the Halachos of conversions. He says that some of the members of this new committee were never on board with the GPS; never followed its guidelines;  and will now have a chance to water down the conversion process to a point where it may not ‘comport with the requirements of Torah’.

I agree that some of the impetus for this is media driven. Surely all the media ink (both real and virtual) spilled on this subject militates for an RCA response.  But to say that is the primary reason for it is to be unfairly cynical of the motives of its members. I believe that the RCA is primarily driven by a concern for the welfare of the potential convert whose trust has been breached by this scandal and must now be restored. If one looks at who comprises the membership of this committee, one would be hard pressed to attribute anything but the purest of motives.

I can’t speak for all of the members. But if Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beis Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) is on this committee, then it has my blessing. And it should have the blessing of anyone who cares about Judaism. He is one of the most respected jurists in the Orthodox world. There is no way he would sit on any committee that does not abide by Halacha first.

That there are women on this committee is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. Rabbi Pruzansky’s fear that women will be Paskening is misplaced. Their purpose, I assume, is to give have input to the Halachic decisions to be made. I can’t think of anyone better to advise rabbis on issues concerning conversions of females than female converts. It would  be ridiculous not to include them. At the risk of using an analogy - it would be like deciding how to properly treat victims of abuse without getting any input from them.

As Rabbi Pruzansky suggests, the conversion process can be a sublime experience for a rabbi. To me there is nothing more inspiring than a non Jew deciding to become one. It is about truth seeking and finding it in Judaism. And after finding it - transforming one’s life despite all the challenges and obstacles. It is a form of great Mesiras Nefesh to give up entirely one’s past life of freedom in order to embrace a life full of rules that are difficult to follow. Especially if you haven’t been raised to follow them.

They nevertheless do so because they now know it’s right. A Ger Tzedek (righteous convert) towers above us all. Because they are doing it entirely L’Shma despite all their new hardships. They are the best people among us. It would be a shame to lose them because of a fear and a mistrust generated by a scandal. That negative impression needs to be corrected. The RCA is doing just that.

Rabbi Pruzansky humbly insists that his participation in the process is not indispensable. He feels that he is not harming the process by his resignation. This is true. There are probably other qualified rabbis that can fill his shoes. He quotes Charles de Gaulle  who said that graveyards are full of indispensable men. I’m therefore sure that his resignation will be accepted without any reservation. I wish him well.  I don’t however think his fears will be borne out. He says he hopes that he will be proven wrong. I think he will be.