Friday, April 21, 2017

When Violating Halacha is Required

The Kushners on Sukkos
First things first. Ivanka Trump is Jewish. There should be no question about her status as a Jew. She was converted by a rabbinic court which – if I understand correctly - had Rav Hershel Shachter’s imprimatur and has been officially accepted publicly by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. 

Some people have questioned whether her conversion was sincere since she has been seen and even photographed wearing clothing that would not be considered modest by any Orthodox Jewish standard. But even leaving aside issues of Halachic modesty and the various interpretations as to what is and isn’t considered modest clothing according to Halacha, there is the far more serious charge of violating Shabbos. Which she has been seen doing ever since her father, Donald Trump was elected President.

The Gemarah tells us that if someone goes through the procedure of conversion –  which at the moment of their conversion requires acceptance of all Mitzvos (even if they don't know what they all are),  immersion in a Kosher Mikva, and for a man a cricumcision - then even if  they immediately proceed to purposely violate Halacha, they are still considered to be a Jew albeit a ‘sinning Jew’. This is an undisputed Gemarah.

That said, 20th century Gadol (and to many the Posek Hador of his time), Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that in our (his) day when there are so many sham conversions with questionable religious courts and where sponsoring rabbis knew the convert would not be observant - converting only for purposes of marriage… then one can judge a person’s sincerity by how they behave Halachicly immediately after the conversion.

For example if a woman is converted before her marriage to a Jew and then she and he fiancé celebrate the conversion by going to McDonalds and eating cheeseburgers, there could be ‘no greater proof’ than that, says R’ Moshe, that the conversion was not sincere, a sham,  and therefore invalid. I never fully understood how R’ Moshe’s ruling squares with the above-mentioned Gemarah. But in Inavka’s case it doesn’t matter since the conversion was done by a trustworthy court; with a world class Posek in Rav Hershel Shachter participating.

So the question is not whether she is Jewish but whether she – or even her husband, Jared, is considered Orthodox. How can they be, one may ask? Now that they are so much in the public eye, they have both been observed and photographed violating Shabbos, the sine qua non of Orthodox Judaism.

Is it possible under any circumstance to consider them Orthodox? What about the Shabbos violations? Doesn’t that automatically disqualify them from being observant since in our day? 

The answer is not so simple. There are circumstances where violating Shabbos is not only permitted, but required. Famously one of those circumstances is Pikuach Nefesh – saving someone’s life. If Shabbos must be violated in order to do so, one MUST violate it. A less famous but equally legitimate form of dispensation for violating Shabbos is something called ‘Karuv L’Malchus’ – being ‘close to the king’. In such circumstance such closeness can strongly influence the kings decisions in matters that affect the Jewish people under his control. The Gemarah discusses such scenarios and history has had instances where this dispensation has been applied.

Ben Rothke has written a very thoughtful piece on this very subject on Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s blog YGB.  

I am certainly not an expert on the subject. In fact I know next to nothing about the parameters of such dispensations. The problem is that there are few if any people today that do, it seems. Nor has there been much (if any) responsa on the subject of who and what would qualify for it today.

It can certainly be argued that no one is closer to the American President (king) than Ivanka and Jared Kushner. If that law were applied to anyone - they would be the ones. They are not only ‘close’ to the ‘king’ - Ivanka is his daughter and Jared his son in law. According to many observers, they are the President’s closest advisers.

But is the President the same as a king? A king surely has more power than a President. How ‘close’ to power must one be? And how powerful must that ‘power’ be in order to get that dispensation? Halachic dispensation granted via being Karuv L’Malchus may not be applicable to a President since he cannot order executions of individuals the way a king can. 

On the other hand a President can surely affect the well being of the Jewish people to the point of Pikuach Nefesh. Does that fact meet the parameters required for the application of this dispensation? 

Those that defend the Kushners’ violation of Shabbos have claimed that they had rabbinic dispensation for it. To the best of my knowledge no Orthodox rabbi has come forward and acknowledged that it was he that gave them the dispensation. But if one rabbi did, how far did it go? And was it really in accordance with Halahca? 

For example the Kushners were seen riding in a car on Shabbos (Friday night) on the way to one of the inaugural balls.  Does that qualify for dispensation of Shabbos observance? It can  be argued that riding in  a car on Shabbos when a non Jew is driving is not technically a violation of Shabbos – if someone opens and closes the door for you. Which is almost certainly the case with Jared and Invanka.

But even if that were a technical violation in the circumstances of an inaugural ball, it could be argued that not attending would have adverse consequences on the influence they might have on the President which could affect his decisions on matters vital to the Jewish people.

As Ben points out, there is little or no precedent on how a Posek should rule in this instance.

I recommend reading Ben’s excellent review of those issues. I also recommend that Jared and Ivanka not be judged based on what many perceive are blatant violations of Halacha. Because they may actually not be in violation of it but rather in compliance of it based on their particular situation of being Karuv L’Malchus.