Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Potential End of a United World Jewry.

Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the head of the Israel's High Rabbinical Court, has been making some very threatening and ominous statements concerning conversions. He started out by stating at the Eternal Jewish Family conference in Israel last week that the majority of potential converts do not intend to keep the commandments (generally viewed as a sine qua non of conversion). This is the same Rabbi Sherman who made the decision to annul thousands of conversions performed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, who was the head of the state Conversion Courts. This is also the same Rabbi Sherman who, this past week, invalidated another conversion (although, to be fair, I don't know the grounds on which this was done).

I blogged about the possible dangers of retroactive nullification of conversions last year. Rabbi Zvi Zohar, a professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar-Ilan University, showed how it possible that, taken to it's logical conclusion, a convert could never participate in Jewish society. Since his or her conversion is always subject to nullification at a later date, how can you rely on them for anything? Can you allow a convert to be the 10th man in your minyan? Perhaps he's not Jewish? Can he daven for the amud, receive an aliyah or become a ba'al kriah? Can he join with you in a zimmun when there are only three of you? Can you use him for hataras nedarim? What if he wrote your mezuzzos or tefillin?

And how about things that have long-reaching consequences? What if you use a convert as a witness to your wedding? Or even worse, what if a convert servs on a bais din (or is a witness) to a divorce? Can you imagine the halachic nightmare that would result from a witness (or judge) on a divorce case (or multiple cases) being found to be not Jewish retrocactively, throwing all those divorcees, their new spouses and children (and grandchildren) into some halachic purgatory from which they and their descendants may never escape? What about a convert who sits on a bais din for other conversions -- you could have multiple "generations" of invalidated conversions, each wreaking havoc on countless individuals and society as a whole. And, don't forget, this doesn't go just for the convert, but for any descendant of a female convert as well!

The problem is further compounded by the fact that there are almost certainly people who have been converted in past generations that would not pass muster even by some of the more lenient rabbis in our community. As any student of quality control can tell you, in any human endeavor and with a large enough production run, you are going to find some products that are outside the range of what you would consider acceptable. Applied to conversions, it means that if you convert enough people, you are practically guaranteed to find a number of people that are accepted as converts that should not be. There are bound to be a few people who are admitted to the Jewish nation who do not meet the halachic standards.

Of course, this situation has persisted for generations -- and for generations we have learned to take things at face value. We have standards by which people are believed for certain matters -- if a woman shows up in a town where no one knows her and announces that she is not married, she is believed. If a man shows up in a town with a boy and announces that the boy is his son, no DNA test is required... he is given the halachic status of his son (along with the possible status of a kohen), whether or not that is the actual reality. If a woman gives birth to a child, the child is automatically assumed to be the husband's (absent any evidnece to the contrary, of course). If her husband is a kohen, so is the child -- we don't test him for the Cohen Modal Haplotype gene. And we do this despite the fact that there certainly are some kohanim that are not *really* kohanim (either because an ancestor of theirs lied, or was lied to, or because some ancestress of theirs might have cheated on her husband). We don't require a DNA test to prove paternity before not branding them a mamzer -- again -- almost despite the fact that there are certainly people who are mamzerim in our midst. (As a side note, see this comment thread from a DovBear post where someone tries to make the case that perhaps we're ALL mamzerim). In short, when it comes to personal status issues, we generally take a position that absent any evidnece to the contrary, we accept people as they present themselves to be. I can't think of a single shul that would require a visiting kohen to present genealogical proof of his status before giving him the first aliyah on Shabbos morning.

Yet, when it comes to conversion, Rabbi Sherman seems to want to go in the opposite direction. Rather than accepting all conversions as valid (barring evidence to the contrary), his opinion seems to be that all conversions are to be viewed as suspect until and unless there is evidnece validating it. Indeed, according to a Ynet article, Rabbi Sherman has instructed municipal registrars to question every conversion certificate that they are presented with.

At this rate, one has to wonder... why bother with conversions at all? Why would anyone in their right mind want to consider a conversion when it can be challanged years down the road? Why would anyone consider a conversion in the United States when there is no guarntee that it will be accepted when one gets to Israel, despite one's best efforts to get the highest standards of Orthodox conversion? Why would anyone want to start the process of conversion when they know, in the back of their mind that years down the road, after they are enmeshed in a marriage and have children and grandchildren that it could all come crashing down on them... even for factors over which they had no control?

So far, it seems, this particular form of madness seems to be restricted to the area of conversion in Israel. But does it have to stop there? What about divorces in Israel? If a woman marries, divorces and remarries (and has children with her second husband) in the Diaspora and then makes aliyah, does she always have to fear that her family will be thrown into a halachic quagmire because the Chief Rabbi of the day does not accept the divorce from her first husband? Does a woman who went through chalitzah have to fear that the Israeli battei din will not recognize the bais din she used -- again despite her best efforts to get the most Orthodox rabbis she could find?

And does this madness have to remain confined to Israel? What's to stop splinter groups from not recognizing divorces or conversions done by other Orthodox groups? Some rabbis have gone on the record as saying that Zionism is a form of avodah zarah. How long before they use that rhetoric to refuse to recognize divorces, marriages or conversions performed by Zionist rabbis on the basis that they are not fit to be rabbis? Will they then declare those converts to be non-Jewish and the divorcees' children to be mamzerim?

I believe that there is a very real danger here in Rabbi Sherman's approach. I believe that his approach has the possibility to put thousands and tens of thousands of people into halachic situations from which they cannot escape. I believe that his approach, carried to it's logical conclusion, can end up fracturing k'lal yisroel irreperably. It's one thing (and a separate debate) to set up higher standards for conversions going forward. But it's another to start demanding extra evidence of converts (and whose to stop him from requiring it of descendants of converts) that their conversion from years ago is valid when they have a valid certification. To start questioning every past conversion (or marriage, or divorce) is not only a complete departure from established precedent, but also can only lead to irreperable harm to the Jewish nation.

The Wolf

Hat tip: Failed Messiah

17 comments:

Zach Kessin said...

There was a case here where a get was retroactively canceled, several years after the fact and the woman in question has re-married and had kids with her new husband.

And at least one of the men who signed our ketuba was in fact a convert.

I am wondering when they are going to start making life harder for BT's like me, grandparents not frum, your out of the tribe. I don't doubt it could happen

Ahavah Gayle said...

Obviously, they KNOW all this and INTEND to actually do it anyway, that is clear.

They know all this and DON'T CARE.

It's power-mongering taken to the n-th degree, there's no other explanation. They intend to take their imperialistic campaign to conquer Judaism to the ultimate end, and they don't care how many people they "kill" in their war of conquest.

They actually WANT to destroy all other Jews except themselves. I am aware you don't care for holocaust comparisons, but seriously - at least the Nazis intended to destroy a foreign people. These guys intend to destroy their OWN people - by conveniently dehumanizing (or should we say, de-Judaisizing) them, the exact same way. I seriously do not see any difference.

E-Man said...

You are probably right, this action is extremely dangerous. The outcome of these ridiculous actions could create a more splintered Jewish nation than even in the times of the second bais hamikdash. We could end up with more karaite, samaritan, tzedukim, reform, conservative, reconstructionist and many other type of break offs.

Zach Kessin said...

it should also be pointed out that there is no civil marriage in Israel so for those who are not Jewish unless they are some other religion there is no legal way for them to get married absent a conversion or a flight out of the country.

So the Haradi rabbinute has taken the position that large numbers of Israelis can not get married to anyone and that this is a good thing.

Pesky Settler said...

Some rabbis have gone on the record as saying that Zionism is a form of avodah zarah. How long before they use that rhetoric to refuse to recognize divorces, marriages or conversions performed by Zionist rabbis on the basis that they are not fit to be rabbis? Will they then declare those converts to be non-Jewish and the divorcees' children to be mamzerim?

I'll see your Zionism and raise you a Chabadnik.... how Messianic is he really?

BrooklynWolf said...

I was actually considering using the example of Chabad and the varying degrees of messianism that is found therein... but decided against it in the end.

The Wolf

ProfK said...

Strange type of Darwinism Rabbi Sherman is practicing--a selection of the fittest according to his lights and no one else's, including those who came before him. What's next? "Ex communication" of those who started out unchallengedly frum but who went off the derech--rescinding their birth affiliation? And yet I bet he would be firmly and vociferously against genetic selection scientifically. Not much difference between him and those "renegade" scientists.

Garnel Ironheart said...

It's so simple for the Syrians - they refuse everyone.

The problem with all this is that while it's quite right to express outrage, the proper response is to show how Rav Sherman is halachically wrong. And no one is doing that. It's all "Oh what a bastard he is" or "My Torah is crying!" but no one taking his proofs and refuting them.

Dave said...

It is already the case, as far as non-Orthodox American Jews are concerned.

If you do not have an Orthodox Rabbi (who is deemed acceptable by the Israeli Rabbinate), you have to prove your ancestry to them.

Dave said...

The problem with all this is that while it's quite right to express outrage, the proper response is to show how Rav Sherman is halachically wrong. And no one is doing that. It's all "Oh what a bastard he is" or "My Torah is crying!" but no one taking his proofs and refuting them.

http://www.jewishideas.org/min-hamuvhar/conversion-judaism-halakha-hashkafa-and-histori

G*3 said...

The problems caused by state-sanctioned religion.

> At this rate, one has to wonder... why bother with conversions at all? Why would anyone in their right mind want to consider a conversion when it can be challanged years down the road?

Maybe that’s the point

Anyway, if he really becomes so radical, the rest of the frum world can simply ignore him. It will be a problem for Israelis, (unless they remove him from his post) but hopefully the rest of the world will be reasonable enough to realize how ridiculous this is, and it will be the extreme right-wing that will be isolated in its own shell. Then everyone will be happy. They can pretend the world doesn’t exist, and the rest of us can forget they exist.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Dave, I've read and linked that article at my blog as well (shameless plug).

The problem is that while Rav Angel identifies a few dissident voices, he doesn't go into enough detail. If the Chatam Sofer, who was the leading posek of his day, decided things should be one way, we need an authority of equal stature to disagree with him. The article doesn't provide that.

Secondly, although he makes oblique references to the Rishonim like the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, he doesn't get the point: the Chareidi objection to these conversions is that they say the candidates never intended to accept ol malchus shamayim. They took it to get a degree like someone in an Arts or Science program, not out of a sense of religious commitment.

Is Rav Angel suggesting that converting without an intention of being frum is all right? I doubt you'll find an authority that says it is.

If the argument is about the post facto situation - the convert did intend to be religious when converting but then changed his mind some time after, then there is room for debate about annulment. But that's not where Rav Sherman is going with this.

Lion of Zion said...

zach:

"So the Haradi rabbinute has taken the position that large numbers of Israelis can not get married to anyone and that this is a good thing."

this is not a haredi problem, but rather a rabbanut problem. i.e., was it any different when the rabbanut was in RZ hands?

aaron from L.A. said...

I wonder if the rabbi can provide a geneological background for himself for the last few centuries (or more since he's so Machmir)...Hmmmm...

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>If the Chatam Sofer, who was the leading posek of his day, decided things should be one way, we need an authority of equal stature to disagree with him.

This is a fact? I never heard that "the leading posek of the day" decides how things should be. Even if that were the case, the leading posek of the day decides how things should be based on the conditions of his day. This is why the Chasam Sofer forbade rabbi's giving derashos in a language other than Yiddish. Yet I never heard anyone suggest that we need an authority of equal stature to disagree with him. In fact, no one would suggest that Rav Azriel Hildesheimer was a posek of equal stature, yet he disagreed, and indeed was kind of run out of Hungary because he was so liberal. Yet, he flourished in Germany, was and is considerd a great posek and no one ever suggests that giving speeches in the vernacular is some kind of problem that he has to be refuted halakhically. It is true that there are those who went out of their way to explicitly say (opine) that the Chasam Sofer's prohibitions like these were not purely halakhic, but conditional to their situation. But who among them were as great as the Chasam Sofer?

Frankly, I don't think "The Chasam Sofer said it" carries any halakhic weight in and of itself.

>Is Rav Angel suggesting that converting without an intention of being frum is all right? I doubt you'll find an authority that says it is.

I think R. Angel is asserting that "intending to be frum" is not at all required by halakhah. Frum describes a kind of observant Jew and a kind of Jewish identity, and I think the dispute here is whether conversion requires adopting this kind of identity.

Anonymous said...

R' Ovadiah Yosef said a few months ago that all this retroactive annulment was appalling and was baseless.

ClooJew said...

I don't see, lulei demistafina, how this qualifies as a "madness."

The wholesale tossing of conversions is a reaction to the wholesale nature of the conversions themselves. You don't seem to bring any evidence to the table as to why Rabbi Sherman should stop undoing conversions that, in his Halachic opinion, flouted Halachic standards. I spoke to a rav in New York City who is involved in geirus (a YU musmach, as it happens), and he confirmed that the lack of standards for conversions is deplorable and destructive.

As for sincere converts, yes it is unfair to them; but that unfairness does not fall on the lap of Rabbi Sherman. The people to blame are the insincere converts and, moreso, the rabbis who acted as their enablers. They cast significant doubt on the entire process.

Moreover, I would think, lulei demistafina, that sincere converts would understand and even appreciate that stricter standards are in their best interest.