Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Scary Paper On Annulling Conversions

I'm sure that by now, most of you have heard about the revocation of the conversion of "Sarah," the woman who was converted by Rabbi Leib Tropper of Eternal Jewish Family. About a year after her conversion, her husband let slip the fact that Sarah sometimes went out of the house with her head uncovered and/or wearing pants. On these grounds Rabbi Tropper declared that her original intent to convert was not sincere and her conversion was declared null in June 2006. The news of this was followed by the announcement that it's possible that ALL the conversions done by Rabbi Haim Druckman's Beis Din in Israel (as part of the official government conversion authority) over the last nine years may be invalidated.

Being able to invalidate a conversion years after the fact is a scary thing. Perhaps the scariest article I've seen on the subject was written by Dr. Zvi Zohar, a Professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar-Ilan University. He begins by bringing up a fictitious, yet very possible scenario. A woman (Miriam) converts in an Orthodox ceremony and marries a Jewish man (Reuven). They have a son and a daughter. The son goes to Yeshiva, obtains semicha and becomes a rabbi himself. He serves as a witness for several marriages, sits as a dayan (judge) in several cases (including, possibly divorce and conversion cases), etc. The daughter goes on to marry a Kohen and has several children of her own. Her children duchen, receive the first aliyah in shul, participate in a pidyon haben, etc.

The story then continues:

Miriam, now nearing sixty, has been working secretly for several years on an autobiography – and it is accepted for publication. When published, the public is informed about matters that her husband and close friends have known all along: Miriam opted for giyyur because of Reuven, whom she wanted to marry. She declared acceptence of mitzvot during her giyyur procedure, but was never really convinced that the commandments were ordained by G-d and revealed to Moses, and her observance of halakha, never consistent even at the beginning, soon become spotty, then totally haphazard. She has no problem with the fact that her son Yehuda has adopted a religious lifestyle, and indeed keeps a kosher home for his sake, and when Yehuda and his family come to visit in the U.S., Miriam and Reuven make sure that everything is halakhically meticulous. But when they are alone, they are not religiously observant. Miriam’s good friend Maureen knows someone at the New York Times, and Miriam is interviewed. She tells the reporter how happy she is to be Jewish, and how she really identifies with the Jewish People and the Jewish values of social justice, warm community and family ties, etc. However, she confides, the ritual parts of Judaism – such as Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpaha – never really attracted her, and she doesn’t personally observe them. The interview is picked up by HaAretz, and published in Hebrew in Israel.

What happens then is the scary part. A rabbi reads about this in HaAretz. He calls up the son's Rosh Yeshiva and advises him that the son was never Jewish to begin with, since his mother's conversion was invalid. Everything the son has done in his life (in a halachic sense) is invalid. Any marriages that he witnessed need to be re-performed. If he acted on a court to convert other geirim, then those conversions are invalid too. And if he acted in an official capacity at a divorce... well, let's just hope and pray those women haven't remarried and had kids.

The convert's daughter is also in a very precarious situation. Her life has just turned into a living hell. Since she' s not Jewish, she has to separate from her husband. Furthermore, even if she converts, she cannot "remarry" her husband, since he is a Kohen. Her children are no longer Kohanim (and never were to begin with) and have no "relationship" with their father.

Taken to it's logical conclusion, a ger cannot participate in Jewish society at all. As Dr. Zohar writes:

But is all this possible? Of course -- if one accepts that giyyur can be retroactively annulled. Indeed, if it is possible to retroactively annul even one giyyur based upon subsequent conduct of a ger, then we can NEVER rely upon the Jewishness of ANY person who underwent giyyur, nor upon the Jewishness of any descendent of a female proselyte. The Jewishness of all such persons is eternally contingent, always liable to being undermined by some future revelation. Knowing this, other Jews should always refrain from having gerim or the descendents of female giyyorot serve as witnesses, rabbis, Cohanim … they cannot be counted for a minyan, for a zimmun etc… and of course, no one will ever agree to marry them.

And, the end result will probably be an end to all conversions:

In fact, the most reasonable conclusion for any Orthodox rabbi to draw is that it is better never to accept anybody for giyyur – for who can really know what is in a person’s heart, and how he/she will behave in the future? And of course, once it gets around to persons who have been planning to undergo Orthodox giyyur that they and their children will always be only conditionally Jewish – they will surely revise such ill-considered plans. Who would knowingly place themselves and their families in such a terrible bind?

Scary stuff indeed. The havoc that a single individual can wreak on the klal as a whole is mind boggling. In addition, it's possible that this can be used as an extortion threat by the potential convert themselves. Suppose the convert and her son disagree about an issue -- grandparent's visitation for example. Do we allow a system where the convert can tell her son to accede to her demands or else she'll have him declared a non-Jew by stating that her conversion was never sincere? Do we allow one person to hold a figurative sword over people? It's bad enough that a husband can withhold a get from his wife, but at least there she entered into the marriage willingly. In this case, the parties affected have absolutely no say in the matter -- one person can threaten to destroy the lives of all their descendants with just one word.

Is this really where we are headed? To the point where converts are so completely disenfranchised that they cannot do anything religiously? You can't use them (or their descendants) for a minyan, for a dayan, for a witness at a marriage/divorce, or for anything at all. Heck, you can't even marry them, since it's possible that the conversion will be invalidated even generations later. Is this where the rabbanim who are overseeing this debacle want to take us? If so, then we're really entering a scary world indeed.

The Wolf

UPDATE: Apparently, EJF has it's own version of how "Sarah's" conversion went. The details are here. In any event, the main point of the post wasn't about "Sarah" but about revoking the validity of conversions years after the fact, as is being done in Israel. Since that's still the case and the main point of the post is still valid, I'm going to leave it up.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

I've wondered for a long time about adoptions of Non-Jewish children who are converted by bet din but must confirm there desire when they reach majority. It seems clear from some of the sh"ut literature that there were parents who did not tell their adopted children about their status. I did not find however a discussion of what happens to all the acts they did prior to renunciation (along the lines of your post)

Joel Rich

Larry Lennhoff said...

EJF itself tells a different story about Sarah.

Additionally, Rabbi Tropper did not sit on Sarah's beit din and has no authority to annul conversions. All he can do is inform the Israeli rabbinate of the facts as he understands them. EJF make a big point about how the batei din it uses are independent of the organization - all EJF does is mentor and encourage, but the decision to accept the giyur is the responsibility of the beit din.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you, Larry. I was unaware of EJF's statement on the matter. I have updated my post to reflect that.

In any event, the main point of the post (about the ability to invalidate conversions years down the line) is still valid regardless of which version of Sarah's story is true. Therefore, I'm still going to leave the post up.

The Wolf

Pesky Settler said...

I really don't understand the whole surprise over conversions through EJF. If their whole mission is dealing with intermarried couples, why do they act surprised when they discover the converting spouse only did it and/or went through the motions to please the Jewish spouse?

IMO, EJF should be disbanded altogether.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Pesky, it is at least as common that the Jewish spouse only went through the motions to please the converting spouse.

In either case, I agree that one must be sure that both members of the marriage are sincere in their desire to follow halacha before a conversion may be performed.

Anonymous said...

Here's another scenario for you.A ger or Gioret is extorted for money or some other consideration,with the threat that if they don't pony up,they'll will be accused of non-compliance with Halacha and be declared non-Jewish(with all the privileges that come with it in the super-frummy world)....Nice,real nice.

-suitepotato- said...

You're missing the bigger picture. When you take into account the largely not spoken about cultural friction/rivalry between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and between Charedi and Everyone Else, you can see the even worse ramifications.

The Christian world already went down this path of picking and choosing who was sufficiently Christian and who wasn't. Who was Christian and who was a fake and a heretic. Do Judaism really want the heartache of a Jewish Protestant Reformation?

Granted this isn't the medieval period where villages can slaughter each other at will, but the deeper emotional damage driving sons against fathers and brothers against sisters and so forth will still happen.

My wife was adopted at three days old and was brought into the nation through the Conservative synagogue when a few months old. Her mother is fully descended from Jews all the way back as far as anyone can tell. Neither of them observe Shabbat, neither of them give a darn about kashrut, in short, like thousands of other American Jews. I've told them of this conversion mess and my mother-in-law just shakes her head and says "you have to be kidding".

What happens when this gets extended to basing the definition of who is Jewish on any given group's definition of sufficient observance? So much for it being enough that if the Nazis would have killed you, you're Jewish enough. It's like a sign saying "now you must be this pious to ride".

You ain't seen nothing yet, as they say. Smug superiority and self-righteous certainty are not the sole province of the Christian world or any other. They're a shared human inheritance, but one we'd be better off without, if only we were humble enough to admit to them in the first place.

Zach Kessin said...

I can think of several cases in which a convert could be blackmailed with this type of thing. Mostly in the case of a messy divorce. Or in the case of a dispute between neighbors or the like.

The whole thing is a major can of worms, and it is most definitely open.

ProfK said...

Certainly rabbanim have always disagreed with each other over what is the correct "psak" about something. And what is "correct" has sometimes changed over the generations, over the centuries. But what I haven't seen before now is an attempt to go back and retroactively apply the new view to what was done in the past and to try and invalidate decisions made back then using the old view. Generally we just say that from now on this is how we hold.

With the conversion issue we are retroactively applying something that we hold today. The affect on all those who became geirim and on their families cannot even be imagined, as well as the affect on Klal in general.

Yes, the issue has more import then whether or not glycerin can or cannot be used, but the principle remains the same. There aren't any "do overs" for past events.

Another case, perhaps, of acting before thinking?

Anonymous said...

This is creating a rift in the Religious Israeli society between the cherdim and the dati leumi community which will e irreparable. It will (and is) very shortly carry over to America as well and geirus is only the beginning. Next will come Gittin, Nesuin, give it some time and the Charedim will demand to have TOTAL control over every aspect of Jewish Life.

Jeff Eyges said...

EJF has pulled this sort of thing before. Last year, one of their rabbis stated that if a rabbi accepts the validity of evolutionary theory, all of the conversions he's overseen are invalid!

I am not frum, but it makes me sick to see the laissez-faire attitude prevalent in the frum world regarding the antics of these barbarians. Zev Stern is the only frum Jew I've met so far who has enough backbone to call them thugs and morons to their faces.

I talk online to a few progressive evangelicals, and I see the same phenomenon there. Among themselves, they grumble about the fundamentalists, but they have a sentimental attachment to that world (most of them having been brought up in it) and are reluctant to confront their "brothers and sisters in Christ". It's a rare evangelical who can muster up the courage to call Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson a pisher to his face.

Suitepotato is correct: "You ain't seen nothing yet". This is only going to get worse, and it will continue in this way, until the most strident and regressive Hareidi factions have commandeered all of Orthodoxy, unless the rest of you band together and put a stop to it now. Otherwise, your grandchildren will be Hareidim, or frei - or they will simply disassociate from Judaism altogether, because these will be the only options.

Anonymous said...

I know this comment is somewhat off topic but I still want to share it. My mother in law converted with two orthodox rabbis and one conservative/reform (i'm not sure which) rabbi. She is not shomer shabbos or kashrus, and is basically a "traditional" jew. Before my husband and his sister were allowed into frum schools, they were asked to go to the mikvah as if they were converting themselves. For the reasons that were mentioned, I feel like this is a smart thing to do even if you believe your mother had a kosher conversion.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like the beginning of an inquisition.

"Watch your neighbor the convert. Look for signs that he is not really Jewish. Look for these signs:"

"Have you ever seen him touch his forehead while in shul? Could be that he is secretly still making the sign of the cross while praying."

"Have you ever been walking with him on the street and passed a treif restaurant when he took a deep breath? Could be that he still loves treif, eats it in secret and was smelling it in the air in anticipation of his next treif feast."

"Does he eat chulent with proper zeal on Shabbat? If he is only "going through the motions" while eating chulent, that could be a sure sign that he isn't sufficiently Jewish."

Where does this end?

ProfK said...

Anonymous's comment "Where does this end?" brought to mind a really scary end to this scenario. If geirus can be invalidated retroactively then what is to keep rabbanim somewhere down the line from saying that being a Jew will no longer be passed down from mother to child? That you only get to call yourself a Jew if you meet X,Y and Z criteria?

Jeff Eyges said...

If geirus can be invalidated retroactively then what is to keep rabbanim somewhere down the line from saying that being a Jew will no longer be passed down from mother to child? That you only get to call yourself a Jew if you meet X,Y and Z criteria?

That is a very real possibility.

Anonymous said...

How do those who believe in rabbinic infallibility square that with the ability to annul a conversion? If the sponsoring rabbi/bet din were infallible, how can one call into question the conversion they did? I suppose one could say that they were deceived by the convert, but if they were infallible, shouldn't they have seen through the ruse?