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.
Hat tip: Failed Messiah