Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Converting Conversions

The never-ending fight amongst different authorities on conversions continues, as per this article from The Jewish Week. Unfortunately, it also highlights the reason why Israeli authorities continue to make conversion standards stricter and the inability of the non-Orthodox so-called "streams" to see their role as part of the problem.
Here's the bottom line for many Chareidim rabbonim in Israel. A person presents and says "I'm a Jewish convert." When asked about the process, imagine the array of bewildering answers. "Well I spoke to the Reform rabbi in my town and she said if I believed in God, well that's super." Or "Yeah, but I did it Conservative so they told me it was okay if I didn't actually keep kosher afterwards as long as I tried to be a good person."
But those are the easy ones. The hard ones are the ones who went to an ostensibly Orthodox rabbi but who failed to clue in that if you're going to go through the whole rigamarole, all the studying and effort, you're supposed to continue in the lifestyle after you're in.
Indeed, if I were a Chareidi rabbi I'd conclude, as many of them doubtlessly have, that unless the convert sitting in front of me looks and sounds exactly like me, he's probably not a truly successful candidate. It's not fair, it's probably not halachic and it causes a great deal of pain to many, many sincere Jews, but it has one major advantage: it requires no thinking. Never underestimate the power of that.
But when the non-observant protest this trend, they only undermine their own case. Consider:
Rabbi Robert Levine of the Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan warned the full house of 250 people at the JCC: “We’re coming very close to the level of sinat chinam”
[hatred among Jews] that brought about the destruction of the Temple. “Many Orthodox rabbis won’t walk into my shul, and that pains me,” he said, noting that the level of trust among rabbis of different denominations has deteriorated in recent years.

Really, this is one of the most tired and weak arguments, but the Reformers never cease to pull it out. Having unilaterally rejected all traditional Torah values, having built institutions that violate halacha in their operation, they are then shocked, shocked!, that Orthodox rabbonim won't walk in. What have they missed? Judaism has, amongst other things, standards. If they refuse, in the name of secular liberalism, to hold by them, then who has declared who is unwelcome in their synagogues? Not the Orthodox.
Staking a claim that Conservative Judaism meets traditional standards on conversion, Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, cited Talmudic passages regarding how one should treat a potential convert. She said each requirement is met by Conservative religious courts.
A female rabbi insisiting the JTS meets traditional standards. Yeah, uh huh. See what I mean about a lack of self-awareness?
After hearing Rabbi Levine speak of how Reform conversions are carried out with an emphasis on Torah learning and a commitment to ethical behavior, within a framework of choice, Rabbi Herring said he was “astounded” to hear that the Reform movement “requires acceptance of the commandments.”
He said he had been led to believe that Reform requirements did not include a commitment to keep the mitzvot.
“We have to be truthful and frank,” he said.
The gray area of the discussion was on the definition of what it means to “accept the yoke of the commandments,” as cited in the Talmud; some Orthodox rabbis insist on a convert’s commitment to keep all of the mitzvot, and the more liberal branches require an assurance to lead an ethical life based on Torah values, but not necessarily each commandment.
Rabbi Levine noted that his Reform movement was responsible for most American conversions, and he offered an impassioned explanation of why basing a child’s Jewishness on patrilineal descent, the Reform standard, is consistent with Jewish history. He said that if Rabbi Herring’s standards were required, “we would be a vestigial people,” adding that when “you tell the vast majority [of potential converts] ‘you’re not up to our standards,’ the next generation won’t give a damn.”

This is an example of how Reforms twist time-honoured Torah principles beyond recognition and then insist: see? see? We're the ones who are really traditional by doing this! What Rav Herring (I think the RCA needs a leader named after a more aggressive fish) does not understand is how Reform defines Torah and mitzvos. Bluntly speaking, it means "Anything I do that I think makes me a good person is a mitzvah. Anything I learn which I think has religious meaning is Torah."
Rabbi Hauptman posed the notion of all girls going to the mikveh before bat mitzvah and all couples doing the same before marriage so as to level the standards of Jewish practice in a non-judgmental way.
Perhaps Ms. Hauptman should encourage her girls to not engage in pre-marital sex before sending them to a pre-bat mitzvah mikveh dip? Perhaps she could convince the 95% of her adherents who don't keep kosher to try avoiding the bacon dip at their next company lunch? Perhaps she could speak to those in her religion who drive on Shabbos and think they're doing a mitzvah and disabuse them of this notion?
In the end, the non-religious movements are hypocrites. On one hand they scream of Jewish unity. On the other hand, they create thousands of definitions of what kashrus, Shabbos and other Jewish insitutions mean. They are, in fact, the source of the disunity. If a Jew wishes to abandon Torah and mitzvos, he has that option. But to abandon them but continue to insist he's a good practising Jew? Sorry, that's just dishonest.


David said...

"If a Jew wishes to abandon Torah and mitzvos, he has that option. But to abandon them but continue to insist he's a good practising Jew?"

Ah, but he's still a Jew, right? The problem here is that the chareidim are claiming that they can retroactively nullify facially valid conversions based on what a person does or doesn't do long after having converted, which is bizarre, and renders every conversion voidable at the discretion of the chareidim (to say nothing of the Jewish status of children born and raised Orthodox whose mothers may or may not have slipped up at some point).

As to your uncharitable statements regarding what you're pleased to call the "non-religious" movements, there is, plain and simple, a difference of opinion between Jews. Your group, comprising 10% of the Jewish people, recognizes nobody but itself as authentic or valid, and will not discuss the point. The other 90% of the Jewish people are more flexible and inclusive, but you spurn them, dictate terms to them and then, when they insist on not being part of your group, you condemn them for hypocrisy when they speak of Jewish unity. Sorry, but "my way or the highway" is not a saleable version of "unity," Jewish or otherwise.

Garnel Ironheart said...

With regards to converts, it's a very murky situation as to what happens when someone who has gone through the process to gain Jewish citizenship suddenly adopts a lifestyle that violates the laws of that citizenship.
In this regard, Jewish citizenship is no different than any other. A born American can do whatever he wants short of high treason without having to fear that his status will be revoked. However, this isn't the case for an immigrant who can be have his citizenship removed for certain reasons.
The question is: who applies the halacha? How monolithic would that application be?
As for the othe 90% of the Jewish people, it comes down to simple defintions held by the Orthodox: fealty to the Torah, both written and oral, and acceptance of the revelation at Sinai.
One can be flexible and inclusive but there are limits to such parameters. You find tremendous variety in the Orthodox world between different groups. But Reform and Conservative have gone beyond historically accepted limits. It's that simple to us.

SJ said...

rofl Garnel who said that you are really me?

David said...

Your immigrant analogy is flawed-- an immigrant can be denaturalized only in the event that there was fraud in the naturalization itself (i.e., he wilfully concealed a material fact). Subsequent behavior would not do it, nor should it, because it would destroy the integrity of the naturalization process itself. The same applies to the conversion process.

"it comes down to simple defintions held by the Orthodox: fealty to the Torah, both written and oral, and acceptance of the revelation at Sinai."

Yeah, but you know as well as I do that this gets fudged when necessary. Take the whole kollel business-- quite contrary to what's in the Torah, but it suited the self-styled leaders of the Orthodox, so now it's the rule.

"But Reform and Conservative have gone beyond historically accepted limits. It's that simple to us."

Which is why they're not Orthodox. That doesn't make them wrong. You're just saying that because they disagree with some of your fundamental premises, you won't talk to them, accept their conversions, or even give serious consideration to any points they might have to make. They don't say that about you-- indeed, it sounds like they're keen on having the discussion. Which is to say that they're not the ones destroying Jewish unity.

Garnel Ironheartr said...

> in the event that there was fraud in the naturalization itself

Precisely. The halachic argument about retroactive revocation of conversion is based on the convert's insincere desire to accept Torah and mitzvos. If it is determined that he converted without an intention to keep a shomer mitzvos lifestyle, that's considered fraudulent.

> Take the whole kollel business

No thanks. You can have it.
Seriously though, your point is a good one but it comes down to this: people abusing the system doesn't mean the system is bad, rather the people are. My loyalty is to the system, not those people.

> because they disagree with some of your fundamental premises,

No, it's beyond that. For me, those fundamental premises define what Judaism is. If the Reformers want to come up and say that they're invented a new religion and they're going to stick the word "Judaism" onto it, well it's a free country but I have a right to believe that it isn't the genuine article.

Manya Shochet said...

"The halachic argument about retroactive revocation of conversion is based on the convert's insincere desire to accept Torah and mitzvos."

Well and good, Garnel. However, individuals fall short, fall under bad influences, fail at their commitments (Look at the divorce rate.).

This concept of the eternally reversible conversion is disastrous for Jewish unity, especially in Israel, where, like it or not, olim of non-Jewish origins will be settling and will be marrying Jewish Israelis.

Besides, Jewish status is binary--it's either valid or it's not, there's no in-between. To argue otherwise is in direct violation of Jewish tradition and definitely violates the Torah prohibition of "inui ha-ger".

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi Manya and welcome.

One problem with the current conversion crisis is that it attempts to replace what should be a personal role between the rav and the convert with a general set of rules that are applicable to all regardless of circumstances. This has the unfortunate effect of creating black and white situations where reality is clearly gray.

Consider the following situations:
1) Non-Jewish girl meets Jewish guy. Decides to convert to make his parents happy but never cared about religion before and doesn't plan to start now. Goes to Orthodox rabbi to minimize the chance that there will be trouble for their potential children. Takes the course, passes the exam, and once the chupah's over goes to McDonald's to celebrate. For her it's all been a formality.
Easy, right?
2) Same guy, same girl but somewhere along the process he does get interested in what he's learning and it connects to her. She converts with every intention to live a halachic lifestyle and once he's done, he does, shtreiml and everything.
Also easy.
3) Now, same guy, same girl, same sense of connection as the second scenario. Things go well for the 1st ten years but then the euphoria wears off. Maybe she's spent too much time in the blogsphere. Maybe she's clued in that while Judaism is a beautiful thing, Jews unfortunately often aren't. So she starts to backslide. But now there's kids and their status to worry about. But when she converted she was sincere. When she had the kids she was sincere. Her issues are only starting now.
What's the answer there?

I don't know, but I do know there's no quick and easy one like "Well the minute she takes off her tichel she's out". Unfortunately that's the easy answer too many people would like to slap on the situation.

Manya Shochet said...

" But when she converted she was sincere. When she had the kids she was sincere. Her issues are only starting now.
What's the answer there?"

Here, the answer is easy--Kosher conversion, kabbalat ol ha'mitzvot, and even a period of follow-through. As the mikvah ladies say, "Kasher, kasher, kasher". Sociologically, educationally, you may have a problem, but halachically it's clear that she's Jewish and so are the kids. Is that a desirable situation? Not so much. Would it be convenient for the woman to be able to annul the whole thing? Would it be convenient for the responsible rabbis? Absolutely. But since when is halacha or Judaism based on convenience? The answer is, she takes responsibility for her actions. A valid conversion is not, as we say in Israel, like a Catholic wedding.

In Israel. situation #3 is less of a problem. Jewish surrounding, easy option of Jewish education, jewish calendar, Jewish army (scoff if you will, but try going AWOL from the IDF--not as easy as going AWOL from the American Jewish community). The kids, who will consider themseves Jewish, and definitely Israeli, can intermarry here with no problem, as indeed they probably will. Obstructing this process actually becomes the problem, turns halachic Jews (the kids) into theoretically potential non-Jews, creates hatred of religious Judaism, brings an opening for non-halachic institutional change.

In case #1, the risk of violating the d'oriata prohibition of innui ha-ger is less likely, because nobodytook things seriously lehatchila. But once you start playing reversibility games, once you start potchkeying with the bare bones of the halachic framework, the FIRST ONES you are going to hurt are the sincere converts. That is assur.

Manya Shochet said...

Excuse me, that should read, "A valid conversion IS, as we say in Israel, like a Catholic wedding."

Almost everything else these days is reversible and temporary these days. Even Catholic marriages.

Could Avraham Avinu have gotten out of the covenant if, say, he'd spent too much time in the blogosphere?

David said...

"The halachic argument about retroactive revocation of conversion is based on the convert's insincere desire to accept Torah and mitzvos."

Not very persuasive. The fact that one changes one's mind a few years down the road proves nothing about one's sincerity at the time of conversion. Do you still hold every view you've every seriously held in your life? Does that mean that the view you once held was insincere? I should think not!

> Take the whole kollel business

"people abusing the system doesn't mean the system is bad, rather the people are. My loyalty is to the system, not those people."

Cute, but how does one evaluate the merits of a system, except in practice at the hands of people?

"For me, those fundamental premises define what Judaism is. If the Reformers want to come up and say that they're invented a new religion and they're going to stick the word "Judaism" onto it, well it's a free country but I have a right to believe that it isn't the genuine article."

I'm not saying you need to agree with them, any more than I'd tell them they have to agree with you. I'm just saying that it's a bit much to insist that they have no validity, no standing, that none of their arguments can be seriously considered, and that they (rather than you) are the ones who are damaging Jewish unity.

You're the one throwing them out. I'm not saying Jewish unity is the be-all and end-all, or even that it shouldn't take a back seat to other considerations. I'm just saying that it's hypocritical to reject someone and then claim that the disunity is his fault because he doesn't agree with you.

Shalmo said...

The irony here is that Orthodox Judaism has a very high attrition rate, as the Table 4 from the 2000-2001 NJPS American Jewish Religious Denominations Report shows:

Of all children raised Orthodox, only 42% have remained Orthodox as adults. 29% become Conservative adults, 17% become Reform adults, and 12% become "Just Jewish". In contrast, 56% of children raised Conservative become Conservative adults, and 78% of children raised Reform become Reform adults. Thus, Reform Judaism is more successful than Conservative Judaism in keeping children within the denomination, and Conservative Judaism is more successful at this than Orthodoxy.

Of the children who switch denominations when they become an adult, most become more liberal. Only 2% or 3% of non-Orthodox children become Orthodox as adults, while 17% of Orthodox children and 28% of Conservative children become Reform adults.

This is not new information. A similar table (Table 24) appeared in the 1990 NJPS. The authors note,

"Table 24 shows that nearly 90 percent of those now Orthodox were raised as such, thus indicating any movement toward Orthodoxy is relatively small. In contrast to the Orthodox, the Conservative and Reform drew heavily from one or both of the major denominations; one-third of the Conservatives were raised as Orthodox and one-quarter of the Reform as Conseratives with an additional 12 percent having been raised Orthodox."

Thus, the basic demographic facts are clear. Orthodox Jews have a lower intermarriage rate and a higher birthrate than more liberal or moderate Jews, but a much higher denominational-switching rate. Of all Jewish adults who were raised Orthodox, fewer than half are now Orthodox. No other Jewish denomination has such a high switching rate.

taken from:

All in all, this 10% of Jewry isn't likely to increase from being just 10%, since Orthodox apostates provide more than enough for the other denominations to fill up what they loose. Yet strange that they should have so much power over how other Jews define themselves. "Tyranny of the minority" eh!

And what about more the real, biblical Jews like the Karaites and Sadduccess. I'm assuming you demand they accept your so-called oral Torah (with all the Zorastrian ideas that comes with it) in order to be counted as legitimate Jewry as well.

Garnel Ironheart said...

There's no chidush in announcing that Orthodoxy has a high attrition rate. After all, how do you think Reform and Conservatism keep their pews stocked? Not with their own, not with an 85% intermarriage rate. Heck, with patrilineal descent and drive-thru conversions, what percentage of Reformers are even Jewish by the most minimal standards anymore?

As for Karaites and Sadducees, the latter haven't existed for 2000 years or so and the former have managed to avoid evolving into a real religion instead of a faded copy of ours. I don't demand anything of them. They're not Jews.

Finally, with the attrition rate, hey that's actually a good thing. Anything challenging in life has an attrition rate. Only 1 in 10 applicants get accepted to medical school, how many guys can't make it in the marines, etc.

Manya Shochet said...

Notice, however, that neither the Reform-Conservative apologists nor you either, Garnel, express any sensitivity for the plight of the sincere convert. The ger merely becomes an obstacle in the path of your ideologies, either to maintain a water-tight system of controlling his halachic compliance level (in perpetuity), or to boost the legitimacy of the non-halachic movements.

This may be why the Torah enjoins us so many times to love the ger and not to cause him suffering--because we tend to do such a piss-poor job of it.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Manya, there are a few meforshim who note your point exactly - certain commandments get repeated over and over again because they're so easy to transgress so they bear repeated warnings. This is certainly one of them.

In my defence, I noted in my three cases that the third one was difficult, that it requires a personal relationship with a Rav and there are no easy answers. i would certainly agree that the convert requires great sensitivity but ultimately the answer according to halacha might still be "Sorry but you're not in". Sensitivity doesn't mean always giving the person the answer they want, after all.

Manya Shochet said...

I refer you to the YU Torah site, where Rav Rakeffet has about 2 years worth of shiurim on the geirut issue, going into historical background and examining she'elot u-tshuvot in depth.

By sensitivity, I don't mean giving people the answer they want, but taking care not to treat them like a political football, which is what happens.

Conversion has been dealt with as a political football for years here in Israel, with the aspect of a personal relationship with a rav pushed to the side. Gerim and potential gerim, having no protekzia in a land where protekzia is all-important, could be used to hock for anyone's political agenda, especially since they were so few.

The irony is, after years of this, we were gradually confronted with a mass of non-Jews who had immigrated legally and who were here to stay. Worse, they come from a culture that is hostile to religion. We have reaped what we've sown, and there has to be improvement of the bureaucratic aspects of the system. The personal connection part is the responsibility of all of us. Mentoring is critical--the social networks into which these people fall in great part determines what happens to them. There was a big ad campaign in the religious newspapers encouraging people to invite converts or prospective converts to their seder. Likewise, the army conversion courses make more sense on second look. The Russians are culturally accustomed to regard military service as obligatory; making a commitment to becoming a Jew, towards fully assimilating into your nation, fits in well with a serious, demanding framework like the IDF. Better the issue be considered while they are making basic lifetime decisions than later, when they're already getting married.

Mike S said...

There are further problems. If batei dinim go around retroactively unconverting gerim whose conversion is k'dat u'kdin, whether because they subsequently lapsed in practices they sincerely intended to keep when they converted, or because were not Chareidi and (heaven forfend) believe the universe is more than 6000 years old or wear denim skirts or something of that order (I have heard both) it creates numerous problems: it is a serious issur of innui ha-ger, it prevents lapsed gerim from doing tshuvah, if we allow women to marry without a get because of spurious post facto complaints against her or her husband's conversion children of the second marriage are mamzeirim, and we send sincere would be converts to the heterodox movements when they can't find an Orthodox bet din in the US who will even speak to them.

It is fine to say it is easier to be strict without thinking, but since when is a bet din allowed to falsify the Torah rather than think? In fact,m this is a chuumrah which as often as not leads to serious aveiros.