Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rabbi Rosen of Tzomet on the Conversion Controversy

Rabbi Rosen of Tzomet on the Conversion Controversy

Point Of View

Let me declare right at the beginning: In the dispute about alternate routes for conversion that has been taking place latelyI see myself as being on the lenient side of the scale – as one who pleasantly accepts all those who want to convert to Judaism. I also support the concept of converting children even if their mothers do not convert, basing my opinion on lenient halachic rulings, as will be explained below. With this as a background, I want to review the facts and analyze them as well as I can. I feel that I am qualified to do so, since I established the Conversion Authority twenty years ago (in 1995) and managed it for four years. Since then I have been a member of conversion courts, and I consider myself a lobbyist and one who has been "dedicated" to this subject for the last eleven years. From the time that I reached the formal age of retirement, I have been active in a private conversion court in Gush Etzion.
(1) This dispute is not between "Chareidi" and "National-Religious" elements, and it is not between the Chief Rabbinate which is becoming ever more stringent and religious Zionists. Rather, it is a dispute within the national religious community – between a relatively liberal faction ("Modern Orthodox") and the more conservative wing. The arguments between these factions exist with respect to other issues too, such as feminism, culture, and more. I note that as far as I can tell the "Modern Orthodox" are a minority among the national-religious Torah community. (However, I do not have any way to characterize these two factions, and it goes without saying that I do not have any actual numbers to back up this feeling.)
(2) The Chief Rabbinate itself is not directly involved in this issue. It is fashionable to attack the Rabbinate and claim that it is becoming more and more Chareidi, but this entire issue is the personal responsibility of the President of the Beit Din, who by definition is the head of the community and who is responsible for conversion, without any direct link to the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. Today the one who holds this position of responsibility is Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, and he is no more Chareidi than others who preceded him, such as Rabbis Amar, Yisrael Meir Lau, and Bakshi-Doron, and the late Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Ovadia Yosef. And if Rabbi Stav had been elected as the current Chief Rabbi, he would have no say in this matter but only whoever would have been elected Sephardi Chief Rabbi (who is automatically appointed Chief Judge of the Beit Din).
(3) Here is food for thought for anybody who is aware of the halachic approach of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook: Would he also have been attacked by the liberal-religious wing as being "Charidi?" We can assume that the answer is yes! And what if Rabbi Soloveitchik had been appointed head of the Batei Din, would he have been condemned as "Chareidi," because of his attitude towards conversion, as is clear in his treatise, "This is Sinai"?
(4) The following is the "gallery" of judges sitting in conversion courts who wear knitted kippot with pride, and who are now accused of "becoming more Chareidi." (The list is in alphabetical order, and I apologize if I have left anybody out.) Here is my list: Rabbi Eliezer Altshuler, the rabbi of Sussia; Rabbi David Assulin, the rabbi of Kibbutz Saad; Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, head of the Torah V'Aretz Institute; Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, head of the "Amiel" Project in Efrat (connected to Or Torah); Rabbi David Bass, Neve Michael; Rabbi Benayahu Brenner, head of the religious-Zionist center in Tzefat; Rabbi Nissim Cohen, head of the Kollel in Pesagot; Rabbi Shlomo Krispin, from the Garin Torani in Pardes Chana; Rabbi Yitzchak Elkayam, rabbi of Chatzor and on the staff of the Hesder Yeshiva in Kiryat Shemona; Rabbi Moshe Erenreich, head of the "Eretz Chemda" Kollel (founded by Rabbi Yisraeli); Rabbi Tzvi Lifshitz, a graduate of Merkaz Harav and the head of a religious-Zionist Kollel; Rabbi Yeshayahu Meitlis, the rabbi of Nahariya; Rabbi Shlomo Shushan, head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Beit She'an; Rabbi Tzvi Tzorfati, from Rechovot; Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, past Chief Chaplain of the IDF; Rabbi Yaacov Varhaftig, rabbi of a religious-Zionist community in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Mordechai Zamir, the rabbi of Sedei Yaacov.
To this list add five more "knitted kippot" who have reached retirement age (Rabbi Yosef Avior from Merkaz Shapiro; Rabbi Chaim Drukman, Rabbi Tzefania Drory; Rabbi Gideon Perl from Alon Shevut; and me). And there are several more with "black kippot" who have made their way into this illustrious group of "knitted kippot." This is the "Chareidi" mix which is being used as a punching bag by the very outspoken "Modern Orthodox" group.
(5) With respect to the issue of converting children without their mothers, which is being touted as a national project by the respected Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitz: The heart of the matter is a halachic question about whether a minor who is converted "by order of a Beit Din" but may well not live a religious life has suffered an injustice or has been given a privilege. I will be pleasantly surprised if anybody can give me a definite answer to this question! I sent the Sephardi Chief Rabbi a summary table (which can be seen on the Hebrew website of Zomet) of existing responsa on this question. Here are the results: The stringent ones who refuse to accept such conversion are Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, Zeicher Yitzchak, Chavatzelet Hasharon, Seridei Esh, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli. Those who are lenient (at least after the fact) are: Beit Yitzchak, Mateh Levi, Achiezer, Igrot Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein), Rabbi Shai Elyashiv, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As noted above, Rabbi Rabinowitz and others like him (including me) are willing to enter this narrow opening in spite of the existing dispute. But does this mean that anybody who disagrees is worthy of being condemned?
(6) In the end, the truth is that there is no movement among the "Russian Olim" (newcomers) who are clamoring and crying out, "Convert us!" I send my best wishes to anybody who is convinced that these people will flow to alternative conversions because of their great love for "Modern Orthodoxy" in spite of the opposition of many rabbis who are part of the greater consensus. What is my conclusion about all of this? The only real solution is to work towards a method of converting children under the leadership of the Chief Rabbinate, and to convince the children to join. This is something that can be made to work!


  1. the real answer (at least when it comes to the issue of Russian immigrants) is removing the so-called "Jewishness" from the State - if Jews and non-Jews were treated the same, 99% of the issues in Eretz HaKodesh would no longer be a problem

  2. See also

    PART 1:

    Every Complex Problem has a Simple-and Wrong-Solution

    By Rochel Sylvetsky
    8/11/2015, 2:08 PM

    Rochel Sylvetsky is op-ed and Judaism editor of Arutz Sheva English. She...

    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong - H.L. Mencken.

    I listened unbelievingly to the news reports of the conversion of minors by the independent rabbinic court established by Rabbi David Stav, candidate in the previous elections for the Chief Rabbinate who has many accomplishments to his credit that make Judaism user-friendly to the general population. This initiative, however, in my humble opinion, is not going to be one of them.

  3. PART 2:

    I could write about how sad it is to create independent conversion courts, as though we are still in the Diaspora instead of in a Jewish state where national halakhic issues can be decided by a Chief Rabbinate after thousands of years, but that is not my point. I could also write about how these conversions will in all probability not be recognized by anyone else (the comparisons to Rabbi Chaim Druckman's courts is unfounded, as the criticism they faced was from extremely stringent hareidim).

    Far be it from me to argue halakhic issues on any level, certainly not those that influence the future of Israel and the Jewish people - that is the province of renowned Torah Sages in the rabbinic hierarchy. But as a former head of a youth village with a conversion institute that functioned under the aegis of the Religious Kibbutzim and the Chief Rabbinate, I can at least speak from experience.

    The children who came before the private court yesterday are in the religious school system, so the problem of their being non-Jewish is acute. However, their mothers do not want to convert, according to the reports. That is an even more acute problem. This situation has been discussed in depth by the Chief Rabbinate, which said explicitly that the simple solution is wrong.

    Converting the candidates while they are youngsters without their mother converting was rejected by the Rabbinate. To me, the very idea is mind-boggling.

    Think about it. What are we doing to them?

  4. PART 3:

    Imagine this scenario: One of these converted children, who is enrolled in a religious school, invites a religious classmate friend for lunch, an invitation which is accepted since now he is Jewish. His mother, a non-Jew, is in charge of the kitchen. Who does the shopping? Who is careful about meat and milk, supposing that she has purchased another two sets of dishes for this child?

    Halakhically, he, a Jew, is supposed to turn on the stove or oven to allow them to eat food being prepared by a non-Jew, as is the case in many restaurants and hotels, but he has been in school all day and is really hungry. Mom loves him and has begun cooking earlier so the food is ready when he arrives. Is the meal he serves his friend kosher? Do the friend's parents grasp the situation?

  5. PART 4:

    And when he is alone at home, how strong does this youngster have to be to keep kosher? How long is this "light the stove" routine expected to last?

    What if the family enjoys chicken Kiev made with butter, like my Russian neighbors in the absorption center did, and which was their right as non-Jews? On which dishes will they eat? What does he eat for supper, falafel?

    What about the family outing in their new car on Shabbat? When not yet converted, he could go along. Now, are they going to stop their Saturday trips, is he going to stay home alone or is he going to live a lie? If he is in a religious school, his friends do not ride on Shabbat. But how long will this child stand up to temptation, even if his observant schoolmates sometimes invite him to shul and lunch?

    Or do we secretly expect him not to keep kosher and not to observe Shabbat, even though we have announced – that is, I heard Rabbi Stav proclaim in Hebrew – that there is no conversion without the acceptance of mitzvot.

    Maybe these youngsters are being converted because of a deep theological connection to the Jewish faith even if their mitzvah observance is fraught with difficulty. Elementary school kids?

    What happens on Yom Kippur? I remember an 18 year old converted student coming to us for Tisha B"Av because her family ate and she couldn't take it. I remember a sixteen year old whose grandmother cooked on Shabbat and who asked me for a Shabbat hotplate. Both of them had just converted and were old enough to live with the commitments they had made and manage their own food. They had a chance of succeeding, at least. Everyone else who converted lived in the youth village and was surrounded by an observant environment 24/7, so that sometimes, rarely, junior high school students who were very sincere, were able to convert. Usually, we waited till they were older, in the upper grades, before conversion.

    Why not wait until high school and offer Judaism as a course, as preparation for conversion as a teenager?

    This is a terrible problem brought upon Israel by previous governments whose Immigration and Absorption Ministers wanted to dilute the strength of religious Israelis and allowed 300,000 halakhically non-Jewish people to enter the only Jewish state there is. Yvet Liberman's party, aimed at these Russian voters, was the answer to the left's prayers – he wanted civil marriage, instant conversion, exactly what the left wanted for Israel.

    The whole situation is unrealistic. The low rate of conversion is mostly due to a justified lack of interest. No one can expect 300,000 people to want to become Jews. What for? Why should they limit their menus and vacation pursuits? In Israel, they have equal rights, as they should, it doesn't say religion on one's identity card, and most of their neighbors are not religious. So the complaints about the Chief Rabbinate's courts are highly exaggerated. I worked with them and recall only one student who was rejected (after she surprised us all and mentioned that she is awaiting the Second Coming…).

    Yes, their Hebrew speaking sabra children are the big problem, but they are also just children. The wrong solution is worse than no solution.

    What does being Jewish mean? After this conversion of children, so reminiscent of the Hanaton children, I just don't know.