Two weeks ago, the highly respected Wall Street Journal Online
published an op-ed piece
by one Evan Goldstein arguing that Israeli rabbis are unduly restricting conversion of Russian immigrants by holding "potential converts to a higher standard than is required by Jewish law." (Goldstein quotes Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, head of the Joint Conversion Institute for this dubious proposition.)
A week earlier, a Jerusalem Post editorial
slammed the same rabbis for having shamefully shirked their responsibility by failing to convert far larger numbers of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU. Again, the batein din
of the Conversion Authority were accused of imposing demands on converts far in excess of those required by halacha.
Our Sages told us that chutzpah
would flourish prior to Mashiach (Sotah
49b), and these charges are a good example. Those who have never opened a Gemara do not hesitate to instruct the greatest Torah scholars how to read Rambam.
Both editorials were triggered by Ish-Shalom’s announcement
that the Joint Conversion Institute he heads is severing ties with the batei din
of the Conversion Authority because the latter are too strict.
Mr. Ish-Shalom and those who have taken up his cause make one fundamental mistake: In their view, conversion is nothing more than a religious ritual, requiring immersion in a mikvah, bris for men, and the recitation of a verbal formula expressing commitment to Torah. As long as someone wants to be Jewish, and is willing to undergo the requisite rituals, a beis din
should convert him, with no more questions asked, in their opinion.
involves much more than a formal recitation. It requires a sincere commitment to take on the yoke of Torah. Rambam describes the process as the individual parallel to bnei Yisrael
’s acceptance of Torah at Sinai (Hilchos Issurei Biah
13:1-4). As described by the Rambam, "When a gentile wishes to enter the covenant, and dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence, and accept upon himself the yoke of the Torah, then he requires circumcision and immersion. . . . " Sincere acceptance of the mitzvos is the necessary pre-condition for the formal procedures that follow.
The establishment of the government-funded Joint Conversion Institute reflects the misconception of conversion as a purely formulaic ritual. In order to win acquiescence from the Reform and Conservative movements, the Neeman Commission recommended a system where potential converts would be instructed by lecturers from the three major "streams," with the formal geirus
under the supervision of an Orthodox beis din
The Neeman Commission recommendations make sense only if it was assumed in advance that the batei din
would content themselves with a formulaic verbal recitation. On the other hand, if geirus
requires a sincere acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos the structure of the Joint Conversion Institute is nonsensical. How could lecturers who themselves do not view mitzvos as binding Divine commandments be expected to inspire would-be converts with a commitment they do not share?
Ish-Shalom and the editorialists who cite his interpretations of halacha as authoritative have repeatedly made clear that they do not view geirus
as requiring a sincere acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos. Thus Ish-Shalom cites a survey in which 70% of the non-Jewish immigrants interviewed attribute their reluctance to convert to the fact that they view the Conversion Authority as seeking to make them religious and not just Jewish. Based on this finding, he concludes that if the rabbis would not insist on their becoming religious many more immigrants would convert.
That is no doubt true. But, unfortunately for Ish-Shalom, "to enter the covenant, and dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence, and accept the yoke of the Torah" is a religious commitment.
In his WSJO piece, Goldstein repeats a familiar question: "Why should the Russian immigrants have to keep kosher and observe the holidays in order to get the full rights of Israeli citizenship when their nonimmigrant friends do not?" Implicit in that question is the assumption that conversion should entail no greater commitment to mitzvah observance than that of most Israelis, thereby conflating Israeli citizenship with being Jewish.
That same question was once posed to Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky by an English judge. Dayan Abramsky replied by asking the judge whether among the citizens of Great Britain there could be found many criminals. The judge nodded affirmatively. Next Dayan Abramsky inquired whether someone who listed his source of livelihood as some form of criminal activity would likely be granted English citizenship. The judge scoffed at such a notion. But he grasped Dayan Abramsky’s point: the standards for entry into citizenship are not determined by the lowest common denominator among the population.
Unfortunately, not every Jew today accepts the mitzvos as binding upon him. But we can be sure that he or she is descended from a long-line of ancestors, in most cases going back to Sinai, who fully accepted the yoke of mitzvos. By virtue of acceptance of their ancestors do they enjoy their "citizenship" in the Jewish people today.
Once upon a time, perhaps it could be assumed that anyone who sought to join the Jewish people – a persecuted people, with few civil rights – intended to live a life of mitzvah observance. In earlier times, joining the Jewish people meant joining oneself to a community that was overwhelmingly mitzvah observant. Jews in Israel today, however, are neither downtrodden nor, by and large, observant. Under those conditions, there can no assumption that the would-be convert intends to keep mitzvos. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, warned that greater scrutiny of would-be converts is needed in contemporary circumstances for precisely that reason.
Dayanim are not required to be hopelessly naïve about the sincerity of professions made to beis din
. That is why the gedolei haposkim
today have directed batei din
not to perform geirus
when the candidate is living on a completely non-religious kibbutz or with a "spouse" who is non-observant.
Not that the batei din of the conversion of the conversion authority or those set up to deal with soldiers have been so skeptical of professions of sincerity of would-be converts. The posek hador
, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has said that the conversions of these batei din cannot be relied upon. Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein of the Vaad Olami L'inyanei Giyur
estimates, based on documents, that over 90% of the converts under the auspices of these batei din are not observing even basic mitzvos in such close proximity to their "conversions" that it can be assumed there was no proper kabbolas mitzvos
Goldstein admits, "Most Russian [immigrants] were raised in the spiritually desolate environs of the Soviet Union, and since arriving in Israel have naturally adopted the secular lifestyle favored by a majority of their countrymen. They speak Hebrew and serve in the army, but the prospect of embracing strict Orthodoxy as a precondition to conversion . . . is a hard sell."
About that he is certainly right. But he is wrong to think that it is an argument for lowering the standards for conversion. All he has succeeded in demonstrating is why it was ridiculous to expect rabbis committed to halacha to find some sort of magic fairy-dust to sprinkle on close to half a million non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU, and how unjustified are all the slurs against them for failing to do so.