It's not about numbers
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 1, 2006
A few years ago, a television producer asked me to help locate interesting geirim (converts to Judaism) for a documentary he was preparing for Israel TV. In the course of the project, I met some extraordinary Jews, including a Harvard-trained math professor, descended from old Pilgrim stock, and a former Protestant minister, whose interest in Judaism was first piqued, while he was a graduate student in Germany, by ceremonies commemorating Kristallnacht.
As the documentary neared completion, we learned that it was scheduled to be shown on Shavuot, not in the days preceding the holiday, as we had been led to believe. None of the subjects whom I had convinced to participate were willing to be part of a TV program broadcast onYom Tov. Doing so, they felt, would betray the life of mitzvah observance to which they had committed themselves.
Of such geirim the Midrash states: "A ger is more beloved [before G-d] than the multitudes who stood at the foot of Sinai. Why? Because the latter would never have taken upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven were it not for the thunder, the flames, the lightening, and the sound of the trumpets that they witnessed. . . . Whereas the former came forward without witnessing any of these wonders…"
According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah descends from two righteous converts: Ruth, the Moabite and Naama, the Ammonite. (Ruth serves as the model of all future converts; we read her story in Megillat Ruth on Shavuot morning.) Rabbi Akiva, the greatest teacher of the Oral Law, was the offspring of converts. And Onkelos, whose Aramaic translation is printed in every Pentateuch, defied his uncle, the Roman emperor, to convert.
The Jews of Vilna used to sing every Shavuot the same melody and words – "But we are your Nation, the children of Your covenant" – that Count Potocki (Avraham ben Avraham), a young Polish noble and seminarian, burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for converting to Judaism, sang on the way to his martyrdom.
Such geirim add immeasurably to the Jewish people by providing what is most lacking today – examples of the burning power of a life of Torah and mitzvah observance. Their contribution is qualitative, not quantitative.
But converts will never be an answer to the hemorrhaging of the Jewish people. The Talmud describes a ger "as if newborn." To view oneself in that fashion – i.e., as having severed all connections to one’s past, including one’s biological parents and siblings -- is a miracle. And miracles by their very nature can never be mass produced.
Jewish ignorance and apathy should be our concern, not numbers. Long ago the Torah informed us, "Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did G-d desire and choose you, for you are the smallest in number of all the nations" (Deuteronomy 7:7).
NEVERTHELESS, MOST OF THE JEWISH WORLD treats numbers as the primary desideratum of conversion. An editorial last week in these pages ("Stop Obstructing Conversion") lambasted the Chief Rabbinate for not recognizing every conversion performed in America by a rabbi with Orthodox semicha (ordination) or by a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
The editorialist did not even bother to ask why the Chief Rabbinate no longer recognizes certificates of conversion bearing the rubber stamp of a certain rabbi bearing a long white beard. It was enough for him to know that "the Jews are a small and shrinking people," and that the Chief Rabbinate’s scrutiny of conversions performed in America will result in fewer converts. Case closed. Never mind that the rabbi in question has, in the past, affixed his seal to conversions where there was no commitment to mitzvah observance, in contravention of the RCA's own guidelines.
In no area, are rabbis subject to more pressure than over conversions. Let us say, that you are an American Modern Orthodox rabbi, and the son or daughter of one of your most prominent congregants has decided to marry a non-Jew. The congregant wants the prospective spouse converted no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. Your job is on the line.
The only protection for a rabbi in such is situation is a blanket rule that he does not have anything to do with conversions, and refers all conversion cases to a regional beit din specializing in conversion. Seventeen years ago, the RCA announced that it was creating such regional batei din. Yet the situation remains almost unchanged today. The major impetus towards the creation of regional batei dinim has come instead from the Eternal Jewish Family Program, under the rabbinical guidance of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, which originally began as an initiative to create standards of conversion for already intermarried couples.
The RCA has a strict rule against members issuing their own private kashrut supervision, but none against performing conversions. Some members perform hundreds of conversions a year, which itself raises suspicions. Yet the RCA has never reprimanded a member for running conversion mills or publicized that they do not recognize the conversions of such members, as the Conference of European Rabbis did recently with respect to the conversions of one of its members in Eastern Europe.
True, many conversions in Israel under Orthodox auspices are also halachically questionable. The recent case where the rabbi in charge of the conversion authority in the Prime Minister’s office signed that he had witnessed a conversion in Warsaw, even though he was in Israel on that date, is but the tip of the iceberg.
Here the pressure comes not from individual congregants but from the state, which has decided that it is past nisht (unacceptable) to have brought hundreds of thousands of non-Jews under the Law of Return, and now seeks the magic fairy dust to turn them into Jews. But the Chief Rabbinate’s failures in Israel do not justify its turning a blind eye to those in America.
It is also true, that even would-be converts fully committed to accepting the yoke of mitzvot may find themselves caught in the jaws of an inefficient and sometimes cruel bureaucracy in the Chief Rabbinate. But curing that problem has nothing to do with lowering standards for conversion. The Vaad Olami L’Inyanei Giyur, founded by Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, the late Chief Rabbi of Antwerp, has recently intervened in the Chief Rabbinate to expedite the handling of several such cases. Yet the same organization has spearheaded the international campaign for the recognition of a single-standard of conversion and for the creation of regional batei dinim specializing in conversion issues.
We must welcome every truly committed convert with open arms – not because they add to our numbers, but because they add to our quality. Only that quality can ever lead to resurgent numbers.
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