The reading of Megillas Rus always seems to provoke a spate of articles on geirim in the Jewish press. That would be fine if the profiles were confined to stories of those rare individuals throughout history who have miraculously found the strength to emancipate themselves from their past traditions, tear themselves from their origins, disown parents and siblings, and regard all former relatives as complete strangers.
The above description of the ger as a newborn baby derives from an article penned on the subject by Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, zt"l, seventy years ago entitled "Two Types of Converts." Rabbi Abramsky went on to describe the great merit of such a ger. Yalkut Shimoni describes Hashem Himself saying of him, "I regard him as one of Israel, nay, even more, I regard him as a Levite." Why? Because unlike the Jews who only accepted Torah at Sinai, after experiencing all the miracles of Mitzrayim, eating Manna from Heaven, and being surrounded by Clouds of Glory, the ger came forward of his own accord to accept Torah.
Yet, warned Rabbi Abramsky, the great merit of a sincere ger and the love that we must show him or her must not be employed as an argument for relaxing "those laws which surround and protect us like a fence of steel against accepting counterfeit converts." Unfortunately, the illogical jump from the fact that geirim have greatly added to the quality of the Jewish people, from the time of Rus, the Moabite and Na’ama the Ammonite, to the conclusion that we should maximize the number of converts is one frequently made. Such reasoning is on ample display in a series of recent articles on the conversion policies of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
IN EARLY MAY, the Jewish Week broke the "scandal" that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate no longer automatically accepts conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the United States; indeed the list of rabbis whose conversions are automatically recognized numbers no more than fifty.
The article also revealed that the Chief Rabbinate will no longer accept the stamp of approval of a conversion of Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) Beit Din of America, unless he personally performed the geirus. Various parties are quoted in the article to the effect that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate seeks to "marginalize the American Modern Orthodox rabbinate."
As for why the Chief Rabbinate had decided to tighten its scrutiny of conversions performed abroad, the Jewish Week offered a number of juicy theories. One of the theories advanced was that the Chief Rabbinate is retaliating against the RCA for ignoring an order of the Chief Rabbinate (which is acknowledged as the ultimate halachic authority of the RCA) that it not expel a particular member without first convening a proper beis din to hear all concerned parties.
Picking up on the Jewish Week article, the Jerusalem Post charged the Chief Rabbinate with "hamhandedly trying to pretend that it can set standards for the Jewish world as a whole, including the Orthodox movement in the Diaspora." Nothing besides "petty politics," opined the paper, could explain the "pathetic" behavior of the Chief Rabbinate. There could be no justification or explanation for the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior – certainly none were considered by the Post.
As far as the Post was concerned, the only relevant factor is that "the Jews are a small and shrinking people" and therefore "our chief religious body should be welcoming Jews by choice, not insulting them and driving them away."
In other words, in evaluating any policy with respect to conversion, the sole desideratum is: The more conversions the better. "The need to protect against insincere impostors seeking to join, assuming [they exist]," opined the Post, "is far outweighed by the need to welcome those who willingly desire to enjoy what Judaism offers their families and the world, and to share in the Jewish fate." From the fact that the Post expressed doubt as to whether there are, in fact, any unworthy candidates for conversion, it is safe to assume that kabolos ol mitzvos is not its guiding standard.
Interestingly, an anonymous blogger came closer to identifying the true source of the Chief Rabbinate’s new policy – even as he bitterly attacked that policy. He attributed the Chief Rabbinate’s new policy to the machinations of a nefarious organization called The Vaad HaRabbonim HaOlami Le’Inyanei Giyur, founded by the late Chief Rabbi of Antwerp, Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, and today under the direction of Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, that has allegedly sunk its tentacles into the Chief Rabbinate. This organization, he claims, seeks to establish a single standard for geirus throughout the world, and has in the past sharply criticized a host of Modern Orthodox luminaries including, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Israeli politician Rabbi Michael Melchior, and even the Chief Rabbinate himself.
What that uniform standard of conversion might be is not stated. In my own conversations with Rabbi Eisenstein, however, he confirmed the accusations against the Vaad, and cheerfully admitted that the organization’s purpose is to ensure that a single standard – kabolos ol mitzvos – is universally recognized as the fundamental requirement for geirus.
Nor did Rabbi Eisenstein deny that the Vaad has criticized all of those mentioned by the anonymous critic, in the past, for deviating from that basic standard for geirus. But, in each case, the criticisms were based on documented files, not on how a particular rabbi would be characterized – modern, Litvishe, Chassidic, etc.
For well over a decade, the Vaad has been highly critical of the conversion practices of those within the Chief Rabbinate who believe that the interests of the State of Israel mandate a "liberal" conversion policy towards non-Jews already living in Israel.
In particular, the Vaad has been critical of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who currently serves as head of the conversion authority in the Prime Minister’s office and whose conversions ultimately require approval by the Chief Rabbinate. Recently, Rabbi Druckman was found to have signed a certificate of conversion affirming that a certain convert had appeared before him and two other witnesses in Warsaw, when, in fact, he was in Israel that day.
The anonymous critic of the Vaad accuses of having declared war on the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate, and of ignoring the distinction, known to rabbis laboring in the trenches, between b’dievad and le’hatchillah in conversions. As an example of what he means by le’hatchillah, he mentions candidates for conversion being able to pass a pin test in Shemiras Shabbat K’Hilchaso. But, of course, the Vaad has never claimed that a complete command of the laws of Shabbos – much less a pin test -- is a prerequisite for geirus, just a sincere commitment to keep those laws.
The anonymous critic does not bother to argue the merits of any of the Vaad’s criticisms of the conversion policies of any particular individual or group. He seems to view the issue as basically a union issue – i..e., should membership in the RCA confer automatic recognition on one’s conversions, without room for further inquiry. Absent that he concludes, "our voices [i.e., those of Modern Orthodox rabbis] will join our Conservative and Reform colleagues as spectators who can make noise but are barred from playing the game." The reference to "Conservative and Reform colleagues," by itself raises grave doubts about how far this particular rabbi’s idea of b’dieved stretches.
THE REAL REASON that the Chief Rabbinate is not willing to give blanket recognition to the conversions of every RCA member is the most straightforward: They have received too many proofs that such blanket recognition is unwarranted. The issue is not one of theoretical halacha; the guidelines of the Gerus Commission of the RCA include kabolos ol mitzvos as a requirement for conversion. Rather it is one of the RCA’s ongoing failure to put order in its house with respect to geirus.
In the area of kashrus, for instance, the RCA does not allow members to issue private hechsherim. But it imposes no such restrictions on their performance of conversions. True, Beit Din of America does not put its imprimatur on every geirus involving an RCA member (as the RCA once did). But the RCA/BDA will never issue a letter explicitly saying that it does not recognize the conversions of a particular member, even if he runs a conversion factory performing hundreds of conversions a year. The Conference of European Rabbis recently issued a letter that it does not recognize a particular member as authorized to perform conversions. The RCA has not done that.
Two weeks ago, I described the pressures that a rabbi in the field may find himself subjected to when an important congregant has an interest in a particular party being converted. (They are similar to the pressures and/or temptations to which he might be subjected in the field of kashrus supervision if every RCA member were allowed to issue his private hechsher.) Only if a congregational rabbi can say that he has a blanket rule against performing conversions, but rather refers them to a beit din kavuah l’inyanei giyur can he protect itself from such pressure.
The RCA knows the problem well. In a letter from Rabbi Max Schreier, then president of the RCA, to Rabbi Nisson Wolpin of the Jewish Observer dated I Adar 11, 5749 (1989), the former represents that the RCA is "in the process of organizing regional Batei Din to conduct gerus in all regions of the Country." It’s more than 17 years later, and that process has gotten virtually nowhere. Meanwhile the Vaad files contain a number of cases of certificates of geirus bearing the stamp of members of the Beit Din of America (though they were not members of the beit din for the actual conversion) where there is overwhelming evidence that there was no kabolos ol mitzvos.
Far from seeking to push away sincere geirim, or to ensure that every ger adopt a chareidi lifestyle, the Vaad has intervened a number of times in recent months to expedite the processing of certificates through the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate. And the Vaad has been an active participant the Eternal Jewish Family project, which assists with conversion issues of intermarried families, where there is a sincere desire on the part of both spouses to lead full halachic lives. That project, under the guidance of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, has established more standing batei din for geirus issues in less than a year than the RCA has in the past 17.
What the Vaad has been unwilling to do, however, is to pursue numbers at the expense of the requirement of a full acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar has adopted the same position. And that’s what all the fuss is about.