Who is really to blame?
No one would deny that the decision of an Ashdod beit din to annul the conversion of one of the parties in a divorce action was an immense personal tragedy. The children of the woman whose conversion was retroactively annulled 15 years later have had their lifetime identity as Jews suddenly shattered.
The decision to convert – i.e., to accept the yoke of mitzvot – is perhaps the most momentous a person can make precisely because it can never be reversed. From the viewpoint of halacha, just as a born Jew can never shed that status, so too a sincere convert. That much is clear.
Less clear, however, is who is responsible for last week’s tragedy. The most obvious candidate, of course, is the beit din that annulled the conversion. And indeed most fingers were pointed at Rabbi Avraham Attias, who authored the opinion of the beit din, as soon as its decision was reported in the secular press. The usual calls were heard to turn conversion matters over to “open-minded” national-religious rabbis, and even to “progressive” rabbis, to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated.
I WONDER how many of those calling for Rabbi Attias’s scalp remember that Rabbi Shlomo Goren “freed” a brother and sister from the halachic status of mamzerut by voiding their mother’s marriage at the time of their conception. And that was done, in turn, by voiding her husband’s conversion, despite the fact that he had been living as a fully observant Jew for decades. For his promise to “solve” the problem of two mamzerim, Rabbi Goren was rewarded by prime minister Golda Meir with appointment as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi and became a national hero.
The truth is that tragedies like that in Ashdod happen all the time. I have known personally a number of children of those converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis who discovered that they were not recognized as Jewish by a large swath of world Jewry when they began to explore their Judaism seriously for the first time, or when they wanted to marry an Orthodox boy or girl. I have even heard of young men learning in some of the world’s top yeshivot who found out that their mother never had a proper conversion. For clergymen to perform a conversion without telling the would-be convert that it will not be recognized by many other Jews is a breach of fiduciary duty.
The only difference in the Ashdod case was that the woman whose conversion was annulled had been converted by a beit din composed of Orthodox rabbis. Yet, the woman admitted, the beit din had apparently made no effort to ascertain whether she intended to accept the halachic system as binding upon her. She had never kept some of the most basic and stringent aspects of halacha after her conversion.
Orthodox rabbis – even some with long white beards – who perform conversions without making any effort to ascertain the candidate’s commitment to mitzvah observance, and often in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, is, unfortunately, also an old story.
There was a German girl in my ulpan class 30 years ago who was living at a nearby kibbutz. She was personally converted by then-Chief Rabbi Goren late in her ninth month of pregnancy. When I asked her whether Rabbi Goren had inquired about the likelihood of her keeping mitzvot on the completely secular kibbutz, she laughed. “Right,” she said, “a little German girl is going to come here and tell a group of German Holocaust survivors that they should make the dining hall kosher.”
In the famous Seidman case, Rabbi Goren personally converted a woman who had repeatedly stressed that she saw no need for an Orthodox conversion and had no intention of becoming mitzva observant in order to forestall a civil marriage law in the Knesset.
IT IS NOT those who uphold strict standards for conversion who show a lack of love and concern for the convert, but rather those who ignore the halachic requirement of a sincere commitment to mitzva observance. The latter expose those “converted” under their auspices to the danger of a painful shock many years later when they discover that their conversion is not universally recognized.
A universally recognized standard is the greatest protection for the sincere convert, and the implementation of such a standard by responsible rabbinical courts is the key to the complete integration of the sincere convert into the Jewish people, without any concern that someone will someday question his or her conversion.
Two weeks ago, I participated in a three-day seminar sponsored by the Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) organization in Phoenix, Arizona. The participants were 32 intermarried couples in each of which the non-Jewish spouse is contemplating conversion. (The leading contemporary halachic decisors have ruled that in the case of intermarried couples, the general rule that “the right hand pushes away” the would-be convert does not apply.)
The Phoenix seminar was the second of its kind. Of the 32 couples who participated in the first, 28 are on track to a full halachic conversion for the gentile spouse. One couple from the first seminar was halachically married at the Phoenix seminar. Another seven seminars sponsored by EJF are scheduled around the world for the coming year, each at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Working with intermarried couples is only part of what EJF does. The organization also promotes a universally accepted standard for conversion. It has already sponsored numerous conferences for rabbinical court judges in the United States and Israel, and one is scheduled in the near future for Europe.
The two-fold efforts of EJF provide irrefutable proof that concern for universally recognized standards of conversion goes hand-in-hand with the greatest love and respect for the convert.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post.