Conversion Confuddlement

From the Urban Dictionary: “Being confuddled is when your confused about being confused but u dont know wot your confused about so your completly confuddled.”

One of the more frequent complaints about Cross-Currents, at least from those to our philosophical left, is that it so frequently critiques that same left, particularly the heterodox clergy and the modern Jewish movements. Our usual answer, stated at its least diplomatic extreme, is that Cross-Currents is merely the first attempt at an antidote to a steady and poisonous flow from the secular & “mainstream” Jewish media. Given that conventional outlets let their ignorance and even animus towards observance show all too often, Cross-Currents serves a valuable function by providing an alternative.

I wonder how our critics would have us address the following, real-life situation. Several weeks ago, Rabbi Avi Shafran published a piece called “Conversion Confusion,” which eventually made its way into the august pages of the New York Jewish Week. In that article, Rabbi Shafran deflected criticism — from certain Orthodox Rabbis — of Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate for “raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold.” Inter alia Rabbi Shafran made reference to an obvious point about conversion: “Sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah’s laws — or ‘kabbalat hamitzvot’ — is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.”

Recently, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and co-author of an upcoming book “on 19th- and 20th-century rabbinical responsa on conversion to Judaism,” replied with his own article, entitled “Conversion Complexity.” He wanders into a debate between Orthodox sources, yet I have heard no chorus clamoring that he has grabbed the opportunity to take pot shots at the Orthodox. Furthermore, his article obfuscates the obvious and clouds the clear, undermines understanding and corrupts knowledge (I was doing just fine until I tried to find an appropriate verb beginning with ‘k’). So I think it not entirely out of place for me to wonder what our critics would have us do. Should we ignore it and allow such ignorance to be the last word on the subject? Or, perhaps, would they merely prefer that I, or anyone with even a basic knowledge of Hilchos Geirus, the laws of conversion, squelch our honest amazement that the author of a book on responsa on conversion, who stands at the pinnacle of the Reform movement’s educational system, would demonstrate himself to be so uneducated on the contents of the very works about which he is supposed to be writing?

In one example after the next, Rabbi Ellenson purports to analyze the opinions of various Halachic authorities and commentators, but displays a profound level of ignorance of the underlying foundations and principles upon which all these authorities depend. [The alternative would be that Rabbi Ellenson indeed knows better, yet leverages the ignorance of his readership to best advantage. While such malice against traditional Judaism might have typified Reform Rabbis of a century ago, I believe and hope that it has long since been jettisoned.] In the end, not one even begins to challenge the universal agreement of Halachic sources to which Rabbi Shafran refers.

In Jewish law, it is traditional to dissuade the prospective convert. We not only don’t proselytize, but we put obstacles in the path of the prospective convert to ensure that he or she is truly sincere. Halachic sources state that when a non-Jew is interested in marrying a Jew, this ulterior motive may disqualify the conversion! Jewish law takes the position that it is far better to accidentally turn away a valid convert, than to take in an invalid one. This, and not merely the baseline requirements for conversion to which Rabbi Shafran referred, is part of the starting point for all further discussion by Halachic authorities.

As we are all well aware, the Reform movement abandoned those rules. Conversion of a non-Jewish boy or girlfriend is actively encouraged. Prominent Reform rabbis have called for “outreach to the unchurched,” aka proselytizing to non-Jews. But it is foolish in the extreme for Rabbi Ellenson to fail to acknowledge that Halachic decisors begin with the Halachic starting point, and not that of the Reform movement.

In every one of the examples that Rabbi Ellenson references, bar none, a Rabbi argues that under certain circumstances we should not leave the conventional obstacles to conversion in place. [It should be noted that the circumstances, if any, which would justify lowering the barriers remains a topic of active debate to this day.] In none of them does a Rabbi propose that we declare someone a “convert” without said individual accepting upon him- or herself to actually observe G-d’s Word.

In one of the cases, the Rabbi in question is quoted by Ellenson discussing how fear of ulterior motives led to the rejection of an otherwise valid convert, and how this led to unintended consequences. Yet Rabbi Ellenson distorts even this example, in order to argue that a person who truly is an insincere convert should be invited into the fold.

There is no contradiction at all to any of Rabbi Shafran’s remarks, and it is difficult to excuse this egregious misreading of the sources — especially from one claiming sufficient expertise to publish a book on the subject. So I ask our critics: what should we say?

As a footnote, I ran this piece by Rabbi Shafran himself pre-publication. He noted that he submitted a letter rebutting Rabbi Ellenson’s remarks, which is reproduced below. The New York Jewish Week failed to print it last week, and has thus far failed to acknowledge Rabbi Shafran’s inquiries concerning its fate. I submit to you that even were articles like this one truly de rigeur at Cross-Currents, they would merely be answering a need in the world of informed Jewish discourse.

Rabbi Shafran’s as-yet-unpublished letter to the NYJW reads as follows:

August 20, 2007


My thanks to Hebrew Union College president Rabbi David Ellenson for his op-ed response to my own piece about Orthodox conversion standards. While a newspaper is not the place for a detailed dialectic about halachic sources, I will only note that I have found nothing in those he cites to minimize the essential nature of kabbalat hamitzvot to conversion. What, precisely, a convert has to know at conversion, and the proper approach to non-Jews married to Jews (the subject of the responsa cited) are important, and not simple, issues, but the idea of accepting Judaism as a religion of laws has always been and remains a sine qua non of Jewish conversion.

And the issue at hand is a proposal to “convert” large numbers of non-Jews in Israel, many if not most of whom will have no intention of making any effort at even rudimentary observance, in Israel, where things like Sabbath-observance and kashrut are universally understood as essential observances.

Contemporary halachic decisors, moreover, have spoken clearly. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was not averse to utilizing leniencies in difficult cases, wrote (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah I, # 157):

“… it is obvious and clear that [a non-Jew who did not accept the mitzvot] is not a convert at all, even after the fact [of his conversion ceremony]… because kabbalat hamitzvot for a convert is essential [“me’akev”]. And even if he pronounces that he is accepting the mitzvot, if it is clear to us [“anan sa’hadi”] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing.”

And, poignantly, he concludes:

“I altogether do not understand the reasoning of rabbis who err in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to the Jewish People by accepting such ‘converts’? It is certainly not pleasing to G-d or to the Jewish people that such ‘converts’ should become mixed into [the Congregation of] Israel. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America

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22 Responses

  1. Gil Student says:

    I addressed this in a post and pointed out that (at least one, maybe two of) Dr. Ellenson’s sources do not say what he claims they do:

  2. Bob Miller says:

    With so much ignorance of halacha on the part of so many would-be converts and would-be recruiters for conversion, no wonder Jewish community life has become so complicated.

    Parents in many places can expect many of their children’s classmates in the local community Jewish day school to be non-Jewish, without necessarily knowing who these are.

    Later on, their children typically pass through a secular high school and college into the work world never really knowing (assuming that they care at all, which is another issue) if the person they want to date is Jewish as advertised, or not.

    If someone with malice in mind had deliberately sent in a Trojan horse of assimilation to cause havoc among the Jews, it would have looked a lot like this.

  3. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Perhaps your critics would prefer to see you make your arguments without making reference to your opponents’ “ignorance” or “malice”. I think the merits of your arguments would actually be strengthened if they were unencumbered by comnpanion ad hominem attacks.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    I previously pointed out here in another context that one should not generally get upset by or consider when a heterodox clergyman, especially a “shoneh uparush” such as R R D Ellenson trots out sources and attempts to present them as either setting forth a mainstream opinion or even as either worthy of being considered Divrei Torah, especially when it is being used to advance his movement’s agenda( “the Ellenson article”). There are exceptions as in the SE’s correspondence with a HUC professor who edited an excellent edition of a Rishon ( IIRC, it was the Raavad on Bava Kamma) but generally on hashkafically tinged matters and on issues of halacha, I would advise the reader to read with his or her eyes very carefully as to the presentation of the sources and to keep the author’s overall agenda in mind. I would add this observation to the Saggai/Zohar work on Gerus that is also no small part of the toolbook used by those seeking to use a very relazed understandung of Kabalas HaMitzvos as a means of solving Israel’s demographic issues. The analysis in the article on conversion was no exception to this rule of thumb.

    At Hirhurim, R Gil analyzed the Ellenson article and after all the discussion, IMO, the following incident is a powerful analogy that should be considered by the reader. R Zevin ZTL in HaMoadim BHalacha cited a Teshuvah from the Noda BiYehudah in which he was asked about a regimen of self inflicted punishments as a means of kaparah. The Nodah BiYehyudah rejected the regimen and all of its literary basis as the equivalent of a house of cards with no foundation. I think that the evidence cited in the Ellenson article and the Saggai/Zohar study also amount to a house of cards with no foundation. IMO, the stacking of a series of Teshuvot that describe a Shas Hadchack cannot be used to set forth some sort of Chiddush that the Gdolei HaPOskim of the last 100 years tigtened the rules on Hilcos Gerus.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding “Comment by Moishe Potemkin — August 27, 2007 @ 2:23 pm’:

    My ad hominem attacks were on those who have worked so hard to earn them. My critics who might prefer a more nuanced approach, giving these characters way more slack, will have to read elsewhere.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    By the way, I regard the misled “converts” differently than their misleaders.

  7. lawrence kaplan says:

    The HUC Professor who edited the Rabad on Bava Kamma and corresponded with the Seridei Esh was Prof. Samuel Atlas.

    I have to add that I personally like David Ellenson very much, but I, like Marc Shapiro, have found serious problems and limitations with his rabbinic scholarship, which I cannot enumerate here. OTOH, whatever criticisms one may level against Sagi’s and Zohar’s book, they are both much finer rabbinic scholars than Dr. Ellensson.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    Bob, I thought Moishe was responding to me. In any event, an ad hominem is “appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason,” e.g. “he doesn’t wear a yarmulke, how can you take him seriously?” To claim that Rabbi Ellenson displays a “profound level of ignorance” of the subject is not an ad hominem at all. It is an on-topic and logical statement, and, though it may be a harsh indictment of Ellenson’s scholarship (or lack thereof), I believe I gave sufficient examples to prove it correct.

    The discerning reader will note that I rejected the idea that Ellenson was maliciously distorting the Halacha, so it doesn’t make sense to call that an ad hominem attack on anyone. Similarly, Bob Miller also said this is what a malicious attack would look like, not that it was one.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Menken said,

    “Similarly, Bob Miller also said this is what a malicious attack would look like, not that it was one.”

    The whole enterprise of Reform was designed from the outset to dynamite the theory and practice of halachic Judaism. The earlier Reform leaders were not coy about this. The recent Reform use of the language and concepts of halacha to undermine halacha doesn’t seem so innocent to me, but I grant that at least some of these highly intelligent people could have fooled themselves.

  10. Moishe Potemkin says:

    My criticism was in fact directed at Rabbi Menken. All of his points could and should have been made without any reference to Rabbi Ellenson himself, and would have been no less effective by virtue of their being expressed politely. There’s an extensive comment in the latest Jonathan Rosenblum thread explaining the benefits of civil discourse, and the points made are no less applicable here.

  11. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Dr. Kaplan – I am not at all at the point where I can evaluate Rabbi Ellenson’s scholarship. My point was (and is) that Rabbi Menken’s disagreements with him would not be lessened, regardless, and it would be, in my view, a far more enriching experience to read an essay that pointed out the deficiencies in Rabbi Ellenson’s case than in Rabbi Ellenson’s person.


    Moishe Potemkin: I made my evauation of Dr. Ellenson’s scholarship based on my careful reading of certain essays of his. Let me clarify that, contary to what you evidently believe, I did not intend my comment to be taken as a defense of Yaakov Menken’s language re Dr. Ellenson. Indeed, I agree with that some of his language over the top.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Isn’t it germane that so eminent a Reform scholar is capable of making these laughable errors, regardless of the reasons why? That point might have been obscured if Rabbi Menken didn’t cite him by name. It’s part of this blog’s mission to present this part of the picture, so as to deny such putative scholars the esteem of those they might mislead.

  14. Yaakov Menken says:

    I repeat, Moishe, that’s unjustified. At no point did I refer to “Rabbi Ellenson’s person,” including when I said that he “displays a profound level of ignorance of the underlying foundations and principles upon which all these authorities depend.” That is indeed a reference to his case.

    As a friend of mine said many years ago, “you would have a good point if you were right.”

  15. Daniel says:

    Rabbi Menken,

    How we can ascertain whether someone who has gone through the conversion process has in fact accepted the Mitzvot at the time of conversion? To put it another way, what is the appropriate evidentiary standard for determining that a convert’s verbal affirmation of acceptance of Halachah was insincere? You quoted Rav Moshe: “if it is clear to us [‘anan sa’hadi’] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing.” But when is it “clear to us”? If he is seen eating a cheeseburger the day after his conversion, presumably it is clear. But what about 6 months later? Or 15 years? Should there be a “probationary period” where we monitor his observance, after which he’s free and clear to break the rules without losing his status as a Jew? What if the convert backslides not due to a lack of sincerity, but because the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak? What if he converts Ashkenazi but eats Kitniyot on Pesach? Or eats Gebrokts? Finally, what if he sincerely accepts upon himself the Mitzvot, but then has a true change of heart and subsequently rejects them?

    I agree with the need for a uniform standard; I just think it’s very difficult to apply a standard that is determined by what is in a person’s heart at a certain moment in time.

  16. lawrence kaplan says:

    Rabbi Menken :When you write that Dr. Ellenson ”grabbed the opportunity to take potshots at the Orthodox” that is NOT just ”a reference to the the case” but reflects on his person.

  17. Charles B. Hall says:

    Wouldn’t it be more informative to have a debate between, say, Rabbi Avi Shafran and Rabbi Marc Angel, both of whom accept the authority of the halachic process but appear based upon their published articles to disagree on at least some of these issues? Could the Cross Currents editors solicit an essay from Rabbi Angel?

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    Dr. Kaplan, you are absolutely right that what you have quoted would be an inappropriate statement about Rabbi Ellenson’s motivations; however, the phrase was not my remark about him, but one not at all subtly borrowed from what is routinely said about Cross-Currents when we comment upon the latest proclamations from the heterodox. That phrase must be taken in context: “He wanders into a debate between Orthodox sources, yet I have heard no chorus clamoring that he has grabbed the opportunity to take pot shots at the Orthodox.”

    Thank you for confirming that our critics should address our arguments rather than dismissing them. To which I would add the need to quote accurately and in context, and to reserve the term “ad hominem” for expressions that actually are.

  19. lawrence kaplan says:

    Rabbi Menken: I was aware that I was citing only part of your sentence, and that you yourself did not actually make the point that Dr. Ellenson has grabbed the opportunity to take potshots at the Orthodox. I believe however — and this is what I meant to say– that a reasonable reading of your sentence is that it suggests that in THIS case this is precisely what the chorus should have clamored and that they would have been right in so clamoring. Note that the first part of your sentence, ”He wanders into a debate between Orthodox sources,” which sets the stage for the chorus part is in your own name. But, again, you are right that you do not actually make the point yourself and I should not have said that you did. Not that this is any excuse, but I was writing late at night.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Menken, haven’t you been taken aside yet to hear the rules of this game? These include:

    1. Criticism of Torah Judaism or its leaders need not be free of distortions, misquotations or quotations out of context, appeals to emotion, or personal attacks.

    2. Any faculty member engaged in Jewish Studies, however far he/she is from an understanding of or commitment to Judaism, is a respected colleague of every other one.

    While we’re mulling over one logical fallacy (ad hominem), let’s not forget the greater issue, the absurdity of unwritten rules like the above.

  21. yy says:

    In reading Ellenson’s article,I was struck by this sentence re. his understanding (backed by responsa of chief Israeli Rabbi Uziel) of the “Halachic mandate” towards conversion:

    “Jewish leaders are responsible for bringing Jews back into the fold and that is true, *it seems,* even if it means converting people who are not going to live strictly according to the dictates of Jewish law.”

    That little phrase “it seems” is a powerful one. Shouldn’t we be zooming in on it? Doesn’t it betray Ellenson’s conscience on the matter which the holy prophet Ezekiel brought to our attention for eternity, i.e. that the Divine mandate for Jewish shepherds to worry about bringing back each and every Jewish sheep does NOT mean doing so in spiritually haphazard ways?! Aye, we all would do well to remember that Midrash about how Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership Calling began with his misirus nefesh for one of his lost sheep. But how did he *exactly* help her? By shlepping her back to the herd on his back! NOT by finding ways to quiet her lonliness by making her comfortable with where she was at!!

  22. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Another in a series of posts that do nothing but harden positions and find new whipping boys to avoid confroning the reality. Lets agree to focus only on issues beyond the rhetoric. Examples:

    1) assume everyone respects Kabbalat haMitzvot – to quote R. Shafran “things like Sabbath-observance and kashrut are universally understood as essential observances.” the questions go well beyond that – stop characterizing that as the debate; it is not! lets argue about what is under debate – how far does the beit din have to go or should go to examine for kabbalat haMitzvot? how strict must their observance be?

    2) Stick to Prof. Ish Shalom and other dati individuals who R. Shafran analyzed/crticized/(we disagree on which verbs to use and moderation does not allow the details because they are too lenghty) and why bother with the head of reform judaism? BTW despite the ad hominem attacks, he is not even adequately addressed. Even Hirhurim, who did a much better job, admits it has work still to do with his sources. This is hard but get very specific. And do not dismiss all of Rabbi Ellenson’s sources despite his (biased) use of them. If you cannot make the other (dati) guy’s argument even partially, chances are your comments will not add value to the issues under debate.

    3) Understand that it might be about the judge as opposed to the law. Most (secular) Israelis do not perceive charedim as having exhibited any concern for the issues confronting the State outside their narrow parochial interests. Thus, it may be largely about the orientaion of the posek; the recent overturning of a converion of a woman 15 years and two children after a respected dati Rabbi conveted her, was, to many, like screaming fire in a full theatre. Was that decision correct? Beyond that, some cite examples where support for what Israelis see as the most crtical life and death issues for the state are auctioned by the charedi parties to the highest bidder. They fear the impact that this might have on the issues confronting the Russian population. How is that addressed, if at all? What can chareidim do to change or if it is all just perception, work on altering the perception? ( lest i be misunderstood, i don’t mean more publicists.)

    4) carefully define the scope of the debate. Prof. Ish Shalom says that he wants to move the number converted form 2000 to about 8000 per year. Hard – yes; impossible – perhaps. But hardly wholesale conversion of large numbers of the 300,000 non-jewish olim from russia. can that be accomplished?? what number is feasible?? under what circumstances and with what preparation?

    5) Even if there are no solutions, acknowledge the problem and its origins. Are there any aspects of this problem that might warrant leniancies?? What might they be even if they are to be rejected? Related to the issue of conversion, remember the debate over jewish education for olim – what worked and what might be tried?

    In short, avoid the urge for rhetoric on all sides. unless you have something constructive to propose, assume less is more. And above all, be honest, too much is at stake to permit meaningless posturing – mine included!

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