The Conversion Progress Report
Several weeks into the current conversion fracas, and I have participated in a webcam debate, read two of Rabbi Sherman’s piskei din, plus teshuvos both modern and pre-modern, several articles in Techumin, a few chapters of an academic work on conversion standards, and several screeds that drip with more violence than a remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The questions, however, continue apace.
Strip away all the detail, and the conflict boils down to two hostile assessments of what the other side stands for. Haredim believe that the dati-leumi (DL) camp is prepared to subvert “real” Torah to the dictates of non-religious and anti-religious forces in the government. They charge that when Torah matters are left in the hands of members of the DL orbit, issues of State ultimately trump issues of halacha. Gerus is just the latest in a series. The DL camp, on the other hand, believes that haredim have turned a deaf ear to concerns of Israeli society as a whole, content to contribute their mitzvos and learning, but nothing in areas of the enormous political, military and social issue that face Israel. At the same time, haredim have moved to assert greater control over a Rabbinate that their own people do not use, while attempting to impose their piskei halachah (e.g. the attempt to ban all Shemitah produce that relies on the heter mechirah) on a public that needs all the flexibility that halachah can legitimately deliver.
In duking it out in the current imbroglio, both sides have simply reinforced the stereotypes held by the other. In alienating the other, both sides deserve near-perfect scores.
Rabbi Druckman’s supporters have not responded to a single one of Rabbi Sherman’s charges in halachic language. They have thus added fuel to the fire of those who believe that the DL camp is incapable of dealing responsibly with sophisticated Torah thinking. Rabbi Sherman may or may not be right, but he raises important issues. Rav Druckman, to the best of my knowledge, is a fine gentleman, but not one of the halachic luminaries of the DL world. Professional politicians and MK’s – of any religious party – rarely are. The DL world suffers from no shortage of real bnei Torah and a group of authentic poskim who could and should be dealing with Rabbi Sherman’s point in halachic language.
The have compounded this error by taking comfort in the Israeli Supreme Court’s move a few days ago to freeze Rabbi Sherman’s decision. This should not have been a cause for celebration. It is harder to imagine a less appropriate deus ex machina to answer haredi critics. Rather than winning in the milchamtoh shel Torah, the DL world cheered as Big Brother showing up carrying a big, secular stick.
Many years ago, one of Rav Shach’s, zt”l, addresses enraged the Israeli public. He had dismissed kibbutz-members, cultural icons in general Israeli society, as “rabbit eaters,” devoid of all spiritual content. The nation was enraged. For weeks, people castigated R. Shach and the haredim, while touting the accomplishments of kibbutzniks on the battlefield. One journalist finally pointed out the irony. He observed that all the commentors were actually proving R. Shach’s point. All that the kibbutz defenders could point to was physical prowess and might. Nobody praised them for any spiritual accomplishment. You could imagine R. Shach getting up after all the charges and recriminations, and with a smile on his face saying, “The prosecution rests.” Nothing could make the haredi argument more effectively than a few rallies to support the honor of Rabbi Druckman, speeches denouncing the cold-heartedness of the haredim, appeals to a secular agency to trump the authority of a beis din – and silence on the substantive halachic issues.
To compound the injury, various writers in the DL camp have called for a new Israeli disengagement – this time, from all things haredi. Some have used militaristic vocabulary, speaking of the drawing of battle lines, and the waging of war against the forces of darkness and oppression in Bnei Brak. They’ve called for asserting their independence from haredi influences, of purging the country of their influence, of asserting that the haredim are alien to Torah, and that the real traditional Jews are the dati-leumi (DL), while the haredim are really Saducees. (Last time we heard this, it was Robet Gordis at JTS, I believe, saying the same about Orthodoxy in general back in the ‘30’s.) The writers may have felt better after venting, and may have scored points with their constituencies, but speaking in such terms about the most accomplished halachic minds of the generation – no matter how foreign some may find their attitude towards the State and modernity – does not create the impression of a whole lot of Torah depth.
On the haredi side, the silence has been equally disturbing and revealing. There have been no soothing voices allaying the fears of thousands of converts now in limbo. No one has insisted to the general public or to the DL community that the needs of the rest of the country concern haredim as well, but halachic principle rests atop a list of priorities. No one has answered all the pain and indignation expressed by good people within the DL world. Silence is the worst form of contempt.
Weeks into the controversy, I am left with more questions than I began. Does the DL world really expect decisions by a conversion court to be forced upon dayanim of other courts just because the former have government sanction? Even if they satisfy themselves (and I don’t understand how they could) that minimalist standards are enough to declare conversion candidates Jewish, can they expect that a dayan should now be compelled to officiate at such a convert’s wedding? If not, can he compelled to recognize such a convert’s wedding? Why do some in the DL camp point to liberalized standards of conversion as the solution to the crisis of several hundred thousand non-Jewish Russians living in Israel? Do they not recall that our last experiment in quickie mass conversions (over two thousand years ago) gave us not loyal Jews, but an Idumean fifth column and the reign of Herod the madman?
In the other corner, I do not understand how Rabbi Sherman can speak of “all” poskim rejecting conversion without proper acceptance of mitzvos. Did he not realize that his decision would be pored over by hundreds of people checking for integrity? What would he have lost had he conceded that there are one or two voices in the other direction who are so outweighed that they cannot be relied upon, even when conditions press for a leniency? Rabbi Sherman cites important poskim that flouting accepted halachic norms invalidates a person’s reliability as a witness, and therefore as a dayan as well. He concedes that these same poskim allow for the possibility that if a person thought he was doing a mitzvah by ruling leniently, he does not lose his reliability. Rabbi Sherman then goes on to differentiate between the reliability of witnesses and judges, but offers no evidence for the distinction other than his own opinion. Regardless of whether he is correct or incorrect, should not a decision that affects the lives of tens of thousands of people rest on something stronger than his own opinion?
At the real core of the matter is the status after the fact of hundreds, if not thousands, of converts whose acceptance of mitzvos is suspect. Take a hypothetical person who converted ten years ago. He watches television on Shabbos, but doesn’t drive. He eats kosher – most of the time. If he comes to Rabbi Sherman and asks him to be able to walk out of his marriage, marry a non-Jewish woman, and allow his present wife to remarry without a get, will Rabbi Sherman give him the green light? In similar cases in the United States, we have treated such people as safek gerim, questionable converts. We would never sanction such a person to “drop” his Yiddishkeit, nor on the other hand marry a Jewish woman without redoing the conversion. In both the Ashdod and Rechovot cases, the convert would never have gotten past the recognized batei din in the US, in either yeshivish or centrist forms. But in both cases, the convert did show some changes in behavior – changes that Rabbi Sherman rejects as cultural, rather than religious. Is this distinction sufficient to invalidate the candidate with absolute certainty, or only misafek? I ask (and I am asking, not stating) particularly in the light of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s zt”l position (Igros Mosher, YD3, #108) that to invalidate a conversion after the fact (which he does, in fact hold is possible, like so many others), the evidence of insincere kabbalas mitzvos has to go beyond a clear umdena(legal presumption), and rise to the bar of an anan sahadi (presumptive certainty)!
The only glimmer of hope comes from the realization that both sides, further apart from each other than ever before, are animated by exactly the same concern! Both sides feel that the other is compromising Torah and creating chilul Hashem. Haredim feel that nothing can ever trump halacha, and that DL playing fast and loose with halachah compromises the integrity of Torah. The DL world argues that the inability of haredim to come up with a modus vivendi for so many issues plaguing the State implies that our Torah is antiquated and not a Toras Chaim that can shine Divine illumination upon the issues over which we agonize. Each side sees the sanctity of the Torah violated and desecrated, and abreacts in pain.
If only we could both sides to realize that precisely what separates them is what unites them – a deep commitment to the eternity and centrality of Torah. If only they could use that common enthusiasm for Torah to mend the breaches and work together for the benefit of all of Klal Yisrael!