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Conversion To Judaism: The Need For A Uniform Standard


Three weeks ago, Rabbi Marc Angel, the retiring spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, argued in these pages (“Conversion to Judaism: A Discussion of Standards,” op-ed, June 22) that: (1) there is a multiplicity of standards for conversion within halacha; and (2) the determination of what standards to apply is best left to the discretion of every individual rabbi.

Both claims are dubious.

The most widely revered contemporary poskim – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and, yblch”a, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv – have all written explicitly that a full acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot is the fundamental requirement of geirut (conversion). Without the acceptance of mitzvot, the various technical requirements of conversion – milah (circumcision) for men; tevilah (immersion in a mikvah) for men and women in front of a qualified bet din – are meaningless.

A convert need not know every mitzvah, but he or she must accept the entirety of the halachic system as binding upon him or her. As the Gemara in Bechorot (30b) makes clear, the rejection of even one mitzvah at the time of conversion renders the would-be convert unfit.

The view of the poskim cited above is not, as Rabbi Angel suggests, a modern-day haredi invention, but one held by the greatest halachic authorities across the Orthodox spectrum. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the towering figure of Modern Orthodoxy and longtime head of the American Mizrachi movement, viewed the requirement of kabalat ol mitzvot as axiomatic. (See Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofeik fn. 22.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik was not expressing his own opinion but offering his understanding of the Rambam, who explicitly likens conversion to the process by which the Jewish people accepted the yoke of mitzvot and entered under the wings of the Shechina at Sinai.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, was also of the opinion that acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot is required. When the overwhelming majority of Jews were shomrei mitzvot and Jews were a downtrodden people, it could be safely assumed that anyone who came forward to convert did so with the intention of being shomer mitzvot, he writes. Today, however, when neither of those factors pertains, no such assumption can be made and we must be much stricter about the acceptance of converts.

Rabbi Angel apparently rejects the halachic conclusions of all the great talmidei chachamim mentioned above. While we should do our utmost “to inspire converts to be faithful to the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot,” he writes, “we do not live in a perfect world, and we often have to deal with real people in less than ideal situations.” Sometimes, that is, we have to accept those who have no intention of becoming shomer Torah u’mitzvot.

But nowhere in halacha will one find any suggestion that conversion standards can be lowered as a cure to prevent either individual tragedies, such as intermarriage, or a national tragedy like the hundreds of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel who have no interest in becoming fully mitzvah-observant.

Rabbi Angel is an ardent proponent of rabbinic autonomy: Let every congregational rav do what is straight in his eyes. But that system has proven a disaster. Nearly twenty years ago, even before Rabbi Angel’s term as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA undertook to establish a series of regional batei din to deal with conversion – an effort that is only now beginning to be seriously implemented.

Congregational rabbis who perform conversions are vulnerable to unbearable pressure from powerful congregants who want their child’s non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend converted, no questions asked. Savvy communal rabbis – Rabbi Emanuel Feldman when he was a rav in Atlanta comes to mind – avoid the problem by announcing a blanket rule against performing conversions.

A second problem is the danger of conversion mills – rabbis whose primary livelihood comes from performing hundreds of conversions a year. Such conversion mills have also been operated by those possessing s’micha from Orthodox institutions. The RCA does not allow its members to offer their private kashrut supervision. There is no reason to follow a different rule with respect to conversion.

But the strongest argument in favor of establishing fixed regional batei din commanding wide respect across a communal spectrum is that only such a structure can offer the degree of the finality that all agree is a crucial desideratum in the conversion process. Once converted, the convert should be like any born Jew: No matter what he subsequently does, his status as a Jew remains. (The only exception would be where the “convert” ignored very basic mitzvot from the very beginning, and thereby demonstrated a lack of sincere acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot at the time of conversion.)

An infinite variety of standards is a recipe for tragedy. Even the most sincere convert may face a situation ten or twenty years down the line where she or her child is rejected by a potential spouse, even though they have been fully observant for decades. Why? Because the rabbi who oversaw her conversion is known to follow questionable standards for conversion, thus raising an issue as to whether any bet din on which that rabbi sat is a valid bet din for overseeing a conversion.

Without a system of fixed batei din, it is possible to multiply such tragic scenarios almost ad infinitum. Every single convert would go through life with a constant cloud on his or her geirut.

Nearly a decade ago, Uri Regev, today the head of the international Reform movement, urged the necessity of two types of conversion: one for those who are interested in accepting the yoke of mitzvot and one for those who are not.

It would be a great tragedy if an Orthodox rabbi of Rabbi Angel’s distinction and long record of communal service were to appear to offer support for such a proposal.

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Three weeks ago, Rabbi Marc Angel, the retiring spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, argued in these pages (“Conversion to Judaism: A Discussion of Standards,” op-ed, June 22) that: (1) there is a multiplicity of standards for conversion within halacha; and (2) the determination of what standards to apply is best left to the discretion of every individual rabbi.

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