Latest update: May 20th, 2013
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In his responsa Teshuvot VeHanhagot (Vol. III:305) the Gaon R. Moshe Sternbuch discusses whether a ger may be appointed as a rabbi or as dean of a yeshiva, a Rosh Yeshiva. At issue, as we previously noted, is that when the Torah directs us (Deuteronomy 17:15) to set upon ourselves a king from “amidst our brethren,” meaning that the one chosen must be born a Jew, the Gemara (Kiddushin 76b) explains that this direction extends to all appointments of authority.
R. Sternbuch notes an inconsistency. Rambam, in his opening discussion to his Mishneh Torah, lists the mesora, the chain of those who ensured continuance of the oral traditions of the Torah from Moses at Mt. Sinai. Rambam includes in that chain Shemaya and Abtalyon who are referred to as gerei tzedek, righteous proselytes. The two sat at the head of the Beit Din, which seems odd since those who assume that position must be eligible to rule on capital offenses as well. As gerim they would be ineligible to do so, thus they actually were ineligible to assume leadership of the Sanhedrin. Yet we find in the Gemara (Chagiga 16a-b) that they were indeed in that chain: one was Nasi (prince, president) and the other was Av Beit Din (head judge).
Therefore R. Sternbuch explains that the rule that would exclude a proselyte from the Sanhedrin applies where there is a choice of candidates for the job. However, if we find that the ger is truly great in Torah unlike any other candidate, and all recognize this, he would be eligible to assume the role, provided he has mastered the oral tradition as well as the written one. R. Sternbuch cites Rivah’s commentary on Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 17:55), where we learn that when there is no better candidate for a position, a ger is certainly eligible to assume it, and thus he would also be eligible to rule on capital cases. Consequently, that ger would be eligible to head the Beit Din or Sanhedrin. This is what happened with Shemaya and Abtalyon.
Regarding the original question posed to him about a ger serving as Rosh Mesivta (head of post-high school Torah study), R. Sternbuch seems to feel that this would be permitted, since the prohibition applies to the trappings or political aspects of the office. Also, as Rosh Mesivta one is not considered to be holding an office that one may bequeath to one’s children. Rather, such a person is chosen for his great Torah scholarship and fear of G-d. This position is unlike a king’s position and other political appointments that include great displays of honor in society and are (at times) subsequently bequeathed to the children.
Even those halachic authorities who disagree with the ruling that a ger may serve as head or dean of a yeshiva would agree that a ger would be qualified as a Rosh Mesivta or Maggid Shiur (lecturer), should the choice of candidates include a ger who is a better choice than the others.
However, to serve as a rabbi or in any office that includes the trappings of honor requires a stricter view, and it is preferable that another individual serve. If the ger is well versed in Torah, he may serve as moreh tzedek, a halachic authority, or as assistant to the rabbi.
R. Sternbuch cautions that when we refuse to appoint a ger to such office we must explain to him that the greatest Gedolei Yisrael have included converts, and the denial of office is not due to a wish to denigrate him or that we consider him insignificant, but rather because we are
following the laws of the Torah.
When the ger reaches the lofty level of Keter Torah, recognized extensive Torah scholarship, he (and any individual in this position) is held in higher regard than any political office holder and even higher than one wearing the crown of priesthood.
R. Sternbuch concludes that once the ger has left the gentiles and joined the congregation of Jews he is already considered to be very great, and we must take care to deal with him with even greater consideration and sensitivity than we show to other Jews.
The Gaon R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:26) notes the above opinion but clarifies that, regarding Shemaya and Abtalyon, their mothers might have been born Jewish (as we noted regarding the host of R. Ada b. Ahava, Kiddushin 76b) or that it was an exceptional (temporary) ruling, a hora’at sha’ah in circumstances calling for unique decisions. Another example of a hora’at sha’ah is Deborah sitting as judge; generally a woman would be ineligible for the position (see Tosafot, Baba Kamma 16a, s.v. “asher”). Thus we cannot extend that decision elsewhere. R. Feinstein notes that the position of Rosh Mesivta or Rebbe in a yeshiva is considered part of the regular workforce and not necessarily a political or communal position.
Further clarification as per R. Feinstein is that for those communal offices where one has the power to force others to do as he instruct, it would be in violation of the principle “mikerev achecha” to appoint a ger. However, where the convert is given honor without having such power, he would be allowed to serve in that office. Insofar as the ger himself accepting a position of authority, R. Feinstein finds no prohibition.
We do see that much of what is being discussed here relates to the teaching of Torah. And even in this regard there is much discussion regarding other types of communal positions, especially as we see that the Gemara clearly forbade some appointments.
As to the original question, your rabbi is certainly a scholar, and he issued a ruling notwithstanding the consequences. He must be respected in spite of what you or others think of his decision. I am sure he loves the ger as we are commanded to do by the Torah. (Indeed, we note that your rabbi even allowed him previously to occupy the lesser position of secretary.)
It must be explained to the ger that he is a valued Jew and that great progeny will ensue from him, but the halacha has to be accepted. May G-d repair the breach in your synagogue and help us overcome the breach that separates us from our ultimate redemption.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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