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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Hebrew Union Pres. Pulls Fast One in Non-Jewish Rabbi Debate

The President of HUC-JIR, sent The Jewish Press an angry letter suggesting there are Orthodox sources supporting patrilineal descent.

David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rebuked The Jewish Press, suggesting the daughter of a Buddhist Korean woman who never converted was qualified to serve as a rabbi. We went ahead and checked his facts…

David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rebuked The Jewish Press, suggesting the daughter of a Buddhist Korean woman who never converted was qualified to serve as a rabbi. We went ahead and checked his facts…
Photo Credit: HUC-JIR

Earlier this week, we ran a story about a reform cantor and rabbi whose father was Jewish but her mother was not, and who is serving in her two very Jewish sounding roles without the benefit of a proper—or even a Reform—conversion (It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi). To me, it seemed like the ultimate, end-of-the-line kind of illustration of how far the Reform movement has strayed outside the rabbinical tent, although over the heated discussion that ensued by our readers it was mentioned that the lady in question is not the first non-Jewish Reform rabbi since the Reform movement enacted the doctrine of patrilineal descent to determine who is a Reform Jew.

We now received a response letter from David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, protesting our article. I was conflicted over whether we should run the article as is, and expect our readers to debate it, or add my own running commentary. The reason I decided to do the latter, which, I admit, is taking advantage of my position as editor, at the expense of the author, is that the letter is rife with misleading information.

I debated this with our editor in chief, and we decided that, in the name of fairness, we’ll run only complete paragraphs of the Ellenson letter, in sequential order, and add comments only between paragraphs, much the way some people do when they respond to a long email. So, here we go:

To the Editor:

I recognize that the editors and authors of The Jewish Press have a different stance towards Judaism than we at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and in the Reform Movement do. Indeed, I do not question your right to approach Judaism and the issue of conversion as you deem proper even as our own principled position is distinct from yours. However, no less a rabbinic personage than Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer of Posen, the famed author of Drishat Tsiyon, referred to children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers – even without conversion – as zera kodesh. He asserted that “gdolei yisrael” could well spring from among these children.

The citation from Rabbi Kalischer of Posen (who vehemently rejected the Reform movement of his day, see Hertzberg, Arthur, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader) is misleading, and a little bit offensive.

It suggests that Rabbi Kalischer—a student of Rabbi Akiva Eger and one of the most noted Zionist Rabbis of the early 1800s (he called for the redeeming of all of Eretz Israel and for the renewal of the Temple sacrifices, both values that I would love to see adopted by the Reform movement) supported the recognition of the offspring of Jewish men and their non-Jewish wives as Jews, without a halachic conversion.

Throwing such a ludicrous claim without proper citation does not befit the president of an academic institute, mostly because it forced yours truly to spend hours online in search of the cite. But I did. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, affiliated with the RCA beit din in Montreal, told Paul Lungen of CJN (New standards possible for Orthodox conversions) about an 1864 case when two German rabbis, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Azriel Hildesheimer debated the standards to be applied to child conversion:

“Responding to a query from a rabbi in New Orleans, Rabbi Kalischer argued that if the child was brought up in a home where there was potential for him to grow in observance – even where the mother was gentile – the conversion should be approved. Rabbi Hildesheimer believed conversions should not be approved unless the parents were observant.”

In other words, the honorable president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is trying to pull off a dishonest shmear, suggesting that by his sweet comment that those children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers are “holy seed” (zera kodesh) – he meant they could become rabbis without a proper conversion.

No, no, no. The debate was over whether a guy who marries a non-Jew can ask for a halachic conversion of their children, even though he is so outside the Jewish fold that he went and married a Jew.

In our own time, Rabbi Haim Amsalem of Israel, in his Zera Yisrael, has offered a broad survey of halakhic writing on this question and has made the same point as Rabbi Kalischer concerning the offspring of intermarried Russian families who have made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Amsalem has written that such children, who share in the fate and destiny of our people, should be embraced.

This one is not merely a lie, but a stupid lie, because the rabbi in question is alive and well, and can speak for himself, which he did. Here, for the record, is rabbi Chaim Ansalem’s view on the conversion of children of intermarried Russian families (the text was shortened, the full version is available here):

“First, of course I insist that the entire giur (conversion) process be done according to halacha, by an authoritative court, including bris milah, dipping in the mikvah, and accepting the yoke of mitzvot. But as opposed to a complete gentile who wishes to convert, we today in Israel are dealing with gentiles whose halachic definition is “of Israelite seed.” 98 percent of olim from the former Soviet Union are of Israelite seed and therefore in their cases we should go easier, since they’ve expressed their wish to be part of the nation of Israel by enlisting in the army.

“God forbid, I do not mean we should give up any part of the giur process.”

So much for that bit of disinformation on the part of the HUC-JIR president.

I therefore read with great dismay the gratuitously cruel article concerning Rabbi Angela Buchhdal that just appeared in your paper. In light of the attitudes expressed by poskim such as Rabbi Kalischer and Rabbi Amsalem, I am surprised that a frum newspaper like yours presents the fullness and diversity of Jewish law on conversion in such a simple and distorting manner.

The only thing is, the distortions are all generated by the honorable Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion president, who either does not understand the stuff those two poskim wrote, never read their stuff and was handed the cites by an intern, or understands that he’s distorting the truth and hopes no one would check.

Oy, he picked on the wrong frum newspaper…

Most of all, in light of the talmudic passage that equates the sin of shaming a fellow person in public to murder, I am astonished that you would allow such a piece to single out Rabbi Buchhdal by name and that you assume an article that was written in another newspaper and upon which your author draws for his piece reveals all the facts about her life. That your article would appear in Elul as our people prepare to stand before our Maker in teshuvah during the Yamim Noraim next month is beyond comprehension.

This one is harder to refute than the misleading information and outright lies in the first two paragraphs. I believe that had Buchhdal been minding her own business, singing her lovely Jewish tunes in her packed synagogue, we’d stay away from the story. Check out our website and see how many times we sought out any individual Reform rabbi for scorn – I think the only other time we did it was in reference to the Jewish BDS movement.

But Buchhdal became the poster child for the grotesque notion of a rabbi who needn’t bother to convert to Judaism before they start giving Yom Kippur drashas at the podium. There we actually have an obligation, as a website by and for observant Jews, to expose this silliness.

Sinas Chinam and Yamim Noraim talk have become the new flag in which Reform scoundrels are wrapping themselves, and yet—to seriously mix metaphors here—the emperor still has no clothes.

We at HUC-JIR surely have our own principled position in regard to Judaism and we are very proud of our students and the education they receive to qualify them as rabbis and cantors among the people Israel. Among these students, no one is more gifted, knowledgeable, and committed to Yiddishkeit than Rabbi Buchhdal. Happy are we that our fate is tied up with hers and that we had the zechut to be her m’kom torah. We only wish we had thousands more like Rabbi Buchhdal, who brings the beauty and truth of our massoret to the Jewish and general public. A true disciple of Aaron Hacohen, Rabbi Buchhdal, in the words of Pirkei Avot, “loves and pursues peace, and loves her fellow creatures.” In so doing, she “brings them close to Torah.” She deserves better than to be singled out as she was in this article.

David Ellenson, President Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

We’re willing to concede that Angela Buchhdal is the spitting image of Aaron Hacohen, a woman of peace and valor, bringing Jews close to the Torah in the spirit of our massoret.

But she’s not Jewish. She can become Jewish, not a problem, we’d love to have someone as highly regarded as she in the fold. I could recommend several lovely, moderate Jewish rabbis who would be honored to take her through the process, free of charge.

Until she does that, there isn’t one, single, singular, itzy bitzy tiny Jewish posek anywhere in the history of Judaism since Ezra the Scribe who even suggests she’s Jewish.

Yori Yanover

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

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