Non-Israeli Orthodox Conversions in Israel

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A few days ago Rabbi Lazer Brody, a Breslover rabbi in Israel who has an interesting blog posted the following:

"For the many of you who are writing and asking, I am strongly opposed to the Israeli Government Rabbinate’s position of not recognizing the conversions of all certified Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. This decision negates the spirit of smicha, and is a blow to the dignity of rabbis all across the globe. As a matter of solidarity, I want my colleagues around the world to know that I hereby protest the affront. The Israeli Rabbinate has no right to rewrite the Shukchan Oruch in their own quest for oligarchy."

What Rabbi Brody is complaining about relates to what has recently been reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and others that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is no longer accepting most Orthodox conversions done outside of Israel.

Now schadenfreude — feeling joy at someone else’s downfall or troubles — is very much NOT a Jewish sentiment.  We are cautioned not to feel any joy at someone else’s problems.  The Midrash tells us when the angels wanted to sing after God parted the Red Sea, He stopped them, saying "how can you sing when my children are drowning in the sea?"  So I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to feeling a flash of schadenfreude when I heard this news.  Because now Orthodox rabbis in America know what it feels like to be a Conservative rabbi in America and have your converts rejected by the religious authorities in Israel for no valid basis whatsoever.

Rav Lazer wrote that he is distressed that Rabbinate does not accept conversions from all "certified Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora."  I would say instead that I am distressed that the Rabbinate does not accept all conversions that were done according to halacha.

I agree that the Rabbinate has no right to re-write the Shulhan Arukh.  And the Shulhan Arukh clearly states the requirements for conversion.  We instruct the candidate in some of the major and minor mitzvot, he acknowledges being bound by the commandments, if he is a man he is either circumcised or has a ritual drop of blood drawn in hatafat dam brit, and then man or woman the convert is immersed in the mikvah.  There are certain requirements for the witnesses to the procedure, but there is a principle in halacha which states that after the fact, even if the witnesses weren’t kosher, the procedure is still valid.  The Shulhan Arukh clearly states (YD 268:12) that even if they didn’t check up on the proselyte, even if they didn’t inform him of the reward and punishment of the mitzvot, even if he had an ulterior motive, after the fact the conversion is valid.  By going through circumcision and immersion in the mikvah he has removed himself from the "idol worshippers."

The Orthodox world bases their objection to accepting Conservative conversions on a teshuva that was written by Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading halachic authorities of the Orthodox movement in the 20th century claiming that Reform rabbis were "kofrim," deniers of the truth — heretics if you will — and therefore couldn’t be accepted even after the fact.  Other rabbis extended this to include Conservative rabbis as well.

There is no basis in the Shulhan Arukh for this new category of kofrim.  Many of his colleagues considered Maimonides a heretic for his radical ideas that God has no body and it was a good idea to write a law code.  Last year’s heretic can be this year’s chasid.  As I wrote in my d’var torah from last week (see Bamidbar 5766) Ibn Ezra had some comments that indicate his view of Torah may have been exactly like mine.  Nowhere does it say that one must subscribe to all 13 of Rambam’s principles of faith without reservation or interpretation to be a kosher witness or judge.

A conversion has either been conducted according to halacha, or it wasn’t.  I find it sort of ironic that people often lump Conservative together with Reform, when in fact in many ways Conservative is much more like Orthodox.  Just like the Orthodox, most Conservative rabbis believe God gave the Torah — or at least the essence of the Torah — to the Jewish people through Moses.  Conservative rabbis, like Orthodox rabbis, believe we are bound to obey all the commandments (we may differ on some interpretations of how we observe them).  There are many Reform rabbis, on the other hand, who would say the Torah is strictly the work of people, and the ritual commandments are optional (my response to that is they are the ten commandments, not the ten suggestions).  Yet despite the fact that the gulf between me and some Reform rabbis theologically is far greater than the gulf between me and most Orthodox rabbis, I accept Reform conversions as long as the proper procedures were followed.  There are some Reform rabbis who are observant of the commandments whom I would, and have, included as part of a beit din to supervise a conversion.  There are others I would not.  One can’t make a ruling against an entire class of rabbis based strictly on which rabbinical union they belong to.  The question has to be do they follow the rules or not.

Rejecting conversions because you don’t like who did them also leads to an increase in divisiveness in k’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole.  We need to bend over backwards to find ways to accept each other, not to find ways to reject each other.  The Talmud tells us we should always "dan l’chaf zchut," give people the benefit of the doubt, and Rebbe Nachman tells us to always seek out the good point in other people.

I am not happy that Orthodox conversions are also being rejected by the Rabbinate.  It saddens me as a sign of a growing gap between Jewry in Israel and Jewry in the diaspora.  But perhaps some good will come out of it.  Perhaps my Orthodox colleagues will join the movement to break the Israeli government’s involvement in religion.  There should be no coercion in matters of religion.  Any rabbi — Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform — should be able to officiate at government recognized weddings or conversions in Israel.  Just as in the rest of the world, it should be up to an individual rabbi to decide whether he wants to accept someone else’s converts as valid.  The Israeli government has no business deciding which rabbi is kosher and which is not.

This is an example of another one of the reasons why I am making aliyah–I believe these issues are important to the future of the Jewish people, and I want to go to Israel where I can vote and have some influence on these things.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

7 thoughts on “Non-Israeli Orthodox Conversions in Israel

  • May 28, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    As much as I am extremely disturbed and personally affected by this news, I do hope that in the end it will bring about some good dialogue on the subject. Orthodox adoptive families from abroad who make aliyah will now find themselves in the same position as those in the “other” movements who have been forced to decide between re-converting or staying with an unrecognized conversion. Hopefully we will see that we are all the same after all….and many of us are now in the same boat too…

  • May 29, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    “We instruct the candidate in some of the major and minor mitzvot, he acknowledges being bound by the commandments”

    But what does being bound by the commandments mean? When I was taught by a Conservative Rabbi and converted by a Conservative beit din I knew it did not mean I had to keep kosher as the Conservative movement understood it. It meant I should know a little about kashrut. It did not mean I should be shomer shabbat according to Conservative underestanings (thus allowing driving to and from synagogue if necessary & using electricity as long as the electricity did not itself cause a melacha). It meant that I should acknowledge shabbat in some way.

    I have been to over 5 conservative conversions, have a number of friends that were converted by conservative batei din within the last 10 years, and have worked with converts from across the movements on the internet. And I have yet to meet a conservative convert that converted in the last 10 years anywhere in the US that believed that their sponsoring rabbi and/or their beit din meant “You are required to keep shabbat and kashrut as understood by Conservative poskim”.

    I’m not saying none of us do/did that but not a one of us believed it was required of us. Maybe I have only met the exceptions to the rule, but I am talking about converts from a variety of places, not the product of a single beit din.

  • May 29, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    Malka I invite you to contact any of the gerim I have brought into the fold. By the time I bring any of them to the mikveh they are shomer kashrut and shomer Shabbos. I do hold it as a requirement. I also expect gerim to attend services regularly before going to the mikvah. What they do after is between them and God, of course, but when I bring them in they are observant. I advise them in the process if they have a problem with that Reform conversion may be what’s for them.

    That being said, I acknowledge, sadly, that I may be something of an exception among my colleagues on this point — many I think interpret “kabbalat ohl mitzvot” as meaning the candidate agrees that in theory they are obligated to follow the rules, and they need to be on a path moving in that direction.

    In my Intro to Judaism course, I devote an entire class session to “Halacha and Commandness” where we explore the spiritual significance of being obligated to the mitzvot.

    Reb Barry

  • June 4, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    “I acknowledge, sadly, that I may be something of an exception among my colleagues on this point — many I think interpret “kabbalat ohl mitzvot” as meaning the candidate agrees that in theory they are obligated to follow the rules, and they need to be on a path moving in that direction.”

    If the vast majority of Conservative Rabbis don’t require more than lip-service to kabbalat ohl mitzvot, why would you expect Orthodox Rabbis to consider Conservative conversions legitimate?

  • June 4, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    There are actually three reasons:

    1) There is some ambiguity in the traditional halachic sources as to what specifically is required for kabbalat ohl mitzvot.

    2) The sources also state that even if kabbalat ohl mitzvot (along with other examinations of the beit din) was not done probably, b’dievad (after the fact) the conversion is none the less valid.

    3) In any event, I would expect the Orthodox to do the same thing I do when I am presented with a Reform or Reconstructionist conversion: I make inquiries to determine whether the conversion was done halachically or not, and if it was done halachically I accept it.

    Reb Barry


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