Why We Need a Reversion of Conversion-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

A while back I sent a certain Orthodox rabbi a link to Rabbi Marc Angel’s article about conversion which appeared in the Forward http://www.forward.com/articles/11985/ in which Rabbi Angel argues quoting former chief Sephardic Rabbi Uziel, that we should err on the side of accepting converts rather than rejecting them and criticizes the high barriers the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has placed before those who wish to be part of our people.    The particular rabbi’s response to me was, “Don’t get involved with ideas and people which are so extremely liberal, everyone like that wants to hang their hat on Rav Uziel the one minority opinion.”  End of conversation.

Another conversion experience:  Several years ago I brought a very sincere potential convert  to a Orthodox Bait Din which had functioned for many years and whose conversions are widely accepted.   The potential ger had a Jewish father and non Jewish mother, and no Jewish girlfriend or wife that he wished to please.  He just wanted to be an observant, full-fledged Jew.  After about a year of study and several meetings with the bait din the bait din brought him in for what I assumed would be his final meeting and conversion, he was fully religious, studying torah and attending synagogue, had taught himself Hebrew off the internet and was actually studying mishnah and chumash on his own in Hebrew by this point.  A no brainer. 

After his meeting I asked how it went, when would the mikvah be?  He answered that they had given him a test of which he knew practically all the answers, except for all the names of the Hebrew months, and they had sent him back to wait another 6 months before converting him asking him to study more halacha, specifically a book by Rabbi Shimon Eider on the laws of the 3 weeks and a 150 page English halacha book on the laws of yichud, the  laws pertaining to with whom and when one is allowed to be in a room together with someone of the opposite gender.  

Enraged I called the head of the bait din, “isn’t this a violation of “lo tunu et hageer”   (The biblical commandment not to oppress the stranger, which some commentaries applies even to one just considering conversion) I asked?  

“We are volunteers,” he replied, “I will not convert someone if there is a chance they will not observe a law on my account.”

I tell these stories now for two reasons.  Recently I had two experiences that offer at least a bit of indication that things may change.  That we have gone so far to one extreme that we may soon see the light and the Torah’s way and experience a corrective return to the middle.   Myself and several other rabbis met with Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a member of Kenneset from the Shas party.  Rabbi Amsalem showed us the 2 volume magnum opus he has just published entitled “Zera Yisrael,” “seed of Israel”  which refers to someone who is not technically Jewish by birth but has some connection to the Jewish people, a Jewish father or grandparent, or perhaps lives in the Jewish country fighting its wars and casting their lot with its people.  

Such people are not halachically Jewish but are not like other non-Jews either, they occupy an intermediate space in Jewish law referred to as zera yisrael, much as the person in my story above or the myriads of Jews I see on a daily basis in America who due to an entire generation assimilating have a Jewish father or grandfather and a non Jewish mother.   In his book, which he says Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef is willing to support, he argues that the opinion of Rabbi Uziel that someone, especially a person with a previous connection to the Jewish people, should be able to convert even without full acceptance of the commandments, is actually the opinion of tens of rishonim, early halachic commentators.    Not just a minority opinion ”upon which liberal hang their hat”.

Another experience was a speaker I heard today, Rabbi Telushkin, who has just written a book on the sage Hillel.  Well known are the stories in which a person wanting to convert but with outlandish demands, such as convert me while I stand on one foot, convert me on the condition that you make me a kohen gadol, convert me on the condition that I accept only the written torah and not the oral one, is rejected outright by Shamai and immediately accepted and converted by Hillel.  Only afterward did Hillel teach them the torah.  Rabbi Telushkin put it well, “Though Hillel always wins in the gemara, it is Shamai who wins in Jewish life.”  That just about sums it up I think.  

And so perhaps soon we will realize that though the words of Shamai are also the words of the living God, the law is like Hillel who is almost always lenient.  It seems this is what our tradition is supposed to be, leniency that results, as the converts say of Hillel, in lovingly bringing others underneath the wings of the divine presence.

7 Responses to Why We Need a Reversion of Conversion-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Dov says:

    Do you know if Rabbi Amsalem’s book is in stores, or where I could get a copy here in Israel?

    Thanks.

  2. sarah leah says:

    BS”D

    It isn’t that there is machlokes between Shamai and Hillel, as would be understood only on the most superficial level. It is that Hillel in this world – Shamai in time of Moshiach. Both are right. Their “disagreements” were shem shamayim – not an iota of ego.

    Re converts – should be people who will keep. It is not a neshomo that is “re-connecting” to Torah, from which it was separated if not willing to live by Torah. To do what is comfortable when one feels like it – not “kabalas ol”.

    The Forward is a worthless, misleading rag – for starters.

  3. JJ says:

    Long before Rabbi Amsalem’s book it was obvious that R. Uziel’s position is far from unique. See e.g.,

    http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/09/marc-b-shapiro-responses-to-comments.html

    the people who say kabbalat hamitzvot means that you have to fulfill all the mitzvot are am haratzim. The Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer says otherwise

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yebamot, page 24B, 20th line on page:

    No converts to Judaism will be accepted in the era of the Messiah.

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yebamot, page 24B, 21st line on page:

    No converts to Judaism were accepted in the era of King David and King Solomon

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yebamot, page 109B, 10th line on page:

    Evil after evil will come upon those who accept converts.

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bechorot, page 30B, first thick line on page:

    If a Gentile is prepared to accept the Torah, except for ONE religious law, we do NOT accept him. Rabbi Yosi ben Judah says: Even if he rejects one of the laws of the Sages.
    NOTE: Tosfeta, tractate Demai 2:6 replaces the word Gentile with the word convert.

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Niddah, page 13B, 14th line on page:

    Our Rabbis taught: Converts and Meshachkin BeTinokot delay the arrival of the messiah.

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Emor, chapter 11:
    The Golden Calf was built by converts.

    Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, author of Ohr HaChaim:

    In the days soon before the final redemption, the Jews will be prosperous and respectable.
    Many converts will join Judaism for worldly, and not spiritual, considerations.
    SOURCE: Torah Tavlin, 2009 March 14
    CHRONOLOGY: Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, born 1696, died 1742.

    Rabbi Isaac Herzog, The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel:
    Ruled that: in a period of lax mitzvah observance, rabbis must be stricter, not more lenient, in accepting converts, for it can not be assumed that those who wish to join the community of Jews will continue to keep mitzvot.
    SOURCE: Jonathan Rosenblum, March 14, 2003, in The Jerusalem Post,
    article titled: Too Few Jews Or Too Many?

    Rabbi Isaac Herzog, The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel:
    As the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Herzog wrote, the burden on the Beit Din is much heavier in contemporary times, when a convert is not necessarily joining an overwhelmingly observant Jewish community.
    SOURCE: Jonathan Rosenblum, May. 29, 2008, The Jerusalem Post, article titled: Think Again: On Halacha, No Compromises

    Rabbi Emanuel Feldman:
    What is a non-serious convert? Sadly, most of the conversions taking place today in America fall into this category, because they are by and large devoid of any serious commitment to Torah practice or belief. Most conversions being done today are of the quickie, convenient variety, usually motivated by the desire to paper over an intermarriage, and by and large they are presided over by rabbis who themselves do not believe in the Divine origin of the Torah and do not practice its mitzvot.
    SOURCE: Page 273 of On Judaism by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, 1994, Shaar Press, Brooklyn, NY ISBN 0-89906-034-X.
    BIOGRAPHY: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman was leader of an Orthodox synagogue for over 35 years in Atlanta and is a former editor of Tradition, a scholarly Jewish publication.

    * Shimson (Sampson) was a great Torah scholar who served as Chief Judge of the Jewish people 20 years. He married a convert woman, Delilah, whose betrayal caused his death.

    * King David had two sons who rebelled against him and tried to kill him.
    Both were sons of convert women.

    * King Solomon married many convert women. When they continued to worship their old idols even after converting to Judaism, G_d criticized King Solomon for it.

    * The righteous Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was forced to hide in a cave for 12 years because Yehudah ben Gerim reported his conversation to the Roman Government (tractate Shabbat, page 33B). Yehudah ben Gerim means Yehudah son of converts.

    * Converts may not be appointed to the Sanhedrin [Jewish Supreme Court].

    * Converts may not become Neviim [prophets], except for Obadiah.

    * Before 1967, conversion to Judaism was extremely rare. Then Israel won the Six Day War, and suddenly conversion to Judaism became popular.
    __________________________________________________
    To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books, go to:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    {1} Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 29, Paragraph 15:

    A person who converts to Judaism to marry a Jew is comparable to a mule (chamore, the stupidest animal).

    {2} Minor Tractates of the Talmud, Tractate Gerim, Chapter 1, Law 7:

    Anyone who converts to Judaism for the sake of [marrying] a Jewish woman, or fear, or love [of money] is NOT a convert…
    Anyone who is NOT converted from purely religious motives is NOT a convert.

    {3} Yalkut Shimoni, comment on Shemot, chapter 12, Remez 213:

    When a man converts to Judaism because he wants to marry a Jewish woman, G_d says to him:

    You converted because of a nebelah [the carcass of an animal that is not kosher because it was not slaughtered correctly].

    {4} Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Yoreh Deah, Siman 268, Sif 12:

    A potential convert must be investigated to find if he or she is converting to marry a Jew.

    {5} Syrian Rabbis Decree of 1935:

    Conversions done for marriage are “invalid and worthless.”

    {6} Rabbi Emanuel Feldman his book: On Judaism, published in 1994:

    Most conversions being done today are of the quickie variety, usually motivated by the desire to paper over an intermarriage…
    __________________________________________________
    To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books, go to:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

  6. Paul Stein says:

    Rabbi Shafner,

    Mazel Tov on the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of your son.
    You and all of Klal Yisroel should receive much nachas from all of your children.

    Now, why would a Beis Din want to convert someone that they believe has a reasonable chance of not living a fully observant lifestyle? For example, if a Beis Din converts someone and that person has not demonstrated fully a willingness to always dress in a tznius manner, to only eat Kosher, to observe shabbos, to follow the laws of Taharas Mishpacha, then why would we want to convert this person? This person, through conversion, will now be judged as a Jew! As a Jew, myself, I am petrified of judgment day because I know Hashem has such high standards for us. However, I didn’t have a choice! Why place this upon someone in whom we are not certain of their dedication, at least beyond a reasonable doubt. I would argue it is a disservice to convert this individual.

    I can think of one very high profile recent convert to Judaism in which I cannot believe any Rav wouldn’t have serious doubts about the likelihood of this person living a fully observant lifestyle. Did we do this person a favor? Did we do Klal Yisroel a favor?

    Looking forward to your response.

    All the best,

    Paul

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