It is meritorious to be a Jew: The conversion of children –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Recently I met with a young couple whose wedding I will soon perform.   They are both observant and the man was born a Jew.  The woman was converted as a young child since her mother was not Jewish, though her father was.   She and her siblings were converted as children by a very Chashuv Rav (learned Rabbi) about 20 years ago.  When I looked at the letter from the Rav about her conversion it said in Hebrew:   “So and so is from a family in which her father is Jewish and her mother is not, the family is connected to the Jewish community and though not observant at all does make Kiddush and Havdalah.  And so I am relying on the pisak (legal decision) of Rav Moshe Feinstein that gerut (conversion) is a zecut (a merit) and I am converting her as a minor.

Sitting across from the couple I said to her, thank God you were converted 20 years ago, if you wanted to convert today it would take you years and the process would not be a pleasant one.  Indeed today even children are not converted into homes that are not observant and in which the mother is not Jewish.   There is much talk about how much conversion in general, and the conversion of children specifically, has changed in the last few years in the Orthodox community and this experience shined a spotlight on it.

As a rabbi in an Orthodox shul which has few barriers to entry I meet many people who have taken for granted for their whole lives that they are Jewish, only to discover that they are not halchically (according to Jewish law), in an Orthodox shul, considered a Jew.  The pain they undergo at having the carpet of their identity pulled out from under them is severe.

When such things happen, for instance when this past Simchat Torah I had to tell a dedicated person in my shul that though they had assumed all their life they were Jewish, though they were becoming observant, though they felt part and parcel of the community, they could not have an alyah (be called to the torah) like the rest of the men in the room, it caused me great pain and them even greater pain.   A violation of one of the most numerous warnings in the Torah, viahavtem et hager, you shall love the ger (the stranger, the convert) and not cause them pain.  (I know I should have called them up anyway since kavod habriot, human dignity, pushes aside all rabbinic commandments, but I did not).

In my synagogue I have several families with non-halachically Jewish children who have chosen to grow in their observance and send their children to orthodox day school, but are not completely Shomer Shabbat, though all are on a journey to it.   Not a fast journey, those are almost never a good idea, a slow and organic journey, which is what I encourage.    We would save much pain for the child and family if we went back to the standard practice of 20 years ago and converted these children into non-observant families.  When such a child reaches 12 or 13 and is still not converted (as with one family’s children I know whom though the children and father are fully observant the Beit Din (rabbinical court) will not convert them as the mother smokes on Shabbat) it is going to be incredibly painful.  No bar mitzvah like their other friends in day school, no being counted in the minyan, etc.  The pain we will cause them will be a violation of halacha much deeper and wider than any that could result from Rav Moshe’s type of ger katan (child conversion) into a non-observant home.

Let us hold the banner of Torah high and not let the fearful Batey Din of today distort the Torah’s values.   Let us love the ger and not cause them pain.   I know what you are thinking…..that kind of love and menchlichtkeit and not causing pain only applies after one has converted….wrong, according to many opinions it applies before.   From the first time they express the interest in being a Jew.   Let us stop giving into the amorphous fear and start truly loving the ger now!

16 Responses to It is meritorious to be a Jew: The conversion of children –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. ilanadavita says:

    Very thoughtful position. it is a pity your view is not shared by more Orthodox rabbis.

  2. adam frank says:

    Kavod Habriot would allow a non-Jew to receive an aliyah la’Torah?

  3. Rav Shafner, you present this as being so simple. Intellectual honesty would demand that you not present this so simplistically; that you show the nuances that complicate the issue. Anything less is misleading your readers, which I’m sure you don’t mean to do. Unlike your first commenter, I know this wasn’t as thoughtful is it might and ought to be.

    For one thing, the situation described in the converting rabbi’s letter. The family (as the families you describe in your synagogue, too) is already well assimilated into the Jewish community and the child thinks of himself only as Jewish. One has to distinguish this from a child who is not Jewish, and a Jewish couple is considering adopting him, but not raising him as observant; or other similar situations. Different particular situations may well require different responses.

    For another, Rav Moshe Feinstein makes a particular judgement call based on the notion that it is a privilege to be a Jew and have a holy Jewish soul and attachment to the Jewish people. His language clearly conveys this. Personally, I think it is a very lofty and deep notion; but I can see how if I said this among a general Jewish audience in America, many would consider it chauvinist or maybe even racist. If they do think that way, then they could not in honesty rely on his decision that the child should be converted relying on this leniency. (I believe his language in his actual responsa show he is accommodating and not seeing this as a preferred thing. You failed to mention that, too.)

    The very fact that the converting rabbi in the letter says “I am relying on the psak of Rav Moshe Feinstein” is almost certainly because he realizes this is truly stretching the halachic envelope and he needs a big authority to rely on. He knows this is not accepted (even many years ago, unlike what you imply in your own comment) as a norm. Indeed, in previous generations this issue was discussed by rabbis who had great compassion and concern for the public. Who was a greater lover of Jews than Rav Kook? Yet he and other authorities independently write adamantly in responsa that to convert a child who will be raised in a non-observant home is a disservice to the child. All it will do is create liabilities for him, since he will not be carrying out the Divine commandments to which he is obligated. As such, he argues, we do him a disservice creating this burden of guilt or liability on his shoulders in relation to the heavenly court. What’s more, the conversion may not even be valid, since it lacks the very premise that made it possible. Converting a minor means converting him without consent. This can only be done relying on the principle that the court is benefiting him – hence Rav Feinstein having to rely on the notion that it is a privilege to be a Jew. But if we consider the liability issue as more real, as Rav Kook and many others did; then the court is not benefiting the child. If the court is not benefiting the child, they are acting outside their authority and the entire act (the conversion) may be null and void from its inception.

    Of course you, and any rav in his community, may and must take positions on matters of halacha. I am not disputing that for a moment. I merely suggest that when presenting a topic like this to the public, that doing so in a simplistic and dogmatic manner does the public and God’s Torah a disservice.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      Well said. I am the first to admit there are many sides to every halacha and many opinions. I think we learn from the stories of Hillel and Shami in the gemara (Shabbat 31a) that when it comes to letting people into the Jewish community, when it comes to increasing love of God in the world and the number of those doing it as Jews, we must be as makil as we can without threatening the Jewish people. None of this is nearly as makil as Hillel was and it is clear from the gemara that his was the correct path in gerut.
      Thanks for the input,

      • Rav Shafner, is it not remarkable and instructive that Hillel’s extraordinary (and I agree, approved) stances with the converts in g’mara Shabbat are not noted as examples in any normative discussion of the halacha throughout the centuries? Are you actually aware of poskim who write that we should emulate Hillel as simply presented in the g’mara? It seems that the balance of opinions and extremes has moderated that position, too. Even Rav Moshe, as you cited him, has a balance in his positions regarding converting a minor. He clearly states that the preferred position is that the minor be raised and educated by an observant family. Then the conversion is a genuine privilege for him. His other position is certainly a compromise for him, to fit the particular circumstance. We see that he maintained BOTH positions. He certainly did not advocate a simplistic, single approach (neither lenient nor strict) to applied across the board as some one-size-fits-all policy. I would suggest that maybe a lenient compromise as standard policy is as much a halachic mistake as a standard strict policy. I don’t think that is reflected in your essay. You seem to be advocating a standard lenient policy across-the-board; and that doesn’t seem consistent with halachic practice throughout the generations.

      • Hyim Shafner says:

        I agree that there was a time in recent American Jewish history in which being strict on gerut was the right path, the Reform movement was converting a generation of immigrant’s children’s non-Jewish spouses in order to placate their parents. The situation today is 180 degrees changed. Thus I think it is an era in which Hillel’s is truly the correct path. Today it is the grandchildren of that generation who grew up with nothing Jewish who are coming to Orthodox Shuls with tremendous sincerity. As I mentioned before, today conversion in most cases is on the level and a doorway into observance, not a doorway out as in the past.

  4. itchiemayer says:

    Rabbi Shafner,

    It seems to me, that this dedicated member of your Shul that didn’t know he wasn’t Jewish should have been notified of his status as soon as you realized he was not Jewish. It should never have come close to the point where he could have been called up for an aliya on Simchas Torah.

    As a Rabbi of a Kehilla, you have a responsibility to make sure your
    Shul practices don’t compromise halacha. Perhaps it is uncomfortable to have to shatter one’s lifelong belief that he is Jewish, but that is part of your job.

    Being a Jew is an awesome responsibility, and I look to my ultimate day of judgement with fright. I am awed by those righteous people that willingly take on the life of a Torah Jew. Once a Jew, you are judged as a Jew. While that can come with great rewards, it depends on the extent to which you follow the mitzvos. If you suspect someone will eat treif, not keep shabbos, not keep taharas mishpacha, then I am of the belief you are doing them a HUGE disservice by converting them.

    I know in today’s politically correct climate, we’re all about making people “feel good”. In fact, that is the easy path. We all want everyone to like us. However, the Torah way is about truth, which means sometimes having to say no.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Shafner,
    The Torah obligation of V’ahavtem et Hager is said regarding our relationship with a ger. A ger tzedek is a bonafide Jew. You seem to be taking the Mitzva and distorting it to refer to a non-Jew.As far as our relationship with a non-Jew we certainly must behave towards him/her in a dignified and respectful way. Kavod Habriot-yes. But Ahava? That relationship is reserved for a fellow Jew .A born Jew or a Ger Tzedek

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      There are sources which see the mitzvah of loving the ger as applicable even to someone who is in the process of gerut before they have completely become a Jew. See the Sefer Hachinuch under the mitzvah of loving the ger where he says that this applies to anyone who is a foreigner:

      הזכיר לנו שכבר נכוינו בצער הגדול ההוא שיש לכל איש הרואה את עצמו בתוך אנשים זרים ובארץ נכריה, ובזכרנו גודל דאגת הלב שיש בדבר וכי כבר עבר עלינו והשם בחסדיו הוציאנו משם, יכמרו רחמינו על כל אדם שהוא כן.
      -Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 431

      See also Rabbi Prero’s commentary on Rabbi Sadiya Gaon’s book of mitzvot, positive commandments number 19 where he speaks of the mitzvah of accepting a person for gerut and writes that this is either based on the mitzvah of loving the ger or loving God. Either way there is such a mitzvah before the gerut is finished:
      הן אמת שראיתי באזהרת הר”י אלברגלוני דנראה מדבריו ז”ל דס”ל דבכלל עשה דואהבתם את הגר נכללת ג”כ המצוה לקבל גרים להכניסם תחת כנפי השכינה.
      – הר”י פרלא בפי’ לסהמ”צ של רס”ג עשה יט

  6. Anonymous says:

    You are reading words into the Sefer Hachinuch that do not exist.
    Do you base all of your actions and behaviors on a daat yachid (Perlow)?

  7. Hyim Shafner says:

    I have a tradition from Rabbi Magence before me that when it comes to mitzvot bain adam lichavero it is very good to be machmir. I do believe we should go out of our way to be machmir like a daat yachid to love gerim and people in need.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I certainly don’t disagree that one should be machmir on a personal level when it comes to bein adam l’chaviro. However, I would draw the line where the “chumra” comes into conflict with upholding kavod hatorah and kedushat beit haknesset.You were toying with the idea of extending your chumra to allow a non-jew to receive an aliya at the Torah. Rachmana litzlan!!

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      Not b/c of ahavas hager, rather altz kavod habrios, which is usually doche isurim dirabanan. though as i said in the next post a case of meing motzie other their chiuv might be different.

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