Pew, Continuity and Conversion – Guest Post by Prof. Zvi Zohar

July 31, 2014

Precis

The findings of the recent Pew survey teach us, that the Jewish community in the United States as a whole is in a state of crisis (aka she’at ha-dhaq) with regard to the simple – but crucial – issue of numeric continuity. This fact has halakhic consequences: we can (and should) apply be-di-avad rules, follow minority opinions etc. to the utmost of whatever halakha can allow, with the goal of overcoming or at least ameliorating the she’at ha-dhaq situation.

In this paper I argue that Orthodox rabbis should shoulder halakhic responsibility for preventing numerical decline of American Jewry as a whole (i.e., they should make halakhic decisions not only caring for the future of Orthodox Jews, but for the future of all Jews).

Concretely, this means that they should be warmly encouraging towards all persons who seek to become Jewish, and follow the most lenient options for giyyur extent in halakhic literature with regard to what is the minimum required be-di-avad for a giyyur to be valid. In doing so, they can rely upon the views of the three great scholars I cite, whose halakhic stature is objectively no less than that of rabbi Moshe Feinstein. (The fact that they are less well known in the U.S. basically reflects the quite insular world of many American Orthodox rabbis.) Even were it the case that these rabbis express a minority opinion, that is of no consequence here, because we are not discussing what is the most correct position in an ideal world le-khathila but rather what options exist that can be employed in a be-di-avad situation.

Prof. Zvi Zohar is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University. He has written extensively on the history and development of halakha. His most recent book is Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013).

Introduction

The October 2013 Pew Report underscored the fragility of the Jewish future in North America and has led to anguished discussions and debates regarding “continuity”, i.e., how to reduce the number of Jews relinquishing Judaism and Jewish identification in favor of other options.

But given the nature of the American religious scene, as I will present below, it is simply impossible to assure Jewish continuity by such a strategy alone. Rather, only if a strategy of easing the path of conversion is joined with current educational efforts and programs do we stand a chance of achieving continuity.

Such a strategy is of course at odds with the notion that conversion should be discouraged and difficult. However, that notion itself was not the primordial position of our tradition but rather historically conditioned. Encouragement of would-be converts and the intentional application of   the more  lenient positions found in our sources  can be fully justified from within the halakhic tradition — particularly in times of crisis such as ours.

Stating the Problem Honestly

Even if 100 percent of all children born to Jews in the United States were to remain Jewish, the Jewish population would decline significantly over time, because of the simple fact reported by Pew that Jewish adults aged 40-59 have an average of 1.9 children – while 2.1 children in a family represents the minimum fertility replacement level, that is, the level at which births equal deaths in a society with good health services. Although I am Orthodox, the fact that Orthodox Jewish families have an average of 4.1 children is no consolation to me. My concern is for the future of the entire community and not for any particular sub-group alone. Indeed, I believe that religiously and morally, such horizons of concern are befitting all Jews – and especially the Orthodox.

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A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Israeli Rabbinate: An Episode Seen from Three Perspectives

I.

Rabbi Avi Weiss announced last October that his letters attesting to the Jewish status of members of his community who had moved to Israel were no longer acceptable to the rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate. When pressed to justify their rejection, a spokesman for the rabbinate explained last month that controversial positions that Rabbi Weiss had taken over the years, as reported to them by anonymous American rabbis, rendered Rabbi Weiss suspect in their eyes and insufficiently Orthodox even to vouch for the personal status of members of his community.

Since Rabbi Weiss broke this story, he has been able to mobilize an impressive list of colleagues, students, and other allies, both in Israel and in the diaspora, to advocate on his behalf.  Late last week, the rabbanut announced that they would, once again, accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters regarding personal status when members of his community move to Israel.  Just last Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a larger agreement with the rabbanut, wherein they would take responsibility for verifying the Jewish status of the congregants of any of its member-rabbis and that the rabbanut would, as a matter of course, accept the status-determinations made here in America.

Like a Mandelbrot fractal image, no matter how narrowly or how broadly one examines this episode, the shape is the same and raises fundamental questions.  Broadly speaking, there are three levels to this episode and three important contexts for the ensuing conversation.

II.

The first level is the question of “who is Orthodox?”  For those of us love rabbinic politics (or love to hate rabbinic politics), and for those who have some personal connection to the question – this is an important and compelling question. But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought. Furthermore, within the context of the decades long battle over the place of Liberal Orthodoxy within the broader Orthodox community, there are no surprises. Anyone who has read the polemics surrounding Liberal Orthodoxy, or about Rabbi Weiss himself, that have been published in the past fifteen years already knows that there are segments of the Orthodox world who no longer consider Rabbi Weiss, and inter-alia, his students, to be Orthodox.  Secretly encouraging the rabbanut to reject Rabbi Weiss letters was, perhaps, a new low, and a worrisome escalation, but it was not a move that should have been surprising.

That being said, there are two new elements of this stage of the story that should be noted, condemned, and responded to. First, several of the most consistent and fiercest critics of Liberal Orthodoxy published essays or blog-posts in the past two weeks that disagreed with the decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss’ letters. Those conflicted critics, and those who agree with them, should experience this episode as a wake-up call. The sensationalist attacks on Rabbi Weiss could have no other long-term effect among those who believe them, other than the total inability of Rabbi Weiss to function as part of the Orthodox rabbinate. That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.

Second, the RCA has a need to investigate and identify (at least as part of an internal review) the anonymous source(s) that the rabbanut relied upon to initially disqualify Rabbi Weiss. The ability of the elected leadership and professional staff of the RCA to direct the organization for the benefit of its membership and for the benefit of Torah, necessitates the ability to adopt policies and implement them. Rogue rabbis who speak in the name of the organization without authorization render all of that collective action impossible. Having been burned once, the rabbanut, one hopes, will be more discriminating regarding from whom it accepts information. In turn, the RCA needs to restore its ability to devise and implement policies.

III.

Ironically, the public and private defenses of Rabbi Weiss, from organizations that he is affiliated with and from his colleagues, students, and allies, all affirmed his faithfulness to Orthodox beliefs and practices, and argued that he should be entitled to all of the legal privileges of Orthodox rabbis. This, however, only begged the question of why Orthodox rabbis alone should have this legal status in the State of Israel. More than a few non-Orthodox Jews, and other astute observers, have publicly condemned the resolution of this latest episode as being insignificant for their aims of bringing religious diversity to Israel. The struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is the second context within which to examine this episode. Both those who condemn and those who embrace religious pluralism should recognize that the past two weeks have been insignificant to that broader cause.

IV.

But the rabbanut, the state rabbinate, is not an independent variable. The role and function of the rabbanut is dependent on the tasks that the state asks it to perform and that is connected to a much broader question. What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” The State of Israel currently defines itself as a Jewish state – at least in part – in an ethnic-religious way. This means that those who can prove a Jewish ethnic background, or who were converted by the right sort of rabbis, are entitled by law to a certain legal status. And, as long as that remains the case, there will be a need for a centralized government agency that can keep track of who is Jewish and who is not.

This broader context, to me, is the most interesting perspective from which to contemplate the latest episode between Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinate.  So long as the conversation remains, “is Rabbi Weiss sufficiently Orthodox for the purposes of a certain government agency” or even if the question is expanded to include, “what kind of diaspora rabbi will have the ability to affect the legal status of Israeli citizens?” then the conversation is one that is beyond the conventions of democratic public discourse. “Rabbi Weiss is indeed an Orthodox rabbi” is not a liberal cry. Nor is, “every rabbi should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State of Israel,” at least not as liberalism has been understood for centuries.

The State of Israel was established because the Zionist visionaries understood that nation-states can uniquely protect their citizens from the threat of violence and that the Jewish people needed our own nation-state to protect our lives in a dangerous and threatening world. Nation states can also sponsor, protect, and encourage a national culture in various guises. But nation-states, at least in the democratic world, are ill-equip to answer questions like, “who is a rabbi?” or “what are the boundaries of acceptable halakhic behavior?” Those sorts of questions, however, are asked and answered every day by kehilot, by communities, and by the religious leadership of those communities.  And because we don’t depend on each other for our physical survival, it’s OK for our kehilot, our shuls, and our religious movements and denominations, to answer those questions in different, or even contradictory, ways.

Think of what you love about living in Israel or visiting there. Think about what the State of Israel means for world Jewry and its significance in the grand sweep of Jewish history. Does any of that depend on a government office collecting lists of Jewish and gentile citizens?

A kehillah is capable of organizing around a common religious vision and a common purpose. That sort of unity, ish echad b’lev echad, as Rashi taught us last week in Parashat Yitro, is a preface to receiving Torah.  But a nation-state cannot easily impose that degree of unity.  Contrary to Kobi Oz’s creative lyrics, the State of Israel is not a giant shul.  Let’s learn to unite where we should, and to foster diversity where that is needed.  We in the diaspora should celebrate all that Israel represents for us, and do what we can to ensure Israel’s safety and flourishing. But we should not look to Israel to resolve questions of Jewish identity that we can more properly answer at home.


International Rabbinic Fellowship Sukkot Supplement 5774

September 11, 2013

IRF Sukkot Supplement 5774

The International Rabbinic Fellowship is pleased to present this supplement in time for Sukkot 5774. Please follow the link for brief articles exploring several facets of the observance of Sukkot.

Table of Contents:

Can Emotional Pain Exempt Someone from the Mitzvah of Sukkah?

by Rabbi Jason Weiner

Inviting Non-Jews and Conversion Candidates to Yom Tov Meals

by Rabbi Barry Gelman

Halakhic Approaches to Ensuring an Inclusive Shabbat Table

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Sukkah Building Guidelines

by Rabbi Barry Gelman


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

November 23, 2011

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!