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!

Halacha as Business-My Take on the Rotem Bill-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 29, 2010

The recent (now tabled)  bill submitted to the Kenesset by MK Rotem expands the range of whom under law in Israel has the authority to perform conversions, and in addition severely limits anyone’s ability to retroactively undo a conversion performed in Israel.

The bill was formulated by Israel Baytenu, a non-religious party, to facilitate the conversions of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who are Jewish enough to make Aliyah, (they are defined as a Jew according to the Nuremberg laws) yet are not halachically Jewish, such as someone with a paternal grandfather or father who is Jewish.   That the handful of more liberal rabbis of cities who are part of the Rabbanut (but who until this point were either unable to do conversions or the conversions they did do were undone by their more religiously rightwing counterparts) can help to solve the gargantuan dilemma of so many Jewish people who can not under law marry in their own country, is wonderful.

What did this secular party have to offer the other side, the Charedi Rabbanut, in exchange for the possibility of Russian Jews who are not fully observant converting without having their conversions subsequently undone?   The answer of course, as with all things political, is power.  In exchange, the Rabbanut will be the arbiter of all questions of Jewish status.   This possibility has caused the Reform and Conservative movements to become up in arms, at the future possibility that their conversions will no longer be accepted under law for purposes of Aliyah as they are now.   Weather this new bill will effect the ability of someone born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to make Aliyah (that is who is a Jew based on whom Hitler would have killed) is not clear to me.  I have heard different answers to the question.

Maybe I am naïve but what bothers me most about the bill is the reduction of Halachic concerns to the level of a business dealings.   Give us the Russians and in exchange you can have the Conservative and Reform….etc.   If Charedi Rabbis really believe that the conversion of the Russians is outside the bounds of halacha, why are they willing to go along with the bill in exchange for more exclusive power over the definition of who is a Jew?   Practice is then not based on one’s intellectual assessment of halacha but on a political negotiation, which gives something, in this case more jurisdiction, in exchange for halachic compromise.

The beauty of a Jewish country should be that Jewish attitudes and halchic concerns inform all the workings of the state, from the lofty to the mundane.  But this should not work the other way around.  Though Judaism should, I believe, influence politics in Israel, when the opposite is true and politics influences Judaism and Halacha we are going down an appalling path.   Instead of Torah sanctifying the mundane it quickly becomes, in the words of our rabbis, deker lachkor bah, a shovel to dig with.   The mundane sullying Torah.   May the holiness of torah and its ethical and religious teachings color all aspects of life in the holy land and not itself become low, speedily in our days.

The Converts In Our Midst – Rabbi Barry Gelman

January 12, 2010

The following is a digest of the sermon I delivered in my Synagogue on Shabbat, January 9th, 2010

I feel compelled to address the recent conversion controversy in my sermon. I do so because two things changes.
1.    The woman at the center of the controversy converted.
2.    The Houston Jewish community has been painted with broad strokes as not welcoming her ad questioning her conversion.
Let me say at the outset that the Beit Din that performed the conversion is an unimpeachable Beit Din and therefore I consider the woman at the center of the controversy to be Jewish and fully welcomed in this community.
I have also informed her that I would be willing to convene a Beit Din to convert her son (all he needs is immersion in the mikvah).
I want to share with you a number if halachik considerations. These halachot apply equally to all converts.
1. The biblical obligation to love the convert.
This obligation is spelled out in the biblical verse
“Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Maimonides points out that the commandment to love the convert to Judaism actually is doubly powerful as it is superimposed on the existing obligation to love one’s fellow Jews.

Here are Rambam’s words:

“Loving the convert who has taken refuge (lit., ‘came and entered’) beneath the wings of the Divine Presence [comprises] two positive obligations, one because he is included in ‘fellowship’ (and so is included in the obligation to love one’s fellow as himself (Levit. 19:18)), and two because he is a convert and the Torah said, ‘You shall love the convert’ (Deuteronomy 10:19). [The Torah] commanded to love the convert as it commanded to love G-d (lit., ‘His Name’), as it is stated, ‘And you shall love the L-rd your G-d’ (Deut. 6:5). G-d Himself loves converts, as it is stated, ‘…and loves [the] convert’ (ibid., 10:18).” (Hilchot De’ot Chapter 6, Law 4)
Notice that Rambam also compares the love due a convert to the love due God and that God himself loves converts.

In a Responsum, Rambam writes that the obligation to love a convert is even more intense than the obligations we have towards our parents. In relation to our parents we are obligated to respect and fear them – both of which can be accomplished without loving them. In fact, the Torah never commands the love of parents. However, regarding the convert we are obligated to develop actual love for them.

Perhaps the Torah especially commands us regarding loving the convert because it is not always so easy to do so. Often converts come from different cultures, look differently and speak differently than those they are trying to join.
There are often cultural barriers that make it difficult for converts to be fully embraced by the Jewish community.
To all of this, the Torah says: Love the convert – we must work on it and develop love in our hearts.
2. The biblical prohibition of oppressing a convert

This prohibition is spelled out in the biblical verse:

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Sefer Hachinuch elucidates two very important ideas related to how we treat converts in our midst.

First he notes that the capacity to sanctify God’s name or to desecrate God’s name is in our hands in terms of how we treat converts.

“At the root of the precept lies the reason that the Eternal Lord chose the Israelites to be a holy people to Him, and wished to make them meritorious. He therefore guided and ordered them onto the ways of kindly grace and compassion, and adjured them to adorn themselves with every desirable and precious trait of character, to find favor in the eyes of all who behold them, that they should say, “These are the people of the Lord.”

The Sefer Hachinuch ascribes great power in terms of how communities accept and treat converts. Certainly in this local controversy their has been a tremendous chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name. We have the capacity, to a degree, to reverse the chilul Hashem by carefully adhering to the Torah commandments of loving and not oppressing theconvert.

Secondly, the Sefer Hachinuch sensitizes us to the challenges overcome by a convert. “ Well, how much a way of gratification and delight it is to adopt loving kindness and do good for a person who left his nation and the entire family f his father’s and mother’s house, and came to shelter under the wings of another nation, in his affection for it, and in his preference for truth and hatred of falsehood.”

Many of us are aware of the great personal, social and economic struggles endured and sacrifices made by converts to Judaism. It is no easy task to leave behind the religioun on one’s upbringing, family customs and social network. Those who do that must be treated with dignity, respect and maybe even awe.
3.The obligation to pray for the welfare of converts.
The thirteenth blessing in the Amidah includes an explicit prayer for righteous converts. According to some the phrase “Tzadikim” – “righteous” is that blessing refers to converts as well. We are obligated to prayer for the welfare and wellbeing of the converts among us.
Finally, I wish to clarify something very important: There have been press reports painting all of Houston Orthodoxy with one brush in their claims that she has not been welcomed and that her conversion is being questioned. While I do not accept those media reports as being entirely accurate, I do wish to make it clear, that the UOS community fully welcomes her as a member of Am Yisreal.

The famous Ovadiah the convert to whom Rambam famously ruled that he, even as a covert, may recite: “Our God and God of our forefather” in the amidah once complained to Maimonides that his Rabbi has been mocking him for tings he said. In response Rambam addresses Ovadiah ad says: ” He who blessed Abraham your teacher, and gave Abraham his reward in the world and the world to come, should bless you and give you your reward in this world and in the world to come and lengthen your days…”

These words should direct our approach to all Jews by choice in our midst.

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 29, 2009

The last two weeks have brought reports of very troubling allegations against Rabbi Leib Tropper, founder of Eternal Jewish Family (EJF), an organization that has sought to influence conversion standards.

I am not the only one outraged by the recent events related to Rabbi Tropper, who has resigned from his position at EJF. While what he allegedly did (he has not denied it yet) is despicable, the EJF train wreck will actually get worse if all we continue to hear from the EJF leadership is silence.

I have heard number of Rabbis call for the disbanding of the EJF, while there are others who are hopeful that the EJF can recreate itself. One thing is for sure, EJF will never recreate itself if there is no apology.

The current EJF rabbinic leadership must do three things:

1.            Repudiate the actions of Rabbi Tropper,

2.            Apologize for the chillul hashem created by the EJF due to Tropper’s actions, and

3.            Come clean about the various claims of financial “funny business” at the organization.

In the words of Marshal Goldsmith, a well-known leadership consultant, apologizing is “the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make.” He also explains that refusing to say “I am sorry” to someone you may have wronged is the equivalent of saying “I don’t care about you.”

Goldsmith makes the point that when one apologizes, one is in effect saying, “I can’t change the past. All I can say is I’m sorry for what I did wrong. I’m sorry it hurt you. There is no excuse for it and I will try to do better in the future.”

Whether or not the rabbinic leadership of EJF knew about Tropper’s misdeeds is beside the point. (I do find it interesting that so many find it impossible to believe that Tropper duped the rabbinic leadership of the EJF; as if to say that Halachik and Talmudic expertise makes one an expert in human psychology and immune to be tricked by a guy like Tropper.) What is important is that the EJF leadership must take responsibility for what Tropper did if they ever wish to move past this episode.

Finally, I share with you the following from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge them when we make them, apologize, make amends, heal the relationships we harmed, and commit ourselves not to make the same mistake again. That is what turns failure into a learning experience. It’s the cluster of ideas the Bible calls repentance, atonement and forgiveness. It is what makes biblical cultures more humane than their alternatives.

We owe to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict the fundamental distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. In shame cultures what matters is how we are seen by others. In guilt cultures like Judaism and Christianity, what matters is the voice within – conscience, what Freud called the superego, the moral values we internalise and make our own. In shame cultures a person is judged by the honour in which he or she is held. In guilt cultures there is no way of escaping the still, small voice that calls to us as it once called to Adam and Eve saying, “Where art thou?”

Shame cultures seem to lack the idea of forgiveness. If you’ve done wrong, the most important thing is to hope no one will find out. Once they do, there is no way of removing the stain of dishonour or the loss of face. Depending on time and circumstance, the shamed hero either goes off to fight and die in a distant battle, or flees to some remote country, or (in the old British theatrical tradition) disappears offstage to do the decent thing with a loaded revolver in the library of a country house. Shame cultures produce literatures of tragedy.

Guilt cultures produce literatures of hope. King David sins – seriously, as it happens – is confronted by the prophet Nathan and immediately confesses. So do the inhabitants of Nineveh when Jonah finally reaches them and tells them of their impending doom. They are given the greatest gift a culture can confer: the chance to begin again, not held captive by the past.

I urge to EJF leadership to take the path of guilt cultures.

P.B. = Post Blog

After writing this blog post a very sad realization came to me. In the blog I wrote the following: “What is important is that the EJF leadership must take responsibility for what Tropper did if they ever wish to move past this episode.”

After further consideration, I wonder if this will come to pass.  I fear that the Yeshiva world will let this latest scandal slide, like so many others, without calling their leadership to task or at the very least demanding an apology.

I pray that this time, things will be different.

While written before the EJF scandal, the following by Rabbi Avi Shafran certainly applies  –

This one should also ring true –

Making the Law of Return Work for All Jews, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

November 9, 2009

On Friday an Op Ed appeared in the Jerusalem post, written jointly by Rabbi Seth Farber – Orthodox – and Rabbi Ed Rettig – Reform – where together they excoriated the Israeli government and its bureaucratic arms for preventing Jewish converts from becoming Jewish citizens under the Law of Return.  Rather than recognizing all Jewish converts as Jews, as the Israeli Supreme court ordered over a decade ago, the relevant ministries are requiring converts to jump through multi-year hoops in order to gain acceptance.  I would add to it, that I was involved in an Orthodox  conversion that was flat-out rejected since the Interior ministry did not recognize the Beit Din of Evanston as a legitimate Beit Din.

Rather than getting angry at the government of Israel or the ministries or the individual bureaucrats involved, I suggest there is a systemic problem that has a simple solution.  The problem is once again: “Who is a Jew?”  True, Israel  years ago veered away from defining that halachically, but still – is anyone who is converted by anyone, or anyone who just claims they are Jewish with no evidence to be admitted under the Law of Return?  If not – and  on the surface it seems we need some control – then who determines the criteria? The Rabbanut doesn’t, but now secular ministries do, and that is worse!

I say the only way for the Law of Return to work the way it is supposed to – to protect every “Jew” in the world from potential persecution and to allow any “Jew” in the world to return to the Land of the Jews is if yes, Israel accepts anyone who converts to Judaism in any way, and anyone who declares that they are Jewish. Wouldn’t the Nazis kill anyone who claimed to be Jewish?  Wouldn’t the crusades kill anyone who claimed they were Jewish?  Would the Muslim mobs in Morocco or Yemen kill any Muslim who declared they had become Jewish no matter who converted them or how?  Of course.  So the Law of Return should apply to anyone who claims they are Jewish and who is willing to have “Yehudi” stamped on there Te’udat Zehut – their Israeli identity card.  Yes, we may get millions from around the world, from Africa and Asia and South America declaring they are Jewish – Oy gevalt!  More self identifying Jews in Israel!!  That is exactly what we want.

Yes, if you are racist, or bigoted or xenophobic you will be afraid of these “Jews” coming to Israel.  But that is what Ben Hecht claimed some of the early Jews living in Israel felt about the masses from Europe – were they the right kinds of Jews to bring to the Holy Land?  That is was some of the Gedolim told Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg when he wanted to save the Hildesheimer Yeshiva in Germany from Nazi destruction by bringing it to Palestine – they felt it was the wrong type of Yeshiva and Torah for the Holy Land of Israel.  So they perished at the hand of the Germans.

Just as the system works today, the Jewish and religious community in Israel will have to sort out “Who is a Jew?” from a Halachic point of view.  Following the Mishna B’rurah’s p’sak for minyan and leading services, anyone who shows up in shul will be counted (males, that is, for the Orthodox) and can daven, because of the law of the majority.  When it comes to weddings, anyone who wants to get married will have to convert – if they haven’t already – based on the standard of that community: chareidim, Modern Orthodox, s’faradim, etc.  No hard feelings. If I can verify to the community I want to live in and marry in that I am Jewish, fine.  Otherwise, that community should welcome me if I meet their standards of conversion.  But no one in the world who self identifies as a Jew should be denied admission to Israel as an Israeli citizen.

We need the Law of Return to work to save Jews and bring them home to Israel.  Let us welcome all Jews – anyone who says they are Jewish should be welcome in the Jewish state.  And maybe if those masses of self-identifying Jews come back to the Homeland, in all their shapes and colors, then maybe those Jews from America and Europe, who have the proof that they are Jewish, will return as well.  Then Israel will  be the safe-heaven for Jews which the founding fathers of Israel, such as Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky  envisioned.