Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5763 - July 23, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Chareidim and Geirim and the Jewish People

by Mordecai Plaut

There are a number of topics about which chareidim are criticized, even by their friends. This article is intended to give an exposition of the chareidi position and attitudes in several areas that seem to invite criticism that is based largely on misunderstanding of what we believe and false impressions of what we do (see box).

Chareidi Jewry Welcomes True Converts

Chareidi Jewry welcomes sincere converts to Judaism and has done many things, individually and communally, to assist them and make them welcome both before and after their conversions. A special beis din of responsible dayanim was set up through the personal intervention of the gedolei haposkim five years ago, to work within the framework of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to have an accessible avenue for those seeking a conversion according to halachic guidelines accepted by choshuve botei dinim throughout the ages. This beis din had the full support of all the chareidi community.

Many converts, from all over the world, have joined and become full-fledged members of the chareidi community. The community is welcoming, supportive and accepting of true, sincere converts.

Altogether there is absolutely no basis for anyone to say that the chareidi community does not have a positive and welcoming attitude towards geirim at all levels and all stages.

Unfortunately, in some circles, "a welcoming attitude towards converts" is a phrase used repeatedly and misleadingly as a code word to describe rabbonim who will bend the rules of halochoh in order to "perform conversions." Those who are not familiar with the context take these statements at face value, but those who have investigated know the unfortunate truth.

There is a widespread use of misleading and confusing terms in relation to geirim. For example, recently a spokesman was quoted as saying that it is important to do many conversions "even if the converts remain chilonim." This is truly doublespeak worthy of an Orwellian character. If a non-Jew goes through a conversion ceremony and comes out of it nonobservant, he remains a non- Jew. There is no meaning to his having gone through the ceremony and it makes no difference if the rabbi administering the ceremony is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chassidic, Litvish, German or American Indian.

However, our concern is only with Orthodox rabbonim. We pay no attention to obviously meaningless Reform and Conservative conversion ceremonies. Our only concern is with invalid Orthodox conversions, which mislead others and may cause great damage by allowing non-Jews to marry Jews.

We wish to clarify that there is no dispute among all genuine Orthodox rabbis that kabolas mitzvos is essential for a valid geirus, even bedi'eved. Furthermore, the leading halachic authorities in recent generations (HaRav Moshe Feinstein, the Steipler, HaRav S. Z. Auerbach, HaRav Shach and ylct'a HaRav Eliashiv) declared in writing that an insincere kabolas mitzvos is also invalid and worthless, even bedi'eved. This latter psak is the crux of the problems since it is not accepted by all rabbonim, especially in practice, as we will explain below.

It should be noted that in hilchos geirus there is no discretion given to dayanim for leniency or compromise. Some things are determined by the contracts arranged between two parties. A person's status as a Jew is part of the eternal triangle between us, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and the Torah, and no one is authorized to waive any requirements.

Becoming a Jew is Joining the Am Hashem

Joining our community requires a significant commitment to the task we have of living as an Am Hashem whose lives are an expression of our relationship to the Creator of the world as defined by the Torah. Converting to Judaism, as it was always understood by Klal Yisroel, is not a political or an ethnic act related to the Jewish people or even to the Holy Land, but rather related to Yisroel, the Torah and Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The convert must assert unequivocally that he or she accepts Hashem and His Torah in order to join Yisroel.

This is the baseline halachic position: that in order to join the Am Hashem a person has to want to join the Am Hashem, meaning a full commitment to Torah and mitzvos, and nothing less. It reflects our view of ourselves and our place in the world, and is the halachic view of conversion requirements. Someone who is putting on a show and is just expressing a commitment that he or she does not really feel, cannot be said to have joined the Am Hashem, as ruled explicitly by the great poskim of the past two generations. Serving Hashem means with the heart and not just with the lips, as our prophets emphasized many times.

Working together with the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur founded by HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l, Yated has stood for well over a decade at the forefront, exposing those who do not meet these standards. To our great dismay, in this context we have had to write about Orthodox rabbonim of all affiliations, including some with full chareidi credentials, and with every kind of kippa imaginable. With the guidance of our rabbinical board we have written about all of them, based on our assessment of the damage done and our ability to limit it. We never criticize or stigmatize communities, and only talk about individuals when it is necessary.

Some people think that a newspaper has ulterior motives for writing about the faults of others. Some think that there is a kind of pleasure in writing about the failings of others. Some think that this material sells more newspapers. This is all nonsense. There is no pleasure in the writing, and the responses to criticism are almost always very unpleasant. And the bottom line is that many more people cancel their subscriptions because of such articles than buy them. The truth is that we do it because it is the duty of a Torah newspaper to stand up for the truths of the Torah, and those who work for it must be prepared to take the heat when necessary. Other publications, put out even by Torah Jews but run for parnossoh, avoid all controversy because it is definitely bad for business and hard on the nerves.

The gedolei haposkim said that Yated was not established as a commercial enterprise, but in order to inform the public of what they should know.

The Presence of Non-Jews in Israel is a Fact

Something that is raised repeatedly by many people is the "problem" posed by the massive immigration of non- Jewish Russians to Israel and the need for a "solution" to this "problem." We do not see things this way. The presence of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russians is a fact. Any problems that they cause should be dealt with on a case-by- case basis. And in no case is it is "solution" to do masses of invalid conversions. The overwhelming majority of the immigrants are quite happy to remain non-Jewish, and even the minority that might be persuaded to "convert" - - if it is easy enough -- are certainly not willing to undertake Torah and mitzvos. What is gained by issuing someone a certificate saying that he or she is a Jew if he or she has not accepted mitzvos? If it were so easy, we could just print up the certificates and hand them out. But it is not so simple.

The government that brought in almost half a million non-Jews (against which the chareidi community protested from the start) is the one responsible for taking care of their social needs. There is no reason to look to the rabbinate to dig them out of the mud. The gedolei haposkim also have proposals to deal with the de facto situation that was created by others that do not involve invalid geirus, but this is not the forum to discuss them.

This is also not the proper forum to review the history of Rabbi Druckman's and Rabbi Avior's conversion activities. We must stress again that they may be otherwise fine rabbonim. Our criticism is only of their geirus activities and their failings in this area have been thoroughly documented in case after case for more than a decade. Some of their actions have been in explicit violation of the guidelines of the Chief Rabbinate.

Their approach is to take everything that a prospective convert says at face value. Their entire acceptance of a prospect is based on him or her passing an oral test and on the "general impression" the beis din receives of the person's sincerity.

This approach is obviously very open to abuse, and it has been abused in practice. We have documentary evidence that the vast majority of their converts did not even keep the first Shabbos after their conversion, in addition to not keeping other elementary mitzvos.

When an attempt was made to show them this clear evidence that there was never any original sincere acceptance of mitzvos, these rabbonim refused even to discuss the matter. They maintain that once someone has accepted mitzvos before them, the conversion cannot be reversed. The overwhelming consensus of leading poskim is otherwise and holds that the conversion need not be reversed because it never took place. They need not be expelled from the Am Hashem because they never joined it.

Full documentation of their activities and their shortcomings was given in various articles published in Yated over the years and is available in the files of the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur in Jerusalem. Anyone is welcome to see the evidence.

We Do Not Believe in Isolationism

We will not presume to speak for the Mafdal who are said to believe in inclusive participation in the community, but we certainly do not believe in "isolation and segregation as a matter of principle" and especially not as a matter of practice. Degel Hatorah has joined many governments, though never any government dominated by Meretz. (Degel Hatorah was even more critical of Shas for joining that government than of Mafdal for joining Shinui.) Degel Hatorah people are currently mayors of six cities.

But participation in the Israeli government is far from the only way to engage the larger community. We have the broadest and most effective outreach activities, such as Lev L'Achim, Acheinu, Shuvu, Arachim, the Shas school system and others. Proud chareidim are behind the most beautiful chesed organizations that serve the entire Israeli community, such as Yad Sarah, ZAKA, Yad Eliezer, Ezer Mizion, and many, many others worth mentioning. Chareidi money that supports these organizations and many others like them goes to benefit the entire Jewish community, including the National Religious community (there is a Yad Sarah branch in Alon Shvut, for example).

It is really astonishing to hear us characterized as isolationist. We do not mean for a minute to suggest that we cannot do more, but we certainly think of ourselves as deeply engaged with the broader community as even the above brief and incomplete list shows clearly.

We also recommend the quotation given from Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, as well as the works of the Chofetz Chaim on loshon hora, which are so very important for anyone who writes in public -- and for everyone else as well.

Because it is not as well known, we would like to add some remarks from Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Hirsch (Collected Writings Volume VI, p. 176): "Is not peace also a sacred value to the conscience of the Orthodox Jew? . . . There are indeed circumstances under which I may, and indeed must, give up everything that is mine for the sake of preserving peace. . . . But I cannot restrain myself with what is not mine but G-d's, the Divinely uttered truth, the integrity of my life. My peace with G-d, my peace with my conscience cannot be for sale. I must not sacrifice these values even for the sake of preserving peace with men. . . . "Love truth and peace" (Zecharya 8:19). Truth comes first and peace only afterwards. Only once you have assured for yourself the truth of G-d and you have obtained clarity about the truth of your own way of life may you seek peace with your fellow men."

The Criticism

The chareidi community has recently been criticized in the local Agudah publication in Toronto, entitled Perspectives for its approach to geirim by a well- respected writer, Mr. Kurt Rothschild of Toronto, chairman of the World Mizrachi Organization, whose letter was later translated and published in Hatsofe -- the newspaper of the Mizrachi movement in Israel. Perspectives had printed two articles that originally appeared in the Yated of Eretz Yisroel: "Jewish Agency Plans to Launch Accelerated Conversion Program in Eastern Europe" by Betzalel Kahn, which appeared in our Vayikra edition, and the other is, "Sharon Plans to Speed Conversion Process by Transferring Interior Ministry Portfolio" by Betzalel Kahn, which appeared a week earlier in the Pekudei edition.

Although the article here stands on its own as a presentation of the attitudes and principles of the chareidim, it can be read as a reply to the letter since most of the criticism appearing there seems to be based on misunderstandings that are clarified in this article.

Mr. Rothschild wrote that his remarks center on three issues: "The conversion process in Israel for non- Jewish immigrants, the decision by Mafdal to join the current Sharon coalition, and support for non-Chareidi Torah and chesed institutions.

" . . . A much greater effort should have been made by Israel's rabbinic leadership to encourage and befriend these [non-Jewish] immigrants. This was not done; nor was sufficient thought given to the "time bomb" this immigration constitutes. . .

"Yet, when others have sought to be more accommodating - - within the realm of Halacha -- they have been denounced. . .

". . . It is clear that within the broad spectrum of Orthodoxy, there are basic disagreements between the National Religious camp who believe in inclusive participation of the Orthodox camp in the affairs of the State and of the community, whenever possible, whereas much of the chareidi community in large measure believe in isolation and segregation as a matter of principle."

Mr. Rothschild acknowledges in the course of his letter that he is "not qualified to engage in a Halachic discussion." Unfortunately, such honest humility is not always shown and it is praiseworthy. Thus it surprised us when further on he asserts that the others who "have sought to be more accommodating" do so "within the realm of Halacha"? The halachic validity of their approach is precisely the point in dispute (and not the style of the kippot they prefer).

We have a question: If Mafdal is so open to the community, we wonder if they will also print this response in Hatsofe?

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