Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5766 - May 17, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Universal Conversion Standards — Good for Everyone Concerned

Everyone knows the story about a boat that illustrates how the actions of an individual can affect everyone. Even though one is drilling a hole that is entirely under his own seat, the water that he lets in will eventually sink the entire ship. If the structural integrity of a boat is compromised, it will sink everyone riding in it.

The principle is clear and uncontroversial but its application can sometimes be very problematic.

One important area is that known as "personal status" referring to the attributes that attach directly to a person such as marriage and religious affiliation. Modern society tends to see matters of personal status as personal issues that affect only the parties directly involved, arguing, for example, that whether a person is married and to whom he or she is married is largely a matter that affects only the person and the spouse, and therefore many irreligious moderns argue it should be left up to the preferences of the people involved.

Similarly for what is often called "religious affiliation." For many in the modern world this is thought to be a matter of little importance to anyone but the individual in question. Within Protestant denominations changes are very easy, for example. One can try this today and something else tomorrow.

Within traditional Judaism this is not at all the way it works — and not only because a conversion to Judaism requires more time (which it most assuredly does).

Rather, the personal status of each and every Jew is in both theory and practice of concern to each and every other Jew. Assuring the integrity of the status of the Jewish people is a task that occupied even the greatest leaders in the generation and it has always been considered a high priority task. It is clear that an important part of Hashem's plan for the Jewish people is that their yichus remain pure.

Even among those who are committed to halochoh some argue that the standards must "confront the realities" in which they appear, and that for example, a rov in a small town cannot or need not apply the same tests for conversion that those in the large Jewish concentrations can apply. Even if they can demand full adherence to the demands of halochoh, those serving "in the trenches" cannot always require this of prospective converts.

This is a fallacious and self-serving argument. If the conversions that they perform were expected to be valid only in their isolated communities, then their argument would make more sense. However this is of course not possible, and it is certainly not what the prospective convert wants and not what the embattled rabbinical authority expects either. Everyone wants a conversion performed by one rabbi to be accepted universally, in all Jewish communities, large or small. But that means that it must meet some minimum standard that will be acceptable to everyone, everywhere. If a conversion is desired and expected to be recognized in Jewish communities all over the world, then it must meet the standards that those communities expect.

There are standards for performing a conversion to Judaism that will be recognized by every Jewish community in the world, and they are accessible to any sincere prospective convert. What is important is to make this generally known, to rabbinical authorities as well as to prospective converts.

The initiative taken by the Eternal Jewish Family project in America to provide the opportunity for a universally recognized Jewish conversion is an attempt to meet this need. Under the personal guidance of HaRav Reuven Feinstein, and with constant guidance from HaRav Eliashiv and HaRav Dovid Feinstein, it is clear that this project can meet this need.

Certainly it is better for the converts to go through one conversion that will be recognized wherever they later decide to move. It can also be beneficial for the rabbis: if they can point to a worldwide standard, they will be under less pressure to bend the rules where they should not.

In the current situation, rabbonim from all backgrounds — chareidi, modern Orthodox, Lithuanian, Chassidish, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and whatever else there is — have been known to perform conversions that were considered invalid by all halachic authorities. Sometimes the motivation is greed, but often the cause is nothing more than ignorance.

The stakes are high, especially for the converts themselves. In order to discharge our personal responsibility for the integrity of Klal Yisroel, the initiative deserves our support.

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