Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Av 5766 - August 9, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Special Interview with HaRav Reuven Feinstein

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

The International Rabbinical Conference on Conversion according to Halochoh concluded recently in Jerusalem, with the attendance of maranan verabonon gedolei Yisroel from all the chareidi groups. During the three days of deliberations, we heard sharp and piercing words from the speakers, across the board, about the difficult problem of conversions in Eretz Yisroel. The strongest criticism was leveled against special Rabbinic Courts for Conversion. At the end of the conference, we held a special interview with HaRav Reuven Feinstein, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Staten Island in New York City.


The Rosh Yeshiva certainly heard what was said here in the Conference about the difficult situation that exists here in Eretz Yisroel in the area of conversions. How does the Rosh Yeshiva relate to this situation and how is it different from what is happening in the US?

The central question is how to approach the matter. There is an important factor here in Eretz Yisroel that does not exist in America, for here a Jew receives many immigration rights. In the U.S. the major concern is conversions motivated by marriage. Monetary factors do not play a role in conversions. Here, as everyone knows, it is different.

In addition, here in Eretz Yisroel there is a heavy pressure on the rabbis to make many conversions — the more the better. There is no pressure of this sort in the U.S.

These two factors constitute a great and significant difference between what happens here and what happens in the U.S. I have seen this in the relationships among the rabbis themselves. Some rabbis are related to as being "compromisers" and others are considered better, but the common denominator is the governmental pressure applied to the conversion system.

One of the central subjects that came up in the Conference was the matter of special Rabbinic Courts for Conversions. Last night I heard HaRav M. M. Farbstein express the opinion that we have never heard of a special dayan for meat and milk. So, what is a dayan that deals only with conversions? There is only one kind of dayan: one who knows the Torah and the Halochoh. He is the one who must deal with conversions. What is your opinion on these matters?

He is 100 percent correct. However, there is one point that I would like to raise. No one plans in advance to deal with conversions. Someone who learned in a yeshiva, in a kollel, he probably studied the laws of milk and meat, of mixtures, perhaps the laws of monetary matters. He becomes a rav, a rosh yeshiva, or a dayan — and then someone comes to him to convert.

He thinks: I learned the gemora. I certainly know the halachos. So why not? It is clear that such a person will cause destruction to Klal Yisroel.

Once, there were rabbis who were very great and important, and despite the fact that they did not deal with certain practical matters on a regular basis. Nevertheless, since they knew the entire Torah they knew the halochos for that matter clearly. They could review the pertinent details of the halochos in a short while before they approached a given matter and therefore they approached it with the entire scope of their knowledge.

Today, this is not so simple. If people who do not know the matter well do conversions, only destruction can result from it. I am not saying they do not need to learn and know other matters, but someone who wants to deal with this matter must learn and prepare himself for its special challenges as well.

In truth, the gemora states clearly in Gittin that a talmid chochom who does not know well the halachos of gittin and kiddushin should not deal with them. The gemora is obviously speaking of men who learned and know the halochos, but that is not enough. One needs to know the practical matters in these laws.

My father zt'l never approached the matter of arranging a get without the sefer Kav VeNoki in his hand, so that every detail in the arrangement of the get would be right before him.

The problem exists that when someone approaches the matter only from a background of theoretical learning he may dispense with it quickly, but if he forgets just one little detail or another that is enough to cause a stumbling block. We often see roshei yeshivos come to be mesadeir chuppah vekiddushin and they make mistakes. No one would suggest, G-d forbid, that they do not know the halochos. They learned them and they know them. But this is exactly what Chazal meant when they said that someone that does not know well the halochos of gittin and kiddushin should not deal with them.

The same applies to the matter of conversion. Anyone who approaches this area must learn and know the halochos clearly.

The problems in the U.S. are very different from here. There is no great flow of non-Jews who wish to convert there, so in the main the problem is that of mixed couples.

People who are not willing to accept upon themselves the entire Torah also come to convert in the U.S. This is true even without mentioning the "conversions" of the Reform and Conservative who have their own new "Torah." However, as you said, the main problem is intermarried couples.

In the U.S. they convert geirei tzedek who are sometimes not accepted in Eretz Yisroel. Something must be done so that those who have truly undergone a proper conversion according to the Halochoh will not have doubts raised about their conversions in the entire world.

I can testify that the reverse also occurs. Converts from Eretz Yisroel come to the U.S. and there are doubts raised about their conversion. "Ah, that is a convert made by the government, so he must still be a non-Jew."

We want to reach a situation in which there will be a unified standard of conversion that will be accepted in every place. This is one of the reasons we have come here.

Before we came here, we were perhaps not well informed about what is happening here. In addition to the regular problems in conversions that exist everywhere, there are some special problems here. But undoubtedly, if everyone acts in unison and they seek to bring the matters to actualization so that the conversion system will operate properly, we can arrange the matters in the best way possible.

In the U.S., intermarriage is the central problem. Sometimes the Jewish partner in the marriage decides to become more observant and the question then arises of how to deal with the non-Jewish partner in the marriage. Is there not a concern for a tremendous stumbling block that Jews will marry non-Jews knowing that someday the Rabbinic Court will have special consideration for the non-Jewish partner in conversion?

This question was raised in the opening of the first convention we had: are we in effect sanctioning the phenomenon of intermarriage? We reached the conclusion that this is not a concern. Since the couple was already living together even though it was clearly against Torah and Halochoh, the Jew was clearly not thinking that someday his spouse will convert, and that if he should then decide to divorce her he will need do so with a get. We have never encountered a situation like this and I do not think we ever will: that a man would go so far as to marry a non- Jew, with the ultimate goal of converting her some day. If he publicly married a non-Jew he is not embarrassed at what he has done.

The problem actually does arise when they come in the first stages, just after the engagement. Then his goal could very well be that he is waiting for the rabbis to convert her so that he can marry her.

Our concern is not with cases like this, but with something else altogether. We deal with people who have been intermarried for quite some time, R'l, and their desire that the non-Jewish marriage partner convert did not stem from any embarrassment about what they did. We are speaking about Jews who had no knowledge or connection with Torah observance when they married, and who became closer to Torah at some stage in their lives and began to be observant.

The fear that the non-Jew wants to convert insincerely, out of the desire to marry a Jew, does not exist in these cases. They have already been married a long time. Therefore, although normally we need push away the non-Jew and discourage him from converting, and we accept him only after we see that he truly wants with all his might to become a part of Klal Yisroel, with these cases it is different.

We have to try to be mekarev the intermarried couple. However, this means clearly and explicitly not to mekarev them just to convert. Rather, we want them to convert only after they express their desire for this and they accept upon themselves to keep the entire Torah and all the mitzvos in truth and sincerity.

I wish to tell you a true story. My daughter's neighbor in Baltimore was a convert who kept the Torah and the mitzvos, and she was very religious. I asked her once - - and this is a question that is not easy to ask — does she still miss something that she used to do before she converted? She answered that she really misses cheeseburgers.

I laughed when I first heard it. After further thought I realized that in this case there was simply a certain food she missed eating. She does not eat it, but in any case she would like to eat it. It could happen that a person cannot withstand the temptation and would eat it. The question is, would such a person remain a non-Jew?

Another theoretical question: What is the Halochoh if a non- Jew is willing to accept the entire Torah, but concerning a certain transgression he is willing to accept it but he wants to transgress it and accept the punishment? It stands to reason that this is considered accepting Torah and mitzvos.

We do not take cases like this seriously and do not think much about them, because we would consider this person to be playing games and in reality he simply is not willing to accept all the mitzvos of the Torah. But if it would be that such a case was the actual reality, would the conversion be invalid after the person was already converted? As in the case of that woman, who was really frum but she still has a desire for that forbidden food, does that render her conversion invalid? She thought she could stand up to the test, but today she admits she still wants to eat treif.

This is comparable to someone who smokes cigarettes and comes to convert. If Torah law prohibited it, and we see that normally people who commit themselves to stop smoking return to smoking after a while, would this raise a question on the conversion? In fact this case is not comparable, but the desires are comparable.

I once gave an example in the yeshiva. A bochur asks someone what is the thing he loves the most in the world, and the answer is: Ice cream. If we were to tell such a person: "The moment you become a Jew you can no longer eat ice cream, what will you do? Are you prepared for this?" Understandably, this is not a simple question. However, it is reasonable that it is impossible to say that once the conversion is done that it is not a conversion, as I mentioned.

What practical steps have been taken as a result of the previous conventions?

Rabbinic Courts have been established, and regulations have been instituted as to who may and who may not be a member of these Rabbinic Courts. One of the biggest problems is the bias of some rabbis who work regularly in kiruv, and. say, the president of their congregation has a nephew who intermarried and he wants to convert the non-Jewish partner in the marriage. The rabbi's job depends on that president.

This is a difficult problem. We have removed the problem by establishing that these rabbis cannot sit on our Rabbinic Courts. He can teach the non-Jew, and recommend her for conversion, but he cannot be a complete partner in Rabbinic Courts that deal with conversion. This has been very beneficial, and now those rabbis can transfer the responsibility away from themselves and to those Rabbinic Courts. They can say to that congregation president or anyone else that they are not responsible for the conversion.

Which rabbis have you placed in those rabbinic courts?

We took rabbis who are talmidei chachomim, G-d fearing bnei Torah, about whom it is still possible to say they "hate money." These are rabbis who cannot be bribed with money. Before they joined these Rabbinic Courts, we paid them to learn all the halochos of conversion in a intensive way, for a period of four months, four times a week, two hours a day. This was an orderly and defined course of study, and not just the study of two simonim in the Shulchan Oruch, so they would learn and understand the matter in the widest way possible. We also gave a very serious series of tests to these rabbis.

You heard the sharp words that were said in the conference . . .

It is clear, as I said, that here there is governmental pressure to make conversions. But in the U.S. there is no pressure of this sort. What I heard is that there is a whole ideology to make as many converts as possible, and these converts are certainly not good for Klal Yisroel. It could be that they are making conversions here, as I heard, because they want as many soldiers as possible. There are wars, R'l. However, has anyone thought that soldiers such as these will be loyal to the Jews? He is not Jewish! A conversion such as this is no conversion at all!

It is written: "Vayichad Yisro," from which we learn that we must not mention to a convert the fact that he is a convert for ten generations. It is impossible to speak about the wicked Pharaoh in front of Yisro the tzaddik. This is the reality. Not everyone can mix into the Klal Yisroel and feel completely Jewish.

We find that Yisro's descendants were still called "HaKeini" even during the time of Shaul Hamelech. Why were they still known by this name? And who were their friends during the time of Devorah HaNevioh? The answer is written in the posuk: ". . . because there was peace between Yovin king of Chatzor and the house of Chever Hakeini" (Shofetim 4:17). They were friends with the enemies of the people of Israel. Also, it is said: "And he removed the Keini from within Amolek" (Shmuel I 15:6). They were still neighbors and connected to Amolek.

We see that even those who had already converted still remained connected in one way or another to their past. ". . . and the ger who lives amongst them" (Shemos 12:49, and numerous times in Vayikra and Bamidbar). Indeed, they live amongst us, but they still have a connection to the past. Therefore it is prohibited to mention to them matters from their past. There is also the mitzvah of loving the ger.

However, so much the more so [i.e. that they are connected to the past] concerning those who are not true converts; these are empty conversions that mean nothing.

Clearly, the moment they encounter a situation in which they prefer to return to their past they will do so without any hesitation.

If the conversion was done lesheim Shomayim, even in cases where it was done for the sake of marriage but if they really accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, the Rambam says is a good conversion. This includes the necessity that they must feel they are Jews.

However, if the conversion is not done for the sake of Heaven, then they have no feelings towards HaKodosh Boruch Hu. It is clear that the minute they have some other desire or interest that conflicts with Judaism, they will go astray and follow their desires and their interests.

With the Rosh Yeshiva's permission I would like to return to the difference in the way we must relate to an intermarried couple and a regular non-Jew who comes to convert . . .

When a regular non-Jew comes to convert, we are obligated to push him away. We question him and pressure him. We ask him why he needs to convert at all.

Concerning intermarried couples, though, as we have heard here from gedolei Yisroel, it is permitted to be mekarev them for the sake of takonas hashovim, helping those (Jews) who wish to repent.

However, we must emphasize, the leniency is only with regard to the approach, of being mekarev them. With regard to the conversion itself there is no leniency. There has to be a real, complete acceptance of Torah and mitzvos.

The difference is that it is permitted to talk to the intermarried non-Jew about conversion, whereas it is prohibited to speak to a regular non-Jew about Judaism until he comes of his own initiative.

What should be the general approach to conversions in the Rosh Yeshiva's opinion?

Clearly, there must be a very stringent approach. On the other hand, it must be practical. If there are continuous rumors about certain Rabbinic Courts that they are not behaving properly, then clearly we can have nothing to do with their conversions, and each and every case has to be examined individually.

I will give you an example. There was a well-known disagreement between my father zt'l (Maran HaRav Moshe Feinstein ztvk'l, B. R.) and HaRav Y. Henkin zt'l concerning civil marriages. Father zt'l said they were meaningless as far as Halochoh, whereas HaRav Henkin was stringent in the matter [and required a get if there was a civil marriage].

I do not know what they will do in another twenty or fifty years if a grandchild of a person who married in a civil marriage will come with a shailoh. If we hold the view of HaRav Henkin he would be considered a mamzer, not allowed to marry into Klal Yisroel [in the circumstance of a divorce without a get and his mother's subsequent remarriage].

My opinion is that clearly one who was married in a civil marriage has to give a get lechatchiloh. However, if the husband does not wish to give a get and the woman wants to remarry, or in the case of other questions, then it would be possible to rely on the ruling of my father zt'l.

The same applies to the matter of conversions. We must make the conversions according to halochoh and all the stringent opinions. The frequent question is what do we do when a person comes who has converted but there are doubts concerning his conversion. Then, we are accustomed to make another conversion out of stringency, even if he already keeps Torah and mitzvos.

One of the matters we want to fix — it will not be immediate and it will take a number of years — is that there should not be a situation like this. There should be Rabbinic Courts making conversions that everyone can rely on and there will be no concerns about them.


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