The Canadian Jewish News was right, and right on, in calling for unity (Jan. 14) in the face of the latest conversion crisis. Two articles on this matter also appeared, one by Rabbi Marc D. Angel in that same issue, and a followup rebuttal by Rabbi Reuven Tradburks on Jan. 21. In their disagreement, there was an obvious agreement that unity is vital. The question at hand is how best to achieve it.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka
I know both these distinguished rabbis and am singularly aware of their passionate commitment to the long-range welfare of our community – here, in Israel and everywhere else. So what I share with you herein is in no way to be construed as criticism of these rabbis. It’s more a personal reflection on the issue as it has developed and on the background of what once was.
Usually, I try to keep away from these matters in a public forum, but the issue at hand is so serious, and the comments from a variety of sources – blogs, shmogs and other places where people can throw garbage with impunity, so misleading and damaging, that I have broken with my past policy. I have no illusions that what I write will make a difference. But I also know that being silent will certainly not make a difference.
In response to Rabbi Angel’s plea for a return to a de-centralized conversion system, Rabbi Tradburks argues that there is a “wide range of conversion standards among Orthodox rabbis.” He is correct on the fact. There is a good reason for this wide range. It is because there is an at least equally wide range of standards within Jewish law (Halachah) on the matter of conversion.
There are three ingredients in conversion. They are 1. Acceptance of the Judaism “package;” 2. Covenantal circumcision (males only), and 3. Immersion in the mikvah waters.
Items 2 and 3 are clear. Item 1, which falls under the well-known umbrella of kabbalat hamitzvot, acceptance of the host of Jewish obligations, is not so clear. Without getting into how kabbalat hamitzvot in its present form became such an integral component of conversion, it’s vital to appreciate that the range of understanding of this concept is quite staggering. On the one end of the spectrum is a view, from a respected Jewish luminary, that just to remove a person from idolatry, even absent acceptance of basic Jewish affirmations (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, etc.), is adequate justification for proceeding with a conversion.
On the other end is a view that only the promise and “guarantee” of total compliance with every detail of Jewish law is justification for proceeding with a conversion.
It’s fair to say that most conversions until recently operated somewhere within this broad spectrum insofar as addressing the matter of kabbalat hamitzvot.
And there were many leading rabbis of great stature as rabbinic scholars who were “lenient” by any standard. Some would ask only that the conversion prospect read a book detailing all the major Jewish observances and then come back within a month. I was admittedly a bit leery about the validity of such conversions, and approached a great talmudic luminary to ask whether such conversions are acceptable.
The response was remarkable. This great sage admitted that the conversion standards of that rabbi were “different” than that of others, but at the same time this was a man of integrity and scholarship, and there is no way his conversions can be rejected. That was the climate of the times 20 or 30 years ago. The lament is that this climate no longer exists. It’s easy to be united when everyone is the same, but it’s much more challenging when we have differences.
In my own personal experience, I was astounded to encounter at least five different situations wherein a couple went to another city to a different but at least equally respected rabbi, whose wife taught the prospective convert for an hour in the morning, then took her to the rabbinic court for her to affirm her embrace of Judaism, followed by immersion in the mikvah that same day, after which the (fervently Orthodox) rabbi married the couple in the afternoon. I do not recommend such a practice, but it was done, and accepted by the community.
It’s true that we will have disunity if rabbis reject the conversions of others. But there would be no disunity if there was mutual respect and acceptance. Unfortunately, what once was no longer is. Once, rabbis accepted the conversions of others, even if the conversions operated with different standards. There was no delegitimizing. Just the opposite.
I do not dismiss out of hand the issue of differing standards. But it should be clear that conversion parameters are hardly likely to be the same in smaller cities with less Jewish resources than in larger cities. In Canada, there are some cities with no Jewish schools. We could not, in the past, insist that the converting person assure that his or her children would go to a Jewish school. But there is nothing wrong and everything right with pushing for this in a city that has Jewish schools, or a Jewish school.
In this regard, it has been related to me (second hand, so I cannot vouch for it) that a leading Jewish sage of the previous generation, when asked by his ordained students in rabbinic positions what to push for in regard to kabbalat hamitzvot for conversion, told them to do the best they can. This further reinforces the idea that there is a wide range of understanding regarding this component of conversion, as it should be.
What is further lamentable in this situation is that we are now seeing the ugly spectacle of already in-place conversions being questioned. That is beyond lamentable. It is objectionable. It is one thing to set standards for going forward, even if these standards are open to debate. It is quite another to retroactively call into question pre-existing conversions, thereby throwing an entire community of sincere, well-meaning convert families into turmoil. That has to stop. There is simply no excuse for this delegitimizing. I am confident that the Rabbinical Council of America will stand up to this unacceptable invasion of yesterday’s rabbinate.
I would love to see a return to the trusting ways of the past, or at least a move in that direction, even if it be with more defined parameters. The train may have already left the station on this, but maybe the opportunity still remains. I certainly hope so.
In the interests of full disclosure, I share with you, the readers, that I was involved in conversion for many years. I entered into this arena very reluctantly, as no other rabbi in my area was willing to do this. I could not accept that congregational rabbis who are entrusted with Jewish posterity refuse to address a most pressing issue, and in many instances even boast that they never did a conversion. Because I am closer to retirement, I have opted not to continue with conversions and instead have referred them to a rabbinic court in Montreal of a most trustworthy group of rabbis, whose bona fides are ironically being unfairly challenged by Israel’s rabbinic authorities.
My conversions, at first finalized outside Ottawa and eventually finalized in my Rabbinical Council of America-approved bet din in Ottawa, probably would be classified as being more in the centre regarding the understanding of kabbalat hamitzvot. Given a choice between having strict conversion standards and more welcoming ones, I would always err on the side of “welcome.” After the proverbial 120 years, I would much rather answer why I welcomed more Jews than why I prevented more people from becoming Jewish.
Like most other rabbis who have done conversions, not all have been resounding successes. No rabbinic court, however strict, has a perfect record. But we should not stop conversions for that reason any more than we should stop marrying couples because a large percentage of marriages collapse in divorce. And the vast majority – the converts who remain fully Jewish – have been a great source of pride and joy, both personally and communally. God bless them.
Rabbi Bulka is spiritual leader of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and rabbinic emissary for Canadian Jewish Congress.