Two United rabbis show disunity over conversion

By Rabbi Mordechai Ginsbury, June 13, 2008

Last month, Rabbi Naftali Brawer publicly condemned an Israeli court’s decision to annul thousands of conversions. Today, Rabbi Mordechai Ginsbury takes his colleague to task for his views

Dear Rabbi Brawer,

I read reports of your recent sermon on the conversion crisis in Israel with some sense of dismay. The Talmud (Ta’anit 4a) teaches that a rabbinic scholar who displays anger should be treated tolerantly, as it is the idealism and sensitivity engendered by the passion of his learning which drives him to anger.

I can understand that the strong sentiments you expressed against the recommendation retroactively to annul what may well be thousands of conversions emerge from a caring heart and sincere desire to be mekarev (draw close) rather than merachek (push away) not only those converts whose Jewish status is under threat, but also many Jews who will be sorely troubled by this “rabbinical scandal”, as you term it.

However, there are aspects of your stance on this matter with which I feel I have to take issue. I do so not because I believe that I care for every Jew any less than you do, nor because I have greater knowledge of the precise details of this case, but because I feel that there is some element of superficiality in the position you have adopted — and an unfairness and intemperance in the manner in which you seek to link this particular episode to a wholesale demonisation of the Charedi world. 

You described the decision of the rabbinical High Court of Jerusalem as symptomatic of an “insane and oppressive interpretation” of Jewish law. You also condemned the entire Charedi world as one you consider to be in the grip of “a most disturbing trend … to be more and more stringent: to find reasons to forbid, to exclude, to condemn, instead of finding ways to permit, to include, to vindicate”.

Firstly, I feel that intemperate expressions such as “insane” and “oppressive” do little to dignify or add substance to your argument.  Secondly, your departure into a wholesale and quite venomous diatribe against the Charedi world is perplexing. The Rabbinical High Court of Jerusalem is an arm of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is certainly not the central repository of Charedi teaching or halachic decision-making. Is it really necessary to blacken the name of one section of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) in order to support another?

Thirdly, your analysis fails to address the root cause of the problem which is, in my opinion, the unfortunate and poorly managed interface between the worlds of religion and politics in Israel. 

The whole conversion crisis actually stems, as I see it, from a situation in which the official Israeli rabbinate, formally connected to the government, appears to find itself subject to huge pressures to minimise halachic conversion criteria for reasons primarily of political expediency. There seems to be an expectation that Jewish status should be granted to potential converts who, in many cases, have little or no interest in accepting or adhering to even the most basic of halachic norms in their own daily life.

So let us just posit a possible scenario for a moment. In order somehow to resolve the tension between political necessity and halachic principle, a special “conversion court system” is established as some form of compromise, indeed even in the name of “compassion” and “ahavat Yisrael” (love of fellow-Jews).

Sadly, as is so often the case with such quick-fix arrangements of convenience, in the longer term greater anguish and sorrow emerge. Converts who have been through these special courts are, in many if not almost all cases, found to have been nowhere near to conforming to normative standards of giyur k’halachah (the conversion requirements of Jewish law). When this crops up, we are faced with the
horrible fall-out which you find so unseemly.

In fact, I have much sympathy with your position that it is simply untenable to strip thousands of individuals, who for a decade and more have considered themselves fully fledged Jews, of their Jewish status. But I also find myself wondering where is the actual “chilul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name); is it in the uncovering of improper halachic conversion standards or in the adoption of such a low-level point of entry into conversion to Judaism in the first place as to render the whole initial conversion process well-nigh, if not utterly, spurious?

If you were to be convinced that in this case somehow the most minimal of lenient standards had not been met, then actually you would not be defending the dignity of the convert, but of the “not-as-yet” convert. And equally, if we were to agree that initial standards were unacceptably low, what then is to be done, not simply to defend the indefensible retroactively, 15 or so years on, but to ensure that better uniform standards are adopted to prevent the occurrence of such a chilul Hashem in the future?

I believe that, as United Synagogue rabbis, we have a sense of mission to strive always to unite rather than divide, to include rather than exclude, to bring compassion, blessing and Torah teaching into the lives of our congregants. As such, I have chosen, almost always, to avoid taking up radical, but ironically narrow, positions that seek to include some Jews, of any stripe, at the expense of others.

I have consciously sought to minimise forays into controversial areas of Jewish life in the public arena in order to maximise my personal sense of connection to each and very one of my members without compromising my adherence to Torah values.

Of course, there may be many who would counsel and wish it otherwise, and you are more than free to consider that you can be more effective by steering a different course, but you, as I, do have to at least be accurate, fair and measured when so doing.

With kind regards and best wishes,

Mordechai Shlomo Ginsbury    

Mordechai Ginsbury is rabbi of Hendon (United) Synagogue


What Rabbi Brawer said

An Israeli woman, converted 15 years ago, had applied to rabbis in Ashdod for a religious divorce. But the court ruled she did not need it, because her conversion was invalid and therefore she was not Jewish.

In a sermon at his Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, Rabbi Naftali Brawer described what happened next: “At the end of April, a three-man panel of Charedi dayanim comprising the rabbinical High Court of Jerusalem not only upheld the Ashdod decision, but went so far as to recommend that all conversions under Rav Druckman  [head of Israel’s special conversion court] be annulled retroactively...

“This ruling sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world.

“The Rabbinical Council of America called it... a chilul Hashem.

“There is a most disturbing trend in the Charedi world to be more and more stringent. To find reasons to forbid, to exclude, to condemn, instead of finding ways to permit, to include, to vindicate.

Such oppressive and exclusive Judaism does not uphold the Torah, it degrades it.”

Last updated: 3:06pm, June 12 2008