Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What It Means to Convert

I made a new pen pal today. I met him in the Talkback section of the Jerusalem Post. I have never met him personally and I don't know much about him but I know this much (assuming everything he writes is factual): He calls himself Eric and he lives in Israel. He is a born Jew and he has officiated at batei din for converts.

Thusfar, I shot the opening volley and he reacted to my comment. Currently, these both appear in the Talkback section of the relevant article. I responded to his reaction but, thusfar, it has not been posted online. The JP is painfully slow at posting comments (though not nearly as bad as Cross Currents). Perhaps he will continue the correspondence. We'll see. For now, let's rehash:

The Jerusalem Post article in question is titled: Converts Demand Hearing on Conversion Nullifications.

To summarize the article, 2 women are petitioning the High Court of Justice to force the Rabbinic court of Tel Aviv that reinstated their conversions to do more than that and to make a definitive ruling as to whether a Rabbinical court can annul a conversion in the first place.

Did I get that right?

Now, the opening paragraph of this article seems to indicate (note - much of the article is unclear) that at least one of the two women who are petitioning may be the very woman whose conversion was annulled by the dayan in Ashdod that triggered the whole ruckus in the first place.

Before we go on, it is very important to point out that, from what I remember reading 2-1/2 years ago when this controversy first erupted, that the nullification was based on the revelation that the "convert" in question was not observing any fundamental mitzvos of Judaism (i.e., Shabbos, Kashrut, Taharas HaMishpacha, etc.) and had not done so from day one of her "conversion". The annulment was not based on any of the real serious sins such as not keeping Rabenu Tam's zman, not insisting on Eidah Hachareidus Kashrut, 60+ denier stockings, or not being makpid on the Chavos Daas onah beinonis, (R"L). It was premised on the subject's neglect to observe anything at all. Zilch.

Keep this in mind. In fact, it was on this premise that I entered my comment in the Talkback section and here it is:

2. Silly Game

• Author: Chezkel • Country: Israel • 10/04/2010 11:55

This whole thing is just a silly game. For a conversion to be valid by Orthodox standards, the "convert" must observe the mitzvot by Orthodox standards. A convert who never begins to observe the mitzvot properly will never be accepted by the Orthodox community. Thus, if these "converts" wish to put the matter to rest, they must first commit to proper Torah observance. Then, it may be advisable to undergo a second conversion which should be a mere formality. Until then, forget it.

When I checked to see if the comment was posted (it took a few hours), there was also one or two responses. The more coherent one was from Eric and here is what he wrote:

4. To Chezkel

• Author: Eric • Country: Israel • 10/04/2010 16:34

Your words show you are likely a born Jew and don't understand what it means to convert. I too am a born Jew. However, I have also officiated at batei din for converts. I have seen first hand the emotional turmoil that is involved in the process. I have also seen first hand the intolerant bigots in the Orthodox world who hold converts to higher standards, saying for example that if they keep rabbanut kosher and not bedatz, they are not really Jewish. That's the problem -- whose standards should be applied? Yours? The rabbinate? The Neturei Karta? The state has laws and they need to be applied.

As I wrote earlier, I responded to this comment online. If the comment appears in the JP before I print this post, I will try to include it here.

There is an innate problem with JP Talkbacks in that there is a limit of 600 characters (okay, okay, it's more of a solution than a problem) and this does hamper one's ability to express themselves fully. As such, and as I have done numerous times in the past, I have ventured to move the dialog from the comments field into my own forum for home field advantage. Hence, I wish to offer a more elaborate response to Dayan Eric's comment.

>>Your words show you are likely a born Jew

True, indeed. Where did I give myself away?

>>and don't understand what it means to convert.

Now I need to get serious. The words that I bolded have an ambiguous connotation. (1) The way I initially understood the words: I don't understand the meaning of conversion. (2) What I think Eric really meant: I don't understand what the process of conversion means - or, more accurately, entails - for the one who is doing the converting.

From Eric's ensuing words: I have seen first hand the emotional turmoil that is involved in the process. It is fairly clear that his intention was connotation #2.

>>I have also seen first hand the intolerant bigots in the Orthodox world who hold converts to higher standards, saying for example that if they keep rabbanut kosher and not bedatz, they are not really Jewish.

Here, I am a bit confused. Is Eric referring to Dayanei Giur who are intolerant bigots or to just a bunch of laymen who are intolerant bigots but are not in the business of converting anybody (kind of like an armchair quaterback)?? I will deal with this issue of bigotry in due time, but for now, let's move on.

Hereupon, Eric asks the $64,000 question:

>>That's the problem -- whose standards should be applied? Yours? The rabbinate? The Neturei Karta?

And here is the $64,000,000,000,000,000 answer:

G-d's standards!!

And what might those be?

To answer this question, let us go back to Eric's ambiguous statement and take it both ways.

>>don't understand what it means to convert...

We'll start with connotation #1. What does it mean to convert? To convert means to change over from one state of being to another. When it comes to converting to Judaism, it means to change over from being non-Jewish to being Jewish.

So, basically "what it means to convert" in connotation 1 is really: what it means to be Jewish!

And what does it mean to be Jewish?

It means forging a covenant - a briss. But not a physical briss. The physical briss is a physical gesture to symbolize that one has made a spiritual commitment. And if one has not made the corresponding spiritual commitment, the physical briss is as Jewish as Mohammed's.

And what is the spiritual briss, the covenant? It is the acceptance and commitment to one 2-sided concept:

Anochi Hashem Elokecha and Lo Yihiye Lecha elohim acherim.

That is, Judaism is the commitment to observe Anochi Hashem Elokecha and the commitment to shun any form of elohim acherim.

That's the whole deal. Netto!

Now, all of the positive mitzvos that we do are physical manifestations of Anochi Hashem Elokecha just like the physical briss that every male Jew and true convert must undertake. Both the briss and the mitzvos are merely symbolic of a spiritual commitment of the soul. Likewise, all of the negative commandments (transgressions) are physical enactments of Lo Yihiye Lecha.

And if you do not accept upon yourself any positive mitzva, you have not accepted upon yourself Anochi Hashem Elokecha. And if you have not committed yourself to abstain from any negative mitzva (transgression) you have not abstained from "elohim acheirim".

And you have not accepted Judaism.

The Maharsha says all of this at the end of Masechet Makkos.

What is the most central and meaningful incantation of a Jew?

It is the pasuk: Shema Yisroel - Hear all of Israel, all Jews - Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!

Do you know what Hashem Elokeinu means?

It means Anochi Hashem Elokecha!

Do you know what Hashem Echad means?

It means Lo Yihiye Lecha elohim acherim al panai!

The Mishna Berura (Chofetz Chaim) in Orach Chaim 61 s"k 2 says this based on the Talmud Yerushalmi in Berachos.

So what do we know?

Anochi Hashem = Hashem Elokeinu; Lo Yihiye Lecha = Hashem Echad.

Now, G-d tells us in Vayikra 26 that Im Bechukosai telechu v'es mitzvosai tishmoru - if you go in my ways and do my mitzvos - things will be pretty rosy.

What is "doing my mitzvos"? It's Anochi Hashem (remember the Maharsha?)

G-d also tells us - V'im bechusai timasu...l'bilti assos - if you detest my ways and refrain from doing... l'hafrichem - to transgress... things will get a bit chaotic.

What is "l'hafrichem - to transgress"? That's right, it's Lo Yihiye lecha (Maharsha again!)

L'Hafrichem is the ticket to gehinnom in this world and the next.

This is G-d talking. Not Ashdod's municipal rabbi and not Rabbi Avraham Sherman.

So what do we see now?

Judaism = Anochi Hashem and Lo Yihiye

Anochi Hashem = Hashem Elokeinu = Im B'Chukosai telechu = One Above = ticket to paradise (in both worlds)

Lo Yihiye lecha = Hashem Echad = V'Im Bechukosai Timasu = Seven Below = ticket to purgatory

Thus Judaism = the magic chemical compound Xd20Lv26D6 (Exodus 20: Anochi and Lo Yihiye; Leviticus 26: Im Bechukosai Telechu/Timasu; Deuteronomy 6: Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad).

Yechezkel Hirshman says this all over his book (but mainly in Chapter 6).

This is the formula for being Jewish. This is the meaning of the covenant - the briss - that one must undertake in order to be Jewish. And if one who was not fortunate enough to be born Jewish does not accept and adhere to this covenant (the same way the "born" Jews did at Mount Sinai), he or she has not become Jewish.

Now, let us address connotation #2: what it means to convert - meaning, what the potential convert must endure.

Eric tells me that: "I have seen first hand the emotional turmoil that is involved in the process."

Why is there such emotional turmoil? The answer is that many if not most of the potential geirim are not taught this essential truth of the primacy of Anochi Hashem and Lo Yihiye Lecha (and they don't read my book). Sometimes the fault lies with the teacher and sometimes with the student. But the potential convert is assaulted by a plethora of unequivocal dissertations of what Judaism is "all about' which tend to reflect everybody's opinion except G-d's.

Listen to G-d. He says "Anochi Hashem" and He says "Lo Yihiye Lecha". And take respite from your turmoil.

And it is now time to address Eric's statement about "the intolerant bigots in the Orthodox world who hold converts to higher standards".

Now, I wrote about this at length more than 2 years ago in a post (well worth reading) titled: Just Because We Are Xenophobic Doesn't Mean that We Hate Geirim! And it seems like some of the main points bear repeating.

You see, as I wrote above, Judaism is the observance of Anochi Hashem and Lo Yihiye Lecha. But it boils down to Im Bechukosai telechu - life will be great and we will merit eternal paradise. This much is cool. But it also comes with V'Im bechukosai timasu - we will live a life of happenstance and keri and earn the hot seat in the next world. This part is anything but "cool".

Here is some of what I wrote then:

What all this is saying is that Judaism is no benign game. Depending on how it's played it is either Bracha or Kelala; Chaim or Maves; Anochi Hashem or Lo Yihiyeh Lecha; One Above (Im Bechukosai Telechu) or Seven Below (V'Im Bechukosai Timaasu).

Get it?

Every Jew's purpose in life is to fulfill Anochi Hashem and Im Bechukosai Telechu and hang around the One Above camp. If he is transgressing on Lo Yihiyeh Lecha and is stuck at V'Im Bechukosai Timaasu and is populating the Seven Below camp, he is doing a harmful disservice to himself and to all of Klal Yisrael.

This certainly applies to a full born Jew; but, when I say "Every Jew", I mean every Jew.

For someone who was not born Jewish, this applies at least as much - so why should he want to become Jewish if it is just to spend his life in the Seven Below camp and live a life of keri? And why should the Jewish people want to accept a non-Jew who is only knocking on the door of the Seven Below camp?

One who stations himself in the Seven Below camp brings chance misfortune on the Jewish people, chance misfortune upon the world and chance misfortune upon himself. It brings klalah and maves.

Many of us are under the impression that a convert who sacrificed for Judaism will merit exemplary reward for his keeping of Torah and mitzvot - more than that of a regular Jew who received it as "an inheritance". I also assume that this is the case.

But be aware that Judaism is a two-way street!!

If it is true that a convert will receive a more splendid reward for observing Torah because no one forced him to be "Im Bechukosai Telechu" and he is doing it on his own initiative, then it is imperative that if he violates the Torah, he will receive a much harsher retribution because no one asked him to be "V'Im Bechukosai Timaasu" and he is doing it on his own initiative.

What all this is saying is that geirus is a very very dangerous game. One who truly becomes Jewish and then goes on to live a life of Lo Yihiye and V'Im Bechukosai Timaasu (keri) has basically done himself in. It is not an act of kindness to accept non-observers into Judaism to their eternal detriment. One who does not join Judaism at the Anochi Hashem level, at the Im Bechukosai Teleichu level, at the One Above level is much better off not being Jewish.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman doesn't understand this. and my pen pal Dayan Eric doesn't understand it. But those "intolerant bigots" understand it. They care more for the ger than any of these clowns and they tell them in no uncertain terms: If you are not going to play the game properly, don't destroy yourself. Better not to play the game at all. You can merit Olam Habah with just following the Noachide laws. Why become Jewish to inherit gehinnom?

These "intolerant bigots" know what's best for you.

And don't take it from me. Take it from Rabbi Tovia Singer, a fine upstanding caring intolerant bigot who expresses this very sentiment on the Singer and Gimpel Show Broadcast Live from the Temple Mount on Arutz Sheva (Sept 3, 2009).

Finally Eric states: The state has laws and they need to be applied.

Ah, yes. Since we cannot agree on the proper Halachic standards, we need to apply the secular standards of the State!!

Call me an intolerant bigot, but as long as the State's standards are his yardstick, I cannot acknowledge Dayan Eric's geirim as Jewish.

Write again soon, Eric.

Your pal,


Post Script:
The Jerusalem Post never did post my responding comment to Eric and, thus, our correspondence came to an abrupt halt. I am a bit puzzled about this since my comment was very relevant to the subject and not extreme in any way. Perhaps the JPost Web editor was lazing on the job.
I did not save a copy of the comment but it basically said, as I mentioned in this post, that the issue is not which level of Orthodox standards to insist upon (Yours? The rabbinate? The Neturei Karta?...) since the cases at hand involve "converts" who are not practicing Orthodox standards at any level at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ברב דברים לא יחדל פשע (משלי י:יט)

Reb Yechezkel, I know you've got a book to plug, but with all of this אריכות it's pretty hard - for me, and I don't know for Eric - to understand what you're getting at.

Why not just keep it simple?

"Eric: I'm not trying to 'hold converts to higher standards.' If this person were to have kept Rabbanut kosher, then fine, at least we'd have what to talk about. Same if she kept Shabbos according to any generally accepted standard. But the article makes it clear that she did nothing of the sort. So are you seriously suggesting that since there are disputed standards, then we should apply none at all, and that anyone who says they are a Jew is one?"