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A Low Blow from the High Court

It was not long ago that I wrote in these pages about “The Geirus Phenomenon of Our Time.” The column engendered a somewhat heated exchange of letters to the editor and responses. Although everyone meant well, I made a mental note not to raise this issue again for a while. However, the recent ruling of the Israeli High Court to recognize non-Orthodox conversions in the State of Israel simply cannot be ignored. I spent many paragraphs last time prefacing my criticisms of “quicky conversions” with some of Chazal’s glowing praises for righteous converts. To add to those cited earlier, I would merely point to an amazing Medrash.

The posuk (Shir Hashirim 6:2) states, “My beloved has descended to His Temple garden to His incense altar, yet He grazes my brethren remaining in gardens of exile…to pick roses.” The Medrash comments, “When Klal Yisroel is doing the will of the Al-mighty, He spies the righteous amongst the gentiles, such as Yisro and Rochov, and brings them to join Klal Yisroel.” In other words, as the former rov of Yerushalayim, Rav Betzalel Zolty, commented, “Those geirim who truly wish to keep the commandments and act in accordance with the Torah are warmly welcomed into our nation” (Torah Shebaal Peh Journal, No. 13, page 33).

An astonishing example of this transpired just recently as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv welcomed what turned out to be one of his last visitors before his petirah at nearly 102 years old. The family was no longer allowing visitors and even honored regulars could not gain entry. That day, there was a knock at the door of the gadol hador and a chareidi Jew stood waiting with his unshorn three-year-old. “I would like the rov to cut my son’s hair please. Today is the day of his upsherin.” The family explained patiently that it was impossible, but the man persisted, to the point that the elder sage heard the commotion. When Rav Elyashiv realized what the man requested, he asked that they be admitted. At that point, the moving truth emerged.

It turns out that this man had until recently been a true gentile. In fact, Rav Elyashiv had sold chometz to him every Pesach for many years. At some point, after closely observing the great posek’s beautiful middos and conduct, he made the decision to be megayeir, converting properly to Judaism. After the appropriate procedures, he became a ger tzedek and raised a wonderful mishpacha of Torah Jews.

When Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, heard the story, he told the ger that he should be called up to the Torah as Avrohom ben Yosef Shalom instead of the more common appellation Avrohom ben Avrohom. His source was the story in the Medrash (Pesikta Rabbosi, Poroh 2) about Rav Yochanan ben Tursa, which means “son of the ox.” This man had purchased an ox from a Jew and all was well until Shabbos, when the ox refused to work. The gentile asked his Jewish seller if he had bewitched the ox. He answered, “No, but he is quite used to refraining from work on Shabbos in accordance with Jewish law.” The Yid proceeded to whisper to the ox that he now belonged to a gentile and was permitted to work on Shabbos, whereupon the ox went right to work.

The gentile was so inspired by this spectacle that he reasoned like a Talmudic kal vachomer: “If this ox, which is, after all, just a beast, can understand the sanctity of Shabbos, I, who was created in the image of G-d, can do no less.” And he not only converted, but grew so in his knowledge of Torah that he became one of the Amoraim cited in the Gemara (see Yoma 9a). Rav Zilberstein, in turn, concluded with his own kal vachomer that if someone can be called “son of the ox” because of such a story, all the more so can this gentleman be called up to the Torah as the “son of Rav Elyashiv” (Borchi Nafshi 5:156).

For thousands of years, Klal Yisroel has revered and honored such righteous converts, as the Rambam (Introduction to Mishnah Torah) enumerates “Shmaya and Avtalyon, Rav Akiva (whose father was a ger tzedek), Rav Yishmoel and Rav Meir (son of a ger tzedek).” However, they have also been scrupulous to reject people who had ulterior motives or were insincere in their declarations of loyalty to the Torah. Part of the “public relations” problem of discussing this topic is that it falls into the old trap of “Us and Them.” People somehow wrongly believe that there is a group of religious fanatics, rabbis, extremists, etc. who have arrogantly taken it upon themselves to define them out of the people of Israel. The truth, however, is the exact opposite.

As much as defenders of halacha and tradition are fighting a battle for the Torah, the court’s decision will harm future would-be converts much more. Although it is already true that because of the court’s earlier decisions, non-Orthodox converts from the Diaspora are being rejected by many, it will now become much more prevalent. A prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi shared with me that before officiating at a wedding, he now checks three generations back and will refuse to proceed if there were any conversion improprieties at all. Since until recently the chief rabbinate of Israel was the sole arbiter of conversions performed there, at least people could feel secure about their status if they had been converted there. For converts, that sense of security no longer exists. Furthermore, since the teshuvah movement grows stronger every day, even the non-Orthodox who think ahead a bit must now know that if their descendents choose Orthodoxy down the road, their lives could be doomed to disappointment and tragedy because of the High Court.

On a more lofty and appropriate post-Pesach note, we just completed celebrating the greatest series of open miracles in Jewish history. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, taught that we often fail to realize the greatest miracle of all. He writes that “we must know that with all the talk of supernatural events and hidden miracles, there is one incredible phenomenon which superseded them all. That was the coming into existence of the unique entity of Knesses Yisroel, a being unconnected to political rights or actions. It was simply an act representing the will of G-d. Just as there are categories such as domeim, the inanimate, and the tzomeiach, the vegetative, so is there now a classification known as Yisroel. Just as one cannot ask why a stone is not a flower or vice versa, so is the soul of Yisroel singular and unique” (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok 109:3, page 402).

Rav Hutner is clearly referencing the words of the Kuzari (1:26-27, page 27, Genizi edition). In the famed dialogue between the king of the Khazars and the rabbi, the king who is seeking the “true religion” is told that besides domeim and tzomeiach, there are also two other categories. One is chai, such as animals, and medaber, the speaking creature known as man. However, the rabbi also proves to the king that there is another distinct and separate species called Yisroel. He is at first reluctant, even angry, to accept this. However, after much discussion, he and his people convert to Judaism. Rav Yehudah Halevi knew almost a millennium ago that this would not be a popular position. He depicts a monarch who is initially offended at the suggestion of any distinctions amongst the family of mankind. Yet, his eventual acceptance of the concept has been ratified by centuries of converts and even acceptance by Jews and gentiles alike.

After establishing this immortal fact about Klal Yisroel, Rav Hutner concluded, “Wine is wine and water is water. All of mankind is made in the image of G-d, but only Klal Yisroel is considered ‘Hashem’s children’ (Avos 3:11). We can understand why the miracle of Klal Yisroel’s creation is the greatest miracle of all. Just as wine is not water and a stone is not a flower, so was the instant transformation of one nation into a totally distinct species the most dramatic and incredible metamorphosis in nature as well. This was far more amazing than making what was yesterday the sea into dry land today.”

We may now borrow from Rav Hutner’s teaching and apply it to our current situation. Not only is the High Court’s myopic decision a disaster for would-be converts, but it denies them participation in this sublime miracle which replays itself in every generation. Chazal (Shemos Rabbah 19) even promise that “In the future world, geirim (converts) will become anointed kohanim in the house of Hashem.” This is part of the miracle of which Rav Hutner spoke. However, it is clearly predicated upon following the time-honored process of geirus kehalacha, which has preserved the purity and sanctity of the eternal nation for all these millennia. It is always helpful to note that there is virtually nothing left – except perhaps in musty historical tomes in empty libraries – of the once touted popular groups such as Boethians, Sadducees and various deviant sects. Our wish for the righteous gentiles who sincerely wish to join us is to be energized by the new sacred soul entering their body and by experiencing the miracle we all felt between Pesach and Shavuos 3,333 years ago.