Saturday, Oct 16, 2021

Israel's Conversion Crisis

Last month, Israel's Supreme Court answered a question that roiled the Israeli public for the past four years: Do batei din have the right to cast aspersions on converts who do not observe Torah and mitzvos?Do they have the right to assert that such converts never accepted Torah observance and that the batei din that converted them converted them in error? The Supreme Court concluded that there was no need to reach any conclusion. Recent regulations instated by the Chief Rabbinate have removed the authority of regular batei din from expressing their opinions on matters of geirus. The question was moot.

A HEARTBREAKING STORY
 
The story began in January 2007 when Michal (a fictitious name; her identity is barred from publication) and her husband filed for divorce at the Ashdod Rabbinic Court. Born in Denmark, Michal met her husband, Avi (also a fictitious name) twenty years ago, moved to Israel in 1988, and converted a few years later at a Special Rabbinic Court for Conversion headed by Rav Chaim Druckman. After Michal’s conversion, the couple married and had three children.
 
Special Rabbinic Courts for Conversions (read, conversion factories) were set up by the government to solve the problem created by the mass immigration of about 320,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Along with the Russian immigrants came innumerable non-Jews who, by virtue of being husbands, wives, parents, or grandparents of bona fide Jews, were eligible for the benefits that are awarded to Jews under Israel’s Law of Return. The government deemed it essential to convert as many of these immigrants as would agree to convert. Special batei din were set up for the purpose.

 

During Michal’s divorce proceedings in Ashdod, the presiding rov, Rav Avraham Atiya, noticed that Michal did not seem particular observant and his suspicions were confirmed when he asked her some questions seemingly unrelated to divorce: “Do you use electricity on Shabbos, etc.” Several months later, she received a nine-page ruling explaining that her conversion was invalid. First, it explained, the beis din that converted her was not run according to halacha particularly because of its low standard of kabolas mitzvos, and secondly, Michal herself admitted she was not Torah observant.

 

Michal and her family were devastated.

 

“The tremendous injury is not only to me, a righteous convert, but also to my former husband, his parents and my children,” she complained. “Avi’s mother is a Holocaust survivor and I can’t even describe the distress she feels from all of this. Unfortunately, even though we decided to protect our children and to keep secret the fact that my conversion and their Judaism were being held up to scrutiny and question, it became known to them and now they are also upset, and feel degraded and shamed. We will have to take care of the children with the help of professionals.”

 

In tandem with the Center for Women’s Justice (CW), she appealed the ruling to the High Rabbinic Court of Yerushalayim in 2007.

 

CWJ argued that “the court had exceeded its jurisdiction by asking questions that were irrelevant to the amicable divorce, and that in any event, halacha did not allow for the repeal of a conversion on any grounds.” The organization also claimed that “the Torah warns against the mistreatment of converts no less than 36 times, and that, according to the Talmud, even a convert who returns to ‘idol worship’ remains unequivocally a Jew.”

 

Obviously, both sources were taken out of context. The Torah is speaking of a convert who underwent a legitimate conversion, and the Talmud is speaking of a convert who returned to idolatry, not someone who never discarded it.

 

After further investigations, the Yerushalayim beis din, headed by Rav Avraham Sherman, affirmed the Ashdod decision. Due to lack of commitment to mitzvos, her conversion was in doubt, the beis din said. Her behavior was traditional, but not observant. On top of that, Rav Sherman lashed out with severe criticism against Rav Druckman and his partner, Rav Avior, for their lax conversions, ruling that all their conversions performed since 1999 were invalid because “they have disrespect for the halacha ruled by all the poskim, that when the convert has not accepted mitzvos, there is no conversion even bedi’eved and the convert remains a non-Jew.”

 

The beis din added that marriage registrars too, have a right to refuse to register a convert for marriage if he or she does not have a religious appearance.

 

Of course, this ruling placed not only the Jewish identity of Michal and her children at risk, but also the Jewish identity of the tens-of-thousands of converts produced by factory conversion facilities established by Israel in recent years. Rabbinical courts might challenge the Jewish identity of such converts even after they faithfully followed the procedures of government batei din!

 

A number of human-rights organizations brought the case before Israel’s Supreme Court. Human rights and feminist organizations included the Center for Women’s Justice, Naamat, Wizo, Ne’emanei Torah V’Avoda, Mavoi Satum, Emunah, Kolech, the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status, Granit, Shvut Am and the Ohr Torah Stone Institutions. One source of their funding was the Keren Hachadasha Leyisrael, the organization that helped fund the recent protests against separate seating in Israeli public transportation.

 

The appellants argued that “the rabbinic courts had deviated from “natural justice” when they adjudicated matters that were not before them and that they acted beyond their authority when they made a determination in matters of conversion that were not within the purview of their jurisdiction.”

 

In May 2009, the Supreme Court recommended that a third beis din in Tel Aviv review Michal’s case, and after a lot of questioning and deliberation, this beis din decided that her conversion was valid after all. She and her children were Jews.

 

Even then, CWJ complained the Supreme Court had only partially solved Michal’s case.

 

“Conversion is not currently regulated by law, and current practices are subject to whim and personal politics of rabbinical court judges,” CWJ complained. “The interrogation was allowed to take place because nobody in the State of Israel said otherwise. The dignity and rights of converts are left hanging, not protected by the law or by society.”

 

RABBINIC COURTS DEFUSED

 

The Supreme Court continued the case and came to a startling conclusion. Writing for the court, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said the justices preferred not to intervene in this issue at present “due to the decision of the district beit din in Tel Aviv that affirmed the appellant’s conversion, and out of hope that the buds of change of the system that have sprouted since the petition was filed will develop and bear fruit.”

 

What were these buds of change? Earlier in his verdict, Rubinstein specified them all. In November 2011, the attorney general had assured the Supreme Court that everything regarding conversion was firmly under control. First, the President of the Great Rabbinical Beit Din, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, had instated new rules whereby only specially convened batei din would handle issues of spurious conversions and henceforth, regular batei din would be barred from the issue. In addition, the attorney general would be informed whenever any beis din cast aspersions on a convert’s level of acceptance of mitzvos and keep a close eye over the proceedings.

 

Secondly, Judge Rubinstein mentioned that the Chief Rabbinate had solved another problem unrelated to Rav Sherman, the issue of marriage registrars who had recently refused to register marriages of spurious converts. In this second case mentioned by Rubinstein, the humanistic ITIM organization had filed suit in the Israel Supreme Court on behalf of Maxim and Ilana Shostin against the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the chief rabbis of four Israeli cities.

 

“The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants were dealing with converts in an unduly harsh manner and that a state-recognized conversion was not recognized when they came to the Rabbinate to register their wedding,” ITIM reported. “The plaintiffs asked the court to issue an interim order directing the rabbis to recognize the plaintiff’s conversion until the matter is finally resolved in court.”

 

The suit complained that “with one hand the State issues a certificate to converts that attests to their having become Jewish, yet with the other hand it rejects them as Jews, discriminates against them and humiliates them, thus violating the basic principles of equality before the law and the plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry.”

 

Now, wrote Justice Rubinstein, the Chief Rabbinate had solved the problem. In addition to existing regulation of the Office for Religious Services that registrars “have no legitimacy to refuse to register marriages of couples who underwent recognized conversion,” the Chief Rabbinate authorized four rabbis to register the couples whose conversion was in question.

 

Overall, the Chief Rabbinate had fixed matters so that regular batei din cannot cast aspersions on converts, neither when they want to marry or when they want to divorce. All such cases will be whisked away to be “dealt with” by specially selected batei din of the rabbinate’s choosing.

 

In retaliation for Rav Sherman’s accusations, Rav Druckman tried to oust him from his judicial position with the sympathy of the head of Public Complaints against Judges and Justice Minister, Daniel Friedman. Rav Sherman was saved by the Committee for Appointment of Judges that rejected the complaint. Meanwhile, not long after the Supreme Court ruling, Druckman received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Truly, we live in an upside down world.

 

SPURIOUS CONVERTS – A MODERN PHENOMENOM

 

The problem of spurious converts in Israel is an old story. During the sixties, when the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Unterman, was thinking of establishing special batei din for conversions, Rav Moshe Sternbuch pointed out that 98% of converts, estimated at about a thousand a year, “do not observe religion at all.” (Ba’ayos Hazeman Behashkofas Hatorah, Yerushalayim 5729, page 27).

 

Parenthetically, Rav Sternbuch’s estimation of converts’ non-observance was statistically verified. Batei dinim in Israel follow the rule of the Toras Gittin that when writing the name of a convert, do not write “the son of Avraham Avinu” if he is non-observant, since “[Avrohom] does not link his honor with someone like this.” Instead, the beis din should write, “Ploni the convert.” Similarly, only observant women converts are called bas Sarah Imeinu.

 

Batei din in Israel began recording gittin on computers from 1996, which provided an opportunity to examine the wording of gittin since that time. Between 1996-2008, it was found, that of the 1,313 converts registered for divorce, 1,276 (97.2%) were called Ploni(s) ha’ger, and only 37 (2.8%) were called ben Avrohom Avinu or Bas Sarah Imeinu. This ratio is almost identical to the 98% non-observance rate claimed by Rav Moshe Sternbuch.

 

In similar vein, Dayan Avraham Sherman told the Yated that the Supreme Court petition against him was the culmination of a problem that has existed for decades.

 

“For over twenty years, many converts of Rav Druckman’s beit din who came to us for divorces seemed non-observant,” he said. “This was the result of the hundreds of conversions pouring from the government setup. So long as we had not clarified the person’s mitzvah observance, his Jewishness remained in doubt. We wouldn’t be machmir [regarding geirus] and allow someone to remarry without a get. Rather, we arranged a get immediately and wrote that regarding his conversion, the person was meanwhile a me’ukav nisu’in, someone who cannot marry a Jew.”

 

“Fake conversions were always a problem. However, after the founding of the State of Israel it was a problem of individuals, a few here and there; it wasn’t a mass problem. Now, the problem became relevant to hundreds and thousands. Most of these conversions were done after the great aliyah from Russia and Ethiopia that included hundreds of thousands of non-Jews whom the government wanted to integrate through conversion. Rav Druckman and his beit din felt they had a national mission. We felt it necessary to make a stand regarding these converts and his beit din.”

 

What is the halachic status of an unobservant ger in our times?

 

“The central component of geirut is kabbalat mitzvot. The Rambam writes that just as we, the Jewish people, went through milah, tevilah, and maamad Har Sinai, so too a non-Jew needs milah and tevillah, and, at the heart of it all, kabalat mitzvot. His kabalat mitzvot parallels the maamad Har Sinai of all Yisroel. If you removed the maamad Har Sinai from Klal Yisroel, we would have disappeared long ago. This is the foundation of everything, for as Rav Saadya Gaon said, the nation of Yisroel is only a nation through its Torah.

 

Kabalat mitzvot does not depend on what a prospective convert says. The main thing is what he thinks: I am changing my lifestyle. Until today, I chased my desires and interests. From now, what forms my life will be not what I want, but the will of Hashem.”

 

When did the problem of non-religious gerim begin?

 

“We need to remember that mass conversion only began in modern times with the beginning of the Haskalah when people began distancing themselves from mitzvot. The walls of halachot and takanot that existed between Jew and non-Jew tumbled down. As in the days of benot Moav, Jews began going out with non-Jews. On the other hand, they didn’t want to leave the Jewish people for social and familial reasons. Their families said, ‘Don’t bring a non-Jew into our house. If you want to marry her, have her convert beforehand.’ In fact, conversions, especially fake conversions, encouraged the advance of assimilation.”

 

A special booklet published by the legal advisor of the Yerushalayim Rabbinate in preparation for Rav Sherman’s trial picks up the story. One of the first people to discuss the problem of fake conversions was the Polish posek, Rav Yitzchok Shmelkes of Lvov. In 1876, addressing the issue of German converts who were generally unobservant he wrote, “It is clear that the least we require is that they accept the mitzvos wholeheartedly. If the convert is pretending and not sincerely intending to keep mitzvos, and we know his intent is to… desecrate Shabbos and eat treifah afterwards, he is not a convert at all” (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok, Yoreh De’ah II, 100:9).

 

All great poskim shared his opinion, even though it superficially contradicted the well-known rule that devorim shebelev einam devorim. Usually when someone has in mind something that is not consistent with what he is actually doing,, we judge by the action and not by what he was thinking. If that is true then a convert who says he is accepting mitzvos, why does it make a difference as to what he is thinking at the time?

 

The Achiezer explained why we override this rule: “However, if it is clear that [the convert] will certainly transgress Torah prohibitions, such as chillul Shabbos and eating treifos, afterwards, and we clearly know that his intent is only to pretend to convert and he is not sincere, this creates an umdanah demuchach (an obvious assessment) that when he says he accepts mitzvos, it means nothing. If so, there is a lack of the essential criteria of accepting mitzvos” (Shu”t vol. 3, 26)

 

In a letter to the Achiezer, the Devar Avraham of Kovno (1870-1943) explained that the rule of devorim shebelev einam devorim was rendered meaningless by the new social milieu wrought by the enlightenment.

 

“This [devorim shebelev] was only relevant in earlier times when people were observant. Not so nowadays, when this woman [whom the convert wants to marry] and a large portion of society do not observe Judaism. Even after the conversion, nothing will force him to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah… Regarding what some have written that we are not concerned with what a person thinks because devorim shebelev lo havei devorim, this was relevant in earlier times. Nowadays, however, how can we fool ourselves when we know in most cases, with an umdanah demuchach (absolute assessment), that they will not observe mitzvos afterwards and they have no intent for this at all. In a case where there is umdanah demuchach, even devorim shebelev are considered devorim.” (Devor Avrohom 3:28)

 

All great poskim concur. Rav Moshe Feinstein said of a convert who never kept mitzvos even for one day, “Regarding his words that he accepted [the mitzvos ] upon himself, this certainly does not create a chazakah (supposition) that he accepted, because the umdanah is the opposite, that he only said this with his mouth and never accepted the mitzvos in his heart.” (Even Ha’ezer 3:4)

 

Elsewhere, Rav Moshe explains that when the Gemara and Rambam speak of a conversion being valid even if the convert turned to idolatry, this does not apply in cases where the person began his non-observance of mitzvos immediately after the conversion. (Yoreh De’ah 3:108)

 

This opinion is widespread even among thosehighly regarded by the conversion factory managers.

 

Rav Avraham Yitzchok Hakohen Kook writes in his teshuvos (154), “Even though we hold like the opinion that they are all valid converts [even if they converted for ulterior motives]… this is only if the conversion was replete with kiyum mitzvos. But if they did not convert completely, that is, if they converted without the observance of mitzvos and the intent was also unsuitable [for marriage etc.]… halacha considers them as non-Jews in every way because there were two drawbacks: the conversion was not for the sake of heaven, and there was no complete observance of mitzvos… Therefore, there was no conversion at all.”

 

Rav Yitzchok Eizik Halevi Herzog, who served as Chief Rabbi after Rav Kook, wrote, “If [the convert] continued to live without observing the principle matters of Jewish religion, this proves that she did not accept Judaism wholeheartedly from the beginning. There is at least a sofek de’oraisa regarding her conversion, and one can also say she is totally non-Jewish as one should leave her on her earlier chazokah of being non-Jewish. If you argue the chazokah is damaged by the conversion, it has at least not left off being a sofek de’oraisa.” (Mazkeret-Kovetz Torani, Yerushalayim 1962, page 49).

 

Rav Herzog upbraided rabbonim who produced such converts, writing in 1928: “When we see people called rabbis insolently disregarding the words of the sages, every tamid chochom and rov must rise and stand against the breach, and strive to preserve the words of the sages as an unmovable peg.” (Teshuvos 155)

 

It is fascinating to note that even Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren used this rationale to resolve the well-known sha’alah regarding the children of a woman who had remarried without receiving a get from her first husband. Rav Goren based his solution on the rationalization that the first husband was a convert who never observed mitzvos. Because of this, Rav Goren reasoned, he was never Jewish, the first marriage never took place, and the children were kosher Jews.

 

“This indicates that someone who converts for personal benefit and not at all leshem shamayim due to his attraction to Jewish belief, his status is in doubt until we see his end,” Rav Goren wrote. “If he behaves properly like a Torah observant Jew, his conversion is valid from the time he became a Jew. But if he does not observe mitzvos after conversion, lives like a non-Jew, and returns to his old ways and old religion, his conversion is nullified retroactively as if he was never a convert. So the wording of the Rambam seems to indicate.” (Pesak Hadin b’inyan Ha’ach Veha’achot, 5733, page 138)

 

OPINION OF THE GEDOLIM

 

During the 80s, Rav Sherman and other dayonim consulted Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach regarding the problem of spurious converts coming to them for divorces.

 

“In 1988, I was one of three dayanim who sought daas Torah from Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach,” he said. “Accompanying me were Rav Shiloh Rafael, later Av Beis Din of Yerushalayim, and my uncle, Rav Gedaliah Axelrod. We said we needed clear daas Torah how to relate to the conversions of Rav Druckman’s beis din. This was before the mass Russianaliyah. We were coming across the conversions of Rav Druckman in smaller numbers. After Rav Elyashiv wrote an opinion word by word, we took it to Rav Shlomo Zalman and he agreed to sign it. They then sent us to add on the signatures of Rav Shach and the Steipler. Each word here is a p’sak.”

 

After the mass Russian aliyah, the conversion factories went into high gear.

 

“The extreme of what was going on became apparent when Rav Druckman announced during an interview at the time he received the Israel Prize, ‘I have signed fifty thousand conversion certificates,’” Rav Sherman recalls. “Fifty thousand! He gave conversions to fifty thousand people regarding whom all gedolei Yisroel, now and in past generations, have established that without kabalas mitzvos, there is no giyur.

 

“The fact is that a huge percentage of these converts have absolutely no intent to accept mitzvos This is the heart of the contention between the government conversion institutions and us. We are representative of the gedolei hadoros who tell us to scrutinize the convert’s motives. Who is the convert? Has he experienced the great spiritual change that needs to take place? The convert needs to transform from an atheist into a believer. Why should this suddenly happen? If he indeed experienced this deep psychological upheaval, where is the change in his conduct?”

 

In an open letter to factory conversion rabbis, Rav Sherman and his colleagues appeal:

 

“It would not be so bad if your halachic decisions were for your personal use. However, conversions are not something in the private realm but relevant to all Klal Yisrael. Who appointed you to dictate to them which p’sak they should follow? Did the Jewish people appoint you to decide who is a Jew or not against all the gedolei olam?

 

“…You are forcing a halachic issue on the entire Jewish nation that affects every Jew. In the next generation, people will not know who the daughters of these converts are and thus you are forcing all of us, whether Haredi, religious, or traditional, to marry such people when, according to Rav Kook and Rav Herzog, these converts are complete non-Jews… A continuation of the conversion campaign will lead us to over a million descendants of converts, and in the future the number will be greater still.”

 

(This article made use of pertinent court verdicts and piskei beis din, and the booklet: Bitul Giyur ekev choser kenut bekabalat hamitzvot by the Rabbinical Judgment Legal Advisor, Rav Shimon Yaakobi, and articles published by the Center for Women’s Justice.)

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