Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

The New Israeli Geirus Crisis

What in the World is Going On? In a move that is splintering the Religious-Zionist rabbinate and that is sending shockwaves through the Jewish world, a small group of Religious-Zionist Israeli rabbis, backed by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Minister for Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, announced that it has formed independent botei din to convert children of intermarried couples from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Rabbis Nachum Rabinovich, Yaakov Medan, David Stav, Shlomo Riskin, and Re'em Hacohen have created a network of conversion courts to be megayer children whose fathers are Jewish but whose mothers are gentile, with the aim of transforming the current non-Jewish community of FSU émigrés into Jews within a generation. Several dozen children have undergone conversion rites under the supervision of these alternative botei din, and the goal is to mass-convert approximately 100,000 such children.

 The Jerusalem Post reports that there are currently 330,000 gentile Israelis from the FSU, and the above rabbis feel that converting the children of this community will enable the community to become Jewish in the most practical manner. The thinking behind this is that Medinas Yisroel currently hosts this massive non-Jewish community, which nationally and socially considers itself Jewish and which has the same rights and privileges (including army service) as Israeli Jews. It is not right or possible to sustain this situation, argue the rabbis involved, and geirus is therefore the solution.

Why Alternative Botei Din?

The Rabbanut (Israeli Chief Rabbinate), similar to reputable botei din around the world, will not convert children unless it is clear that they will be raised in a Torah environment. The Rabbanut and other reputable botei din refuse to be megayer children whose parents are not both Jewish, as being raised in the home of a gentile parent obviously compromises the Torah quality of the home. 

This is based on the halachah that a ger koton, a child brought to convert, can be converted by a bais din because “zechus hu lo,” it is a zechus (merit) (Kesubos 11a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:7). The accepted interpretation of this halachah is that observing the mitzvos as a Jew is a zechus, and the geirus of a child only works because the bais din has the right to subject the child to this zechus. If the result of the conversion will not be a zechus, but will instead end up with a person projected to violate the Torah and not be committed to it, the geirus is invalid.

Botei din around the world are therefore very careful to make sure that the environment of the child ger is a Torah one, as otherwise he will be in surroundings that do not encourage shemiras hamitzvos, and he will be on a path not to keep the Torah, meaning that his geirus was not valid, as it failed to project to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l ruled that only if the surroundings of the ger koton are more likely than not to create a life of shemiras hamitzvos may the geirus be done. Otherwise, it is not defined as a zechus. Botei din are exceedingly meticulous to make sure that the home, parents, schooling, and so forth of a ger koton are frum. Otherwise, the geirus may not be performed. This is the policy of the Rabbanut. Hence, since the children of the FSU émigrés do not have Jewish mothers, the Rabbanut will not accept them for geirus.

This is where the alternative botei din come in. These botei din perform geirus on those children whom the Rabbanut (and most botei din worldwide) will not accept for conversion. The children and their parents are in fact told by these alternative botei din that the geirus will not be recognized by the Rabbanut or the State of Israel.   

What Kind of Geirus?

This is where it gets really sticky. In fact, nebulous information about the “zechus” component of the conversions provided by the alternative botei din is emanating, leaving the uninitiated very confused.

Rabbi David Stav, head of the Tzohar rabbinical group and former candidate for chief rabbi of Israel, affirmed, as quoted in an interview in Times of Israel, that the Torah chinuch of the child converts will be quite serious:

“The new court would insist that even if the parents are not observant Jews, the children must get a traditional Jewish education. ‘When I say traditional, I am saying observing Shabbat, observing kashrut,’ he clarified.”

A student of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch expressed the views of his rebbi in a similar vein:

“However, when converting minors, the need for that condition (of accepting the mitzvot) disappears. A minor has no obligation to fulfill mitzvot, and is therefore not obligated to accept upon himself their full yoke in order to be converted. All he needs is circumcision (if the convert is a boy) and immersion. This makes things much simpler, of course. Now, clearly, we don’t want to convert someone without giving them the proper framework to develop religiously, and so the new courts do make sure that the parents provide a religious environment for the child. But that is so much simpler than what is required when converting an adult (as most parents who want their children to convert anyway provide that sort of environment in one way or another)…

“Another thing that these courts want to do is to supply a supporting framework for the conversions, such as summer camps and Shabbatonim for the converts, to strengthen their Jewish identity and religious observance. So these courts are not working in a vacuum, but rather are part of an entire system.”

A perfunctory reading of these statements may lead one to believe that the alternative botei din for geirus are indeed fulfilling the requirements of Rav Moshe Feinstein and that they qualify as kosher for regular botei din. But such is not the case.

Rabbi Rabinovich, in his sefer Siach Nachum, has more lenient parameters for geirus of children. He maintains that geirus can be done even if the child will not be on a path of real Torah observance, because the child, as a Jew, will perform many mitzvos no matter what, and the aveiros that he may perform as an irreligious Jew will be in the category of oines, unwitting acts for which the person is not liable. Therefore, in opposition to Rav Moshe and the halachic norm, children should be converted even without the basic assumptions of a future Torah-observant life, according to Rabbi Rabinovich.

It has also been reported, in line with the lighter geirus requirement of Rabbi Rabinovich, that the families of the children being converted in the alternative botei din do not specifically commit to provide a life of Torah and mitzvos for the children or to enroll them in yeshivas. The parents need only commit “to provide a Jewish education according to the tradition of Israel.”

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and a main force in these alternative botei din, explained to Arutz Sheva that lesser standards are applied:

“The rabbi (Riskin) quoted Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the former Sephardic chief rabbi, regarding people in the category of ‘zera Yisrael – the seed of Israel,’ who are Jewish through their fathers, but not their mothers. According to Rabbi Uziel, ‘It behooves every religious court to convert such people, because they have Jewish DNA from the paternal side, and therefore, not to be exacting, certainly not to be harsh concerning them, but to deeply encourage their conversion,’ Rabbi Riskin explained.”

Not So Fast

The alternative botei din, despite being the project of some very eminent Religious-Zionist rabbis, were subject to harsh attack by the majority of Religious-Zionist rabbis who expressed their opinion on the issue. Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who is generally accepted as the Religious-Zionist rabbi with the greatest seniority, told Arutz Sheva, “I am totally opposed to any alternative conversion processes even if they are done properly under Jewish law. Such actions will injure religious life in Israel.”

Arutz Sheva further reported: “Rabbi Druckman…(asserts that)…the project, which overrides the authority of the Rabbinate, will open the floodgates to other groups who wish to override the Rabbinate, but for less idealistic reasons.‘There are some who will conduct themselves properly under Jewish law, and others who will not.’”

Similarly have many other commenters expressed alarm at the opening of the alternative botei din, not only in light of the fact that they undermine the Rabbanut, but that they will set a very dangerous precedent and can lead to non-Orthodox groups operating “botei din” in the state, demanding full rabbinic and halachic recognition. Once the notion of alternative conversions not meeting the Rabbanut’s requirements is accepted fact, everyone, including outright kofrim and non-Orthodox desecrators of halachah, will start performing them.

Another expression of stern opposition and condemnation to the alternative botei din came by way of a letter signed by over 30 Religious-Zionist rabbis, including rabbis from almost every Hesder yeshiva and Religious-Zionist enclave, as reported by Arutz Sheva:

“We, the undersigned, wish to strengthen the hands of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the sole source of halakhic decisions that affect the State of Israel on a national level and the central authority on matters of conversion to Judaism,” wrote the rabbis.

“We are the generation that merited the establishment of a Jewish State. The Chief Rabbinate, established by our mentor, Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook zts”l, is the nucleus of this state’s Jewish identity.

“Private conversions deal a severe blow to our national unity in this country and shake the very foundations of our definition as a Jewish state. This is a de facto separation of religion and state, in total contradiction to our holy Torah, the sole wellspring of our Religious-Zionist ethos.

“And above all, the mass conversion of minors goes against the halakhic opinions of the vast majority of Torah sages of recent generations, first and foremost Rabbi Kook — it is an act that is not accepted by the halakhic decisors of the People of Israel.

“Therefore, we declare that we will recognize only conversions that have been certified by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and those who stand at its head. We call on all rabbis from every sector to stand as one behind the Chief Rabbinate, to strengthen and support it, to raise the level of Judaism in our land and to guard the principles of halachah.

“With the blessings of Torah, signed:

“Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hevron

“Rabbi Chaim Shteiner, Merkaz Harav Yeshiva

“Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau, Har Hamor Yeshiva

“Rabbi Eitan Eisman, Pres., Noam Educational Institutions

“Rabbi Eliyahu Zini, Pres., Haifa Hesder Yeshiva

“Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, Chief Rabbi of the Shomron

“Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, Rosh Yeshiva (Dean), Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva

“Rabbi Michael Hershkowitz, Merkaz Harav Yeshiva

“Rabbi Micha Halevi, Chief Rabbi of Petach Tikva

“Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, Rosh Yeshiva, Har Hamor

“Rabbi Amiel Sternberg, Rosh Yeshiva, Har Hamor

“Rabbi Shlomo Levi, Kollel Head, Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva

“Rabbi Shimon Cohen, Chairman, Beit Moriah Institutions

“Rabbi Baruch Efrati, Head of the Rabbanei Emunah Organization

“Thirty additional rabbis of towns, neighborhoods, yeshivas, the IDF Rabbinate, Hadassah Hospital, Ulpanas, Judaic Institutes, as well as Rabbinic Judges have already signed the document, with more expected.” 

Yated readers and the larger Chareidi world know that the alternative botei din of a small group of rabbis is a recipe for disaster. Introducing new standards in the severely weighty realm of geirus, for people who are not sincerely interested in Judaism in the first place and who came to Medinas Yisroel as a convenient way to leave the Soviet Union, will result in a churban for yichus (halachic Jewish status) and will undermine the Rabbanut’s authority in yuchsin, which is the only comprehensive and reliable method to track the Jewishness of the 6,000,000 Israeli Jews.

Creating 100,000 halachically-questionable Jews, opening the arena for non-Orthodox groups to perform their conversions and demand recognition of them, undermining the state’s/Rabbanut’s yichus standards — is this a positive development?

Hashem yeracheim that we have gotten to such a situation. May He redeem us from it and lead us in the path of accepted halachic practice.




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