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Wednesday, August 19, 2015 

Why it's important to respect an independent conversion system

Dror Eydar makes the case for why we should respect rabbi David Stav and company's wish to run their own private conversion court:
History has its own ways to bring about the ingathering of the exiles. The Mishnah tells us that when Cyrus the Great let the Jews return to Zion, "Ten genealogical lineages made aliyah from Babylon" along with Ezra the Scribe (Tractate Kiddushin). The use of the term "lineage" suggests that not all of them were Jewish under Halachah. Nevertheless, those people formed the backbone of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. Their offspring comprised the Great Assembly of Jewish scribes and the famed Jewish scholars known as the Tannaim.

As the Bible teaches us, "It is time to act, for they have broken your law." The alternative conversion apparatus that has recently been announced is an important development, one that comes at the 11th hour. Some circles have voiced opposition to this apparatus because it will compete with the Chief Rabbinate's conversion courts but this should not deter us -- just as the opposition to Zionism among the Jewish people did not deter the early settlers.

When Rabbi Shlomo Benizri, a former Shas party cabinet minister, was asked why he was opposed to an independent conversion apparatus, he cited the fact that under Israeli law only the Chief Rabbinate can decide conversion matters, even though ultra-Orthodox communities have separate rabbinical courts for conversion purposes. When pressed on this point, he answered candidly that his opposition stemmed from his perception that the independent rabbinical courts would be too lenient, by not upholding the same tough halachic standards as the Chief Rabbinate.

But those "lenient" rabbinical judges are well qualified. They are not, as the Talmud would say of uneducated laymen, "reed cutters." I would love to see them debate the Chief Rabbinate's rabbis or the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. This would be a live exchange between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. So long as this is truly about religious matters, eventually one side may be persuaded. Even if neither side prevails, they would still agree to disagree. Who knows what will emerge out of such a debate? I wish the ongoing debate would be just about the proper interpretation of Halachah. This would be constructive for the general discourse, and it would preserve the honor of the Torah and Jewish law.

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, who heads the new conversion apparatus, is among the most qualified and deep-thinking rabbis in our generation. When he was interviewed by Makor Rishon recently, he made the case against those rabbis who oppose his conversion efforts.

"There is no precedent where converts were denied recognition despite converting [through a rabbinical court], not even in the form of a written dissent [by a rabbinical court judge]," he said. "They are essentially in disagreement with all of our old sages --- from the first generation to the current one. Such a view has never existed."

In the early statehood years, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel warned that "locking the door in the face of converts" would only encourage intermarriage and assimilation. As for the "seed of Israel" -- those who, for example, only have a Jewish father -- he wrote: "We are duty-bound to bring them into the fold, even if they are born to a gentile mother, because they are part of the seed of Israel; I worry that if we reject them outright -- by rejecting the parents' Jewishness -- we will be held accountable by the heavenly court."

Of course, the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have their own rationale for keeping the conversion apparatus unchanged. But if you pay close attention to the ongoing debate you will discover that the chief argument made by ultra-Orthodox disciples has nothing to do with halachic discourse. Rather, it is based on the identity of those who wish to perform conversion.

"Our wise sages are far better than your wise sages, and therefore your leaders should be subordinate to ours," they say.


This twisted approach was recently voiced by Radio Kol Hai broadcaster Avi Mimran, who invited Rabbi David Stav (one of the rabbis involved in the alternative conversion efforts) for a discussion and then attacked him: "You are not a rabbi."

Mimran may be a devout Jew but this doesn't mean much if he ignores the fact that common courtesy preceded the Torah. I am not talking about just showing common courtesy toward a rabbi in Israel. I am talking about the basic principle of treating your guests with respect. Publicly humiliating someone on the radio is much worse than other forms of humiliation. Stav has since been subject to severe threats. Mimran later tried to defend his conduct by citing the teachings of the late Shas Spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but what came out of Mimran's mouth was pure garbage that was very disrespectful of Yosef's memory.
Mimran's attack on Stav was as irresponsible as it was offensive. So now, he's resurrected what Ovadia Yosef encouraged by failure to run a rational discussion for why he disagrees with Stav, and encouraged Haredi extremists to hatemonger against a decent man. I think Stav should sue him for defamatory behavior.

I have a few non-Jewish converts to Judaism in my family, and any Orthodox Jews, Haredi or otherwise, who dare say that my family's non-Jewish relatives are "filthy" are a disgrace and should not have anything to do with the religion they're unqualified to follow. If it's not wrong for Episcopelians to form their own church separate from Presbytarians, then it's not wrong for one Orthodox movement to form their own synagogue movement separate from another. And any Haredi moonbat who dares to threaten Stav should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Update: here's more from David Weinberg.

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