Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Halacha: The Art of Compromise

In the May 30th issue of the Jerusalem Post (Up Front), Jonathan Rosenblum wrote an article On Halacha, No Compromise. The tone of the article is disturbing, its title reflects a Judaism that is barely recognizable to anyone other than a charedi, but most disappointing is the dishonest representation of the conversion issue. Perhaps the title of his article is most revealing. Halacha as practiced studied and applied over the generations has been nothing but the art of compromise. Most students of halacha understand that even our great sages understood that halacha couldn’t be meaningfully applied, expressed or useful if it was to be arbitrated by fiat. Our sages even commented that it was easy to be machmir, but the test for a true scholar was if he could be meikil.

It is easy for those of Jonathan Rosenblum’s ilk to assume a cavalier position regarding those Jewish converts who have assumed for decades that they are Jewish, because power corrupts and nothing corrupts more than those in power. However, if we take this issue out of the corrupted hands of rabbinic demigods and place the issue within a framework where there is a separation of church and state one will find the opposite results.

In 1988 there was a plan laid out to create a conversion process whereby rabbis of the orthodox conservative and reform communities would participate. The plan was called the Denver Conversion Plan, spearheaded by a wonderful scholar and colleague Rabbi Stanley Wagner. Rabbi Wagner had been concerned that there were many reform and conservative candidates for conversion that would benefit if the conversion was “al pi halacha”. Rabbi Wagner and those on his committee turned to the Hartman Institute in order to explore the halachic issues and problems involved in a process that would co-opt reform and conservative rabbis. One of the issues involved and to which the Hartman Institute researched in great detail was that of “kabbalat ol mitzvoth”, accepting the yolk of Torah.

Jonathan Rosenblum presented the issue as though there was no truly legitimate dissenting opinion as to what constituted “kabbalat ol mitzvoth”. According to Rosenblum it is black and white. By accepting the “kabbalat ol mitzvoth” one is commiting oneself to living an orthodox lifestyle. Halachically, of course this couldn’t be further from the truth as the research at the Hartman Institute pointed out. One example of this is the discussion as to whether or not there is a need for a beit din at milah, tevila, and hodaat mitzvah. There is no unanimous opinion; however tosaphot in kedushin 62b asks why do we need three witnesses when in Sanhedrin we learn that you only need one in matters of borrowing money. Tosaphot answers that conversion is more akin to cases of torts where you require three expert witnesses. But tosaphaot asks how then can you have conversions today if you require mumchin? The answer according to Tosaphot is that we rely on their imaginative decision found in Gittin 88b, that later judges acted as surrogates of earlier judges. The point is that where there is a rabbinical will there is a halachic way!!

With regard to kabbalt mitzvoth there is another creative way which ought to be considered. Shemot Rabbah 42, 8 was very insightful when it is remarked that while the Hebrews at Sinai verbalized “naaseh v’nishma” in their hearts they were poised to be idol worshippers. Thus, to say that all future generations of converts must be prepared for kabbalat mitzvoth as a condition sine qua non for conversion isn’t correct. The reality is that the conversion is the milah and tevilah and hodaat mitzvoth, informing the convert of the mitzvoth. Thus Harav Uziel, Rishon L’Zion (former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel) stated that the court doesn’t require the convert to fulfill the commandments, only to be aware of them. For many decisors, kabbalat mitzvoth are synonymous with “hodaat mitzvoth” (awareness of the mitzvoth, and not with “kiyum (fulfillment of) mitzvoth”. The Chemdat Shlomo, for example, understands the concept of the kabbalat mitzvoth as a convert who, because of and through tevila embraces Judaism. Many other Poskim believe that “kabbalt mitzvoth” is a verbal recognition on the part of the convert that he has entered into a community of people with a system of laws (halacha). It in no way implies shemirat mitzvoth.

I have sited some of the comments and observations of the Hartman Institute which were submitted to the Denver Conversion Program in 1988. Whether or not one accepts these findings isn’t the point. What is important to note however is that halacha and its process isn’t monolithic as Jonathan Rosenblum would imply and have us believe.

The politics of Israel today have allowed for the cavalier perversion of halacha because there is no separation of church and state. The religious establishment under the influence of the charedi community has hijacked the halachic process in order to serve its own narrow agenda. Jonathan Roesenblum ought to know better.