In an atmosphere and time when there is little civility between competing ideas, and ideologies I attended a remarkable conference honoring Professor Eliezer Berkovits who committed his life to bridging the gaping abyss that divide Jews on a myriad of theological issues. Ahead of his time he introduced new approaches to the pressing issues of conversion and agunah with the intent of closing the gap and creating understanding and unity. He engaged all the streams of Judaism with the respect dignity and civility that they deserved. Each of the presenters at the conference illuminated a different facet of his life, writings and teachings, creating an uplifting transcendent experience that gives me hope that there exists other like minded souls working to achieve similar goals, engaging and persuading with equanimity, civility and respect.
Not too long ago another conference was held in Israel regarding the pressing, dire issue of conversions; attempting to develop consensus among the various religious ideologies within the orthodox stream. Poignant and compelling was the lecture presented by Aryeh Edri, professor of law at Tel Aviv University who is among other things a scholar of halacha and its development. What impressed me beyond his erudition of the laws of conversion and the responsa through the ages was his approach, which in many ways paralleled Professor Eliezer Berkovits.
Both men sought a mechanism by which the conversion candidate would enter into a process that was embracing and nurturing, resulting in a modality that would enhance ahavat yisrael and contribute to achdut ha’am. As it is, the rabbinate responsible for conversions has subverted these lofty goals, causing irreversible damage to the fabric of our society and culture. One example is the recent incident of a chayal, killed in the line of duty, defending his country that was appropriately buried in the local cemetery with military honors. When the rabbanut discovered that his conversion wasn’t valid as per their standards the chayal was disinterred and buried in a gentile cemetery, traumatizing the family, causing unnecessary pain, emotional stress and scarring. It was an act unfitting for a civilized person, unbecoming of a Jew, much less a rav. It was barbaric and uncouth revealing an undercurrent of contempt and disdain for anyone not in tandem with their way. It was the determination of a rabbinate long ossified, buried up to their eyeballs in arcane, pilpulized and corrupted halachic minutiae resulting in a class of rabbis numb to humanity and the people whom they serve. For anyone who takes these developments seriously it seems as though these putative spiritual leaders are living in a dark noxious cave, of which one of the by products is tunnel vision; as though they never experienced the crucible of the renaissance.
Aryeh Edri’s lecture was the burst of fresh air needed to expunge the toxicity of the cave dwellers. His well-crafted presentation cited relevant responsa, each, a point of light and combined illuminating a pathway out of the morass. Using the Rambam as a springboard he referenced his position regarding kabbalat mitzvoth as secondary in the conversion process. Important isn’t the kabbalat mitzvoth as much as the renunciation and rejection of the candidate’s current religious beliefs and practice. Edri pulls from Harav Shlomo Dichovsky who referenced the Ritva maintaining that kabbalat mitzvoth are of secondary importance. Interesting and informative was the intuitive approach of early nineteenth century Rav Kluger (1785-1869) who suggested that the critical elements of conversion was the tevila and the mila stipulating that kabbalat mitzvoth ought to be the result of a positive conversion, not a condition.
Another interesting consideration that rabbis concern themselves with is the motivation behind the conversion. Conventional wisdom held that the motive had to be pure; converting for the convenience of marriage was unacceptable. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodensky (1863-1940) didn’t concur with this position and approached the issue with amazing sensitivity. Confronted with the situation of a woman seeking conversion while married civily to a secular Jew revealed the boldness of his p’sak. He maintained that kabbalat mitzvoth weren’t to be understood as literally fulfilling the mitzvoth but rather to be understood as agreeing in principle to those mitzvoth without necessarily keeping them. With that assumption in mind he assessed the conversion candidate as a “choteh l’teavon”, a person who understands that the mitzvoth are essential, but due to habit and weak character aren’t able to fulfill them. Harav Kook, according to Edri concurred with this approach stating that there are no thought police in Judaism; someone declaring that they accept the idea of kabbalat mitzvoth is sufficient without demonstrating their fulfillment of the mitzvoth. Harav Unterman (1886-1976), a past chief rabbi agreed with Grodensky and Kook stating that the candidates intent of honoring the kabbalat mizvot is sufficient for the process of conversion to go through to completion.
The list of poskim over the generations confronted with these weighty problems is numerous. What is new is the manner in which the conversion process is being handled today. Many poskim of previous generations sought solutions that would maintain the integrity of halacha but at the same time enhance shalom bayit and achdut. Today there seems to be posturing among competing factions to see who can be more machmir and thus more divisive. What is difficult to accept is this parochial position which has become the norm in light of the fact that there is enough halachic case precedent for the current rabbinate to seek solutions that are halachically sound but reflect the best in us as a people: love of humanity and love of Israel.
It was achdut that guided Eliezer Berkovits, seeking to build consensus rather than to engage in derisive confrontation. To be certain, there are legitimate poskim who disagree with these conciliatory approaches to conversion. In previous generations when poskim displayed sensitivity to these issues of conversion, it was on the sociological background of a society that experienced limited exposure to intermarriage. Our generation’s problems have become more complex because of the staggering rate of intermarriage, the exploding rate of assimilation and the fact that we have an independent state with the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were disenfranchised from normative Judaism for generations. We can’t afford the luxury of being confrontational and divisive especially in view of the fact that Israel isn’t the shtetl, and in consideration of the personal tragedies experienced daily as a result of an uncaring, corrupt rabbinate whose piskei halacha are enveloped in corrupt politics. Every generation has its challenges; we have ours today and it becomes our collective responsibility to navigate these troubled waters as best we can.