Conversion Controversy

Eytan Kobre writes:

Below I share with you (with very minor changes) the e-mail letter I sent today to Dina Kraft, a JTA reporter, responding to her article on the JTA website regarding the controversy over the ruling of an Israeli beis din revoking a conversion performed many years ago. I hope to share with you any further correspondence between us in this matter as well.

Please note that I am entirely unfamiliar with the facts and opposing positions in this case. But, then, my letter isn’t really about this case, but about how journalists striving for objectivity, balance and moderation ought to go about their tasks.

Dear Ms. Kraft,

I read with interest your 5/6/08 article on the JTA website regarding the controversy over a rabbinic court ruling revoking a convert’s 15 year old conversion, and I have several questions and comments to which I would appreciate your response:

1) You write that the ruling is “prompting thousands of converts in the country to worry if their conversions to Judaism are at risk of being revoked.” How do you know this?

And, since the ruling at issue was based, as you write, on the convert’s acknowledgement “that she is not religiously observant today,” does your reference to “thousands of converts” being worried mean that you are aware of thousands of converts in Israel who made a religious commitment at their conversion but are no longer observant?

2) Could you elaborate on what you were referring to in writing that the ruling prompted, in addition to an emergency Knesset hearing, “public outrage and confusion both in Israel and the Diaspora”?

The only reactions you cite are a “stinging rebuke” by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and statements by Ms. Rouaux, a convert, Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM and Rabbi Feuerstein of Tzohar. That doesn’t seem to add up to evidence of “public outrage and confusion both in Israel and the Diaspora.” Such may, of course, have taken place, but can you kindly provide more detail about such reactions?

3) You use the term “tolerant” several times to describe the views of those against the ruling. You refer to Rabbi Druckman as one who has “been charged with overseeing a more tolerant, open conversion process in Israel.” Similarly, you describe Tzohar as a group of Zionist rabbis that “seeks to present to Israelis a more tolerant face of Orthodox Judaism.”

As I understand it, the issue at hand is one of Jewish legal interpretation, with the court that issued the ruling presumably having found that the relevant texts, decisors and precedents of the Jewish legal system requiring them to find as they did. Thus, the word “tolerance” seems irrelevant. The notion of tolerance is one with emotional and psychological relevance, but seems quite out-of-place as applied to what I believe the court, and, I assume, its opponents as well, regard as a legal dispute.

As someone schooled in both American and Jewish law, I can tell you that a serious legal scholar would not invoke the notion of “tolerance” in a discussion of legal issues unless the relevant legal code specifically validated its relevance.

Indeed, to use a rather commonplace example, even a layperson would not refer to a traffic court judge who applied the law as written and refused to dismiss a speeding ticket as having acted with “intolerance.” I should note that the term “moderate” which you also use several times, is indeed appropriate for the context in a way that “tolerant” is not.

Perhaps even more importantly, due to its emotive connotation, your use of the term “tolerance” seems to imply a value judgement on your part as to which side you’d like the reader to take in this particular controversy, as well as regarding an overall approach to Orthodox Judaism. Whatever your personal views in these regards may be, I trust that, as an ethical journalist, you wish this article, which is news reportage rather than an editorial, to remain resolutely objective, presenting a full and fair account of the facts and views at hand to allow readers to reach their own conclusions. Is that, in fact, your aim?

4) A final observation: You quote the statement of the RCA which accuses the rabbinical court ruling of being “beyond the pale” of halacha, violating “numerous Torah laws,” creating a “massive desecration of G-d’s name,” insulting “outstanding rabbinic leaders,” and being a “reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity with the Jewish people in Israel and beyond.” You quote Rabbi Farber as saying the that the “ultra-Orthodox . . . are willing to sacrifice on the altar of Jewish history” legitimate converts, and are engaging in an “anti-halachic battle.”

These speakers are, of course, fully entitled to their opinions, but their verbiage does come across as very angry and overheated, or as they put it nowadays, “over the top.” Intolerant, or at a minimum, immoderate, shall we say? Yet, ironically, according to your article those making these statements are the “more moderate” Orthodox opposing the “more zealous” Orthodox. Within the context of this article, at least, these terms begin to seem rather slippery.

I must add that you, as well, employ a bit of overheated language in describing the controversy as a “war” between the two sides. A war consisting of what, one press release? Besides, at least from what you’ve cited in your article, this would appear to be a “war” being waged by only one side. Shouldn’t we at least wait until the opposing army has issued a press release of its own beforing declaring war? Then again, that’s quite a strident press release, so perhaps . . .

Speaking as one writer to another, beware of verbal and written inflation; once one applies such literary hyperthermia to a disagreement like this one, what is left for circumstances truly deserving of such description?

I appreciate your efforts to cover events of import to our people, and I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

Eytan Kobre

Jeff says: "You don’t have the slightest idea of what’s at stake since many of the families haven’t “come out” yet in fear of being exposed. Any convert through the dati leumi world went to R. Druckman and Avi-Or, and now all our kids are being threatened, kids who went to yeshiva their whole lives. In our case we were sent to R. Druckman and Avi-Or by our roshei yeshivot in Israel. Any conversion case (including children adopted by childless parents from the USSR, etc) of the dati leumi world went to R. Druckman. So instead of being such a smarmy reflexive defender of the radicalized rabbinate (who did this for obvious political reasons) you should have a heart and a bit of neshama. You have NO IDEA how much suffering this is causing a very large number of dedicated dati people, and you should do a major act of teshuva after posting this."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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