The Conversion Controversy

Rav Yitzhock Adlerstein writes:

Several weeks into the current conversion fracas, and I have participated in a webcam debate, read two of Rabbi Sherman’s piskei din, plus teshuvos both modern and pre-modern, several articles in Techumin, a few chapters of an academic work on conversion standards, and several screeds that drip with more violence than a remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The questions, however, continue apace.

Strip away all the detail, and the conflict boils down to two hostile assessments of what the other side stands for. Haredim believe that the dati-leumi (DL) camp is prepared to subvert “real” Torah to the dictates of non-religious and anti-religious forces in the government. They charge that when Torah matters are left in the hands of members of the DL orbit, issues of State ultimately trump issues of halacha. Gerus is just the latest in a series. The DL camp, on the other hand, believes that haredim have turned a deaf ear to concerns of Israeli society as a whole, content to contribute their mitzvos and learning, but nothing in areas of the enormous political, military and social issue that face Israel. At the same time, haredim have moved to assert greater control over a Rabbinate that their own people do not use, while attempting to impose their piskei halachah (e.g. the attempt to ban all Shemitah produce that relies on the heter mechirah) on a public that needs all the flexibility that halachah can legitimately deliver.

In duking it out in the current imbroglio, both sides have simply reinforced the stereotypes held by the other. In alienating the other, both sides deserve near-perfect scores.

Rabbi Druckman’s supporters have not responded to a single one of Rabbi Sherman’s charges in halachic language. They have thus added fuel to the fire of those who believe that the DL camp is incapable of dealing responsibly with sophisticated Torah thinking. Rabbi Sherman may or may not be right, but he raises important issues. Rav Druckman, to the best of my knowledge, is a fine gentleman, but not one of the halachic luminaries of the DL world. Professional politicians and MK’s – of any religious party – rarely are. The DL world suffers from no shortage of real bnei Torah and a group of authentic poskim who could and should be dealing with Rabbi Sherman’s point in halachic language.

The have compounded this error by taking comfort in the Israeli Supreme Court’s move a few days ago to freeze Rabbi Sherman’s decision. This should not have been a cause for celebration. It is harder to imagine a less appropriate deus ex machina to answer haredi critics. Rather than winning in the milchamtoh shel Torah, the DL world cheered as Big Brother showing up carrying a big, secular stick.

Many years ago, one of Rav Shach’s, zt”l, addresses enraged the Israeli public. He had dismissed kibbutz-members, cultural icons in general Israeli society, as “rabbit eaters,” devoid of all spiritual content. The nation was enraged. For weeks, people castigated R. Shach and the haredim, while touting the accomplishments of kibbutzniks on the battlefield. One journalist finally pointed out the irony. He observed that all the commentors were actually proving R. Shach’s point. All that the kibbutz defenders could point to was physical prowess and might. Nobody praised them for any spiritual accomplishment. You could imagine R. Shach getting up after all the charges and recriminations, and with a smile on his face saying, “The prosecution rests.” Nothing could make the haredi argument more effectively than a few rallies to support the honor of Rabbi Druckman, speeches denouncing the cold-heartedness of the haredim, appeals to a secular agency to trump the authority of a beis din – and silence on the substantive halachic issues.

To compound the injury, various writers in the DL camp have called for a new Israeli disengagement – this time, from all things haredi. Some have used militaristic vocabulary, speaking of the drawing of battle lines, and the waging of war against the forces of darkness and oppression in Bnei Brak. They’ve called for asserting their independence from haredi influences, of purging the country of their influence, of asserting that the haredim are alien to Torah, and that the real traditional Jews are the dati-leumi (DL), while the haredim are really Saducees. (Last time we heard this, it was Robet Gordis at JTS, I believe, saying the same about Orthodoxy in general back in the ‘30’s.) The writers may have felt better after venting, and may have scored points with their constituencies, but speaking in such terms about the most accomplished halachic minds of the generation – no matter how foreign some may find their attitude towards the State and modernity – does not create the impression of a whole lot of Torah depth.

About Luke Ford

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