May a Convert Serve on a Bet Din for Conversion: A Short Halachic Review, Some Halachic Thoughts of My Own and a Concluding Halachic Remark
Guest post by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
In a Op-Ed in The Jewish Week two weeks ago, R. Avi Weiss criticized the RCA for their policy regarding convert who were converted by a beis din that included a rabbi who is himself a convert (link). R. Barry Freundel and R. Shlomo Hochberg responded last week (link). The following post is R. Michael J. Broyde’s discussion of the detailed halakhic side of the issue. The post was initially written for the RCA Rabbis email list and represents Rabbi Broyde’s initial and tentative analysis of the question of whether a convert may serve on a beis din for conversion. Rabbi Broyde welcomes comments and can be reached at this e-mail address: link. He asked that it should be made clear that while this post addresses important matters of status le-halakhah, in truth every person’s status issue should only be addressed halakhah le-ma’aseh by a competent posek and not on a blog or an email distribution. – Gil
May a Convert Serve On a Bet Din For Conversion?
This letter is intended to summarize this topic, so that we can understand the underlying halachic issue. After a summary of the poskim, I write some thoughts of my own on this issue and I conclude by noting my disagreement with the written remarks of another rabbi on this halachic matter.
Understanding the Dispute: May a Convert Serve On a Bet Din For Conversion in the Classical Sources
The Gemara in Yevamot 102a recounts to us that as a matter of Torah law a convert may only sit as a dayan judging other converts, but not born Jews. For chalitza matters, a convert may not sit as any one of the dayanim even if the woman who is having chalitza done to her is a convert herself. Rashi (Yevamot 101 sv ger dan) understands the Gemara in Yevamot as limited to dinei nefashot, but a convert may judge on financial matters. Tosafot (Yevamot 45b sv keivan and other places) disagrees and rules that that a convert may not judge born Jews even on financial matters. As the Rosh notes (Yevamot 12:2) on financial matters, a ger may judge even born Jews if they accept him as a judge, as with kabbalah one may accept a person who is not otherwise allowed to serve.
Gil Student writes: "I asked Rav Cherlow whhether he thought that it is permissible for a frum Jew to serve as an Israeli spy and live for years as a non-Jew in another country. He said that he has talmidim who have done it, including full-blown arayos."
David Gold writes: "I was at Rabbi Broyde’s lecture last night at HIR. He spoke about hatalazat Yisrael, his last hirurim post. He is an extremely good lecturer. Fluent in the sources and well polished. He was also a mentch and he opened the lecture by speaking for a solid 3 minutes on what an impressive rabbi Rabbi Weiss is, and how much we all need to appreciate the good work Rabbi Weiss does. I find that ability to be nice to people who disagrees with (see Rabbi Broyde’s tribute to Rabbi Rackman) to be really important. I found Rabbi Broyde to be inspirational."
Jerry writes: "Before becoming Jewish, I was told that a ger was a Jew like any other Jew. The above discourse has solidified what I have recently come to believe, a ger is not really Jewish, just a person who is obligated in some mitzvos — much like an eved."
Ger writes: "Jerry- that’s ridiculous. Geirim are full-fledged Jews, but there are certain communal limitations places upon their serving in leadership positions. This can be understood both on a halachik level as well as a psychological/sociological level, but it in no way indicates that they are not fully Jewish and integrated in every other respect."
Moishe writes: "Moses and Aharon were only Jewish when they sat on a Beit Din separately, but if they sat together they both suddenly became invalidated for judging and were simultaneously rendered non-Jewish."
Rabbi Ger writes: "You see regular converts are totally Jewish, only converts who become rabbis are not Jewish."
Anon writes: "I don’t think this halachic concern is well known at all. There are geirim and geirim l’chumra (mom or grandma got a ‘questionable’ Orthodox conversion and the bochur had it redone) in the Yeshiva system who receive semicha, get pulpits or shtella’s and sit on Geirus Batei-Din on occasion. Nobody in yeshiva told them about this."
Akiva S writes: Not to disparage R’ Broyde at all, but I actually don’t see how his strong conclusions follow from the sources that he cites, which are few in number and not at all in agreement as to the way that the primary sources (Gemara and rishonim, which don’t directly address the issue at all) apply to the question of a convert serving on a conversion bais din.
From the sources, it seems to me that there is nothing close to a consensus of achronim, and not even one dominant view. Perhaps in such a situation, R’ Broyde is correct that as a matter of practical "halakhic policy" (as opposed to din emes l’amiso) it is better not to staff a conversion beis din with a convert. But that is hardly reason to be "stunned" by R’ Weiss’s reading of the sources that he himself admits are inconclusive (or to say that he "can not understand how any rabbi could" conclude differently), especially since the gemara and rishonim point more in the direction of permitting such conversions, given that they unequivocally allow converts to sit on battei din when judging others who are not born Jewish.
RIVKA HAUT WRITES: As an agunah activist for about 30 years, I have long witnessed female converts seeking a get be treated suspiciously. Especially when seeking child custody in a beit din. Their religious sincerity is often doubted and used as a factor in deciding custody. They are disadvantaged because a lingering suspicion remains about their religiosity, even when they are the more religious spouse. I often counsel them to litigate custody in civil court and not in beit din for this reason.
I am currently working with a female convert whose husband has declared she does not require a get since, under the "new" RCA guidelines, she is probably not Jewish, despite the fact that she has been "frum" for over 20 years and, remarkably, remains so.
ROBERTA WRITES: "I sympathize with the plight of the agunot descibed by Rivka Haut. On the other hand, I think many single women suffer, when single Jewish men date non-Jewish women and then have those women convert for marriage. In most cases, it is a Jewish man who is seeking to convert a non-Jewish woman for the sake of marriage. It may be good policy to crack down on the less sincere conversions that are for the sake of marriage. The president of YU recently compared single women in the 30s and 40s who may never get married and may never have children to agunnot. By allowing Jewish men to date and convert their non-Jewish girlfriends, we are only exarcerbating the problem. Therefore, from a feminist prespective, I have little sympathy for those Jewish men who date non-Jewish women and then expect the community to embrace their converted spouses. Let them marry Jewish women!
"I know of at least two cases where "frum" men left their wives and children for their younger non-Jewish secretaries and the secretaries had no trouble converting with an Orthodox beit din. When will we put an end to this sham? On the other hand, when people convert sincerely rather than for the sake of marriage, we ought to welcome them with open arms."
MJ writes: If you have 500k to spend you can get your girlfriend converted in Israel with a full haredi beit din (the same people who caused this whole gerut brouhaha to begin with) in less than a year.
That’s right 1 year from being your episcopalian secretary to your frum wife "al pi halacha." But of course it’s the corrupt American rabbis who are the culprits.
Y. Aharon posts: I will not pretend to an ability to argue pesak halacha with a respected dayan. However, the main point of Rabbi Avi Weiss letter is not the strength of his halachic argument. Rather, it is the implication of the current stance of the RCA. The key citations of that letter follow:
"It is, however, unacceptable for the RCA to refuse to validate previous conversions that were performed before its new system was set into place as there are solid and bonafide opinions that accept these conversions.
To make matters worse, I cannot understand the RCA’s inconsistency when applying these “standards.” While the RCA has now refused to uphold all conversions in which this rabbi-convert co-officiated, there are many other conversions done by another rabbi-convert that have been reviewed and upheld.
How could a central body like the RCA come to its conclusions from afar without learning more about the case from the rabbis who had religiously mentored this young woman and knew the family best?
In addition, and perhaps even more frighteningly, not only has the RCA delegitimized past conversions in these limited cases (where the rabbi is a convert), but they have even begun to re-evaluate conversions on a much larger scale.
Thus, the RCA’s position from last year that the new system would not jeopardize any previous conversions is simply false. While the RCA is not proactively undoing conversions, it has created an alarmist climate wherein the convert or the family of the convert, or the convert’s rabbi or head of school often feels the necessity to bring conversion cases to the RCA for validation.
I, unfortunately, know this first hand as well. After the RCA instituted its new standards, parents of children whom I converted many years ago came to me fearful that, unless the conversion was ratified by the RCA, it would not be universally accepted. Additionally, adult converts in my community came forward with the same concern. I know that these cases are happening elsewhere as well.
Rather than assuring such people that it stands by the conversions performed by its own members, the RCA required testimony confirming the convert’s religious commitments after the conversion. This sent the message that the convert’s Jewish status was in jeopardy, and dependent on his or her ongoing and current level of observance."
Rabbi Broyde’s argument that conversions should be done in such manner as to be generally acceptable runs into the issue that the Hareidi world seems bent on invalidating conversions done by rabbanim who hold some modern views such as the age of the earth or who dress modern – if the self-proclaimed spokesman for Rav Elyashiv is any indication. That would invalidate most RCA rabbis, including – I believe, Rav Herschel Schachter, from serving on a geirut bet din. It would be appropriate for Rabbi Broyde to address these larger issues, as well.
As to the allegations made by a commenter on the supposed lack of kabbalat hamitzvot by converts of Rabbi Weiss, that is simply slanderous. Of course, one can find converts from any bet-din who haven’t shown much loyalty to their committments. That doesn’t imply that no committments were required by the bet-din involved. As long as the conversion candidate verbally accepted mitzvot, was given information about some, and the bet-din believed the candidate to be sincere, then the conversion is valid – regardless of the converts later actions. At least, that’s my understanding of the halachic sources.
NACHUM WRITES: "I just looked up an article on this [YCT] "ordination." I have to say, the easy familiarity of a shul referring to its leaders by their first names ("many of us plan to call her Rav Sarah anyways [sic]") is more troubling to me than actual ordination of women, and I think says something about the whole phenomenon."
JILL POSTS: Yes Rabbi Weiss is a cofounder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Based on their reading of the sources, a candidate for conversion need not promise to obeserve all of the Mitzvot. One may disagree with this position, but it is not made up out of thin air. Since Rabbi Weiss’s shul, to his credit, is home to many non-observant Jews, he understandably cannot demand more of converts than his congregants. No one would expect him to deny kibbudim to the mechaleli shabbos or those who do not keep taharas hasmishpacha in his shul. How could he demand more of his converts? I remember one case of a pregnant non-Jewish woman and her Jewish boyfriend who both wanted a Jewish baby. Based on his reading of the sources, even though he did not expect her to become observant, Rabbi Weiss converted the pregnant woman in her ninth month so that the baby could be born Jewish. One of the eidim of that conversion was a fine young man who went on to graduate from YCT and become a distinguished pulpit rabbi. I would recommend that everyone go to http://www.jewishideas.org/. Sometimes it feels that people who ostensibly are trying to defend Rabbi Weiss on this blog are in fact showing a lack of respect for him by trying to hide practices that he is quite open about. If he is not ashamed to convert people with a minimal committment to halakhic observance why would he want us to deny this?
Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Angel cite an article by Dr. Avi Sagi of the Hartman Institute explaining why a change in conversion standards is appropriate in the modern age. In the past, before the advent of civil marriage, the only way for a gentile to marry a Jew was through conversion. Thus one could speak of an ulterior motive. Today a gentile can marry a Jew civilly w/o the need to convert. Hence, if the gentile does choose to convert, he demonstrates his committment to the Jewish people b/c he did not have to convert for the sake of marriage. I would also reiterate that I find it insulting to Rabbi Weiss when people, proclaiming to defend him, deny that he performs conversions w/o full kabalat hamitzvot when Rabbi Weiss himself believes such a policy is justified. Since Tamara brought up mixed keriah minyanim, allow me to make the same point about them. Some of my friends at YCT are very hurt when people on this blog who claim to support YCT deny that YCT students attend such minyanim. The denial implys that attending these minyanim is bad when the YCT students who attend them think they are perfectly halakhic. Any blogger has the right to think kabbalat hamitzvot is necessary for conversion or that mixed keriah minyanim are wrong. But don’t pretend that Rabbi Weiss agrees with you. Don’t transform Rabbi Weiss into your own image or your idea of what he should be. That is the height of disrespect.
ROCCO WRITES: Aren’t there many cases where the Jewish parants, and sometimes the prospective spouse, would only be placated if there was a conversion? This will remove any residual Jewish guilt that can hinder the prospective marraige.
Isn’t a peculiar that the interest in converting only was ‘discovered’ after a prolonged courtship with an unobervant Jew who expressed an interest in marriage?
How do you know that Chazal didn’t consider the advantage of being married acourding to Jewish law as sufficient grounds for suspicion?
STEG POSTS: The Title+FirstName style seems to be common in Israeli schools and yeshivot. I personally find it less comfortable than the usual American use of Title+LastName, but it’s not so weird. And it’s definitely not meant to be less respectful. Less distancing, yes — but still respectful of the individual’s knowledge and role. And it definitely sounds better with Hebrew titles than English ones.
JADED WRITES: Rabbi Avi Weiss, in case you happen to chance upon this thread,I really respect your new initiatives, and now that you got that yora yora ordination like process for women down pat, have you ever thought about opening up a open orthodoxy formal bais din. And hiring female dayanettes, bais din halacha clerks/para-dayanettes- halacha loving legal assistants who eventually become female dayanettes by spiritual osmosis.
Y. AHARON POSTS:
The point of Rabbi Weiss’ letter to the Jewish Week and an earlier letter by him and Rabbi Angel was to protest the adoption by the RCA of new restrictions on who may serve on an approved conversion bet-din and which insisted on standards aimed at gaining the approval of the current Israeli rabbanut. The RCA official position was that the new rules weren’t intended to undo any prior conversion by RCA member rabbis. But this is, in effect, what has happened. The very fact that new rules were posted has made converts fearful that their conversions would no longer be approved by powerful rabbis in Israel and elsewhere. This has lead to attempts at certification through the RCA officialdom, which has sometimes not been forthcoming.
My own view is that attempting to satisfy the Hareidi authorities is basically futile since the current leading figures question the legitimacy of most MO rabbis serving in conversion courts, and would institute religious observance tests to judge past conversions. As I see it, the solution to the current impasse is to work to reduce or eliminate the Hareidi influence on the Israeli rabbanut, or to eliminate the institution.