Can Converts Become Rabbis?

It doesn’t bother me that there is a substantial case in Jewish law against converts such as myself becoming rabbis. I never knew this until I read this post. I have fantasized about becoming a rabbi because I am obviously endowed with great spiritual gifts and a deep Godly humility. When I am around non-Orthodox Jews, they often assume I am a rabbi because I am religious and relatively knowledgeable. Now that I have a long beard, homeless people call me rabbi.

One of the cornerstones of Judaism is that you just can’t do anything you want and you can’t be anything you want. It’s not like America where supposedly every child is to be raised with the idea that he can become president. Judaism has different roles for men and women, Cohenim, Leviim and Yisraelim, etc. The motto of Judaism is not "Be all you can be!" It is, "Do your duty!"

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

The Torah enjoins us to love specifically the convert (Devarim 10:19). We have to recognize that a convert has no Jewish family to support him in his new community and, therefore, we all must substitute as his family. Just like a widow and an orphan, a convert relies on the community for emotional sustenance and we must make extra effort to ensure that this is realized.

II. Positions of Authority

However, there is another way in which a convert is treated differently. A convert may not hold a position of Jewish communal authority (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 1:4). This is clear from the sources and, even if not always put into practice, is a rule of how Jewish communities should conduct themselves. I understand that there are places in which this rule is overlooked – sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of convenience and other times out of ethical misgivings. I sympathize with those who choose not to follow this rule but do not condone their practice. Torah is to be followed, even if we have questions.

Why are converts restricted from holding positions of communal authority? We can only guess, and that is what any reasoning offered for this rule is – a guess. However, I offer the following two speculations:

1. An outsider who joins the community has a different background from the standard community member and that adds greatly to the fresh ideas and perspectives available in the community. However, that outsider-turned-insider never fully understands the realities of the insiders’ lives because the convert never attended Jewish day schools or never had Jewish siblings etc. Because of this lack of the typical experience within the community, the outsider lacks the experience to be a leader of that community. (But what about someone who converts as a baby? Or someone who was raised Jewish, found out later that he was not and converted? Or a Jew who was raised as a Gentile? All good questions but sometimes rules are put in place even if they do not cover every case.)

2. Despite the ideals for which we strive, the reality is that many people are unfairly prejudiced and will never fully trust a convert. While this is to be abhorred, it is still a reality in which we live and a community must function in reality not theoretical ideals. Just like a prophet must be wealthy and tall so that people will respect him and listen to him (cf. Derashos Ha-Ran, no. 5), so too must a communal agent be someone respected by the masses. (The Bah actually writes in responsum 52: "A rosh yeshiva, who is equivalent to a high priest, needs to be wealthy in order that his teachings be respected.")

Regardless of the reason for this law, we must follow it. However, other questions that arise are:
1. What is a community?
2. What is a community position?

In previous eras, communities were single units. A town had one community, one rabbi, one charitable organization, etc. It was clear what was a community, which positions were funded by the community, etc. Nowadays, however, this is generally not the case. Communities overlap and are difficult to define. Is a yeshiva an arm of the communal organization or is it an independent organization? Are charitable organizations? Are synagogues? Tough questions.

R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:44) discusses whether a kashrus supervisor is a communal position or not, and concludes that it depends on who hires and pays the supervisor. Regarding teaching or even running a yeshiva, R. Feinstein (ibid., Yoreh De’ah 4:26) writes that in today’s time these are not communal positions and a convert may serve in them.

The Tzitz Eliezer (19:48) quotes a Meiri who implies that a convert may not serve in a lone communal position but he may serve on a communal committee. Therefore, the Tzitz Eliezer suggests that a loophole for many circumstances is to appoint someone to serve with the convert in any given position in order to make it into a committee. However, he suggests that this only be done if the convert is also willingly accepted into his position by the community.

STEG COMMENTS: Reminds me of reading about the discussions that went on in British Mandatory Palestine over women’s voting rights in the Jewish governmental organizations of the Yishuv.

SIMCHA COMMENTS: Holding an elected office is a bigger question than voting, although many posekim (including Rav Kook) were against voting.

YETTA POSTS: Our community has many gerim. Many FFB’s and BT’s have problems with them. Trying to understand why they would want to bother converting. Especially if it is a whole family or couple and neither spouse is Jewish.

I hate to say this because some of my closest friends are geresses (and I never even think of them that way), but wasn’t it the Mitzreim who followed Moshe and Yidden out of Mitzrayim who started all the trouble in the desert?

I struggled a lot when I was learning Chumash. The Yidden were always causing their own problems. The instructor told us that it was not the Yidden, but the followers, the converts who were starting up.

ANON POSTS: The meraglim (spies) and Korach were not gerim. Anyway, you can’t compare rabble who join a jail-break to modern geirim whose motives are pure and selfless.

YETTA POSTS: What if their motives aren’t pure and selfless? What if people convert for reasons other than wanting to serve Hashem? What if people convert because they think that their children will have a better chance at getting a fair shot in life being observant Jews than something else?

ALMONI POSTS: I say that IMO the real problem with the women’s learning agenda is when it seems motivated by professional concerns/credentialism.

Women who complain about opportunity for talmud torah are raising a very different concern than women who complain that they will never be "Recognized" because they don’t get smicha or some equivalent title, IMO.

When the womens programs turn out people of the caliber of R. Simcha Zelig, maybe there will be room to talk of "discrimination" but at the moment, I don’t see too many women who are capable in principle of hanging out a shingle (ie if not for gender). Do you?

Maybe if the womens programs would be less outcome-focused, this would be an issue. IMO they are self-defeating. R. Simcha Zelig is the product of a system that put talmud torah first, and where titles and jobs are very secondary concerns, if they feature at all.

YAAKOV POSTS: Rabbi YY Rubenstein… is the most successful UK orthodox campus rabbi (they are student chaplains here), is endorsed by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and also teaches in haredi seminaries in Manchester. Rabbi Schneor Zalman Gafni, also a ger tzedek, was for many years Rosh HaYeshiva of Kfar Habad, Israel. Thus in practice many on lenient in the spirit of Reb Moshe’s shittah.

ASHER POSTS: It is also interesting that the Rambam wrote what is considered a "famous epistle" to "R. Ovadia the Proselyte". R. Ovadia the Proselyte? Interesting that he addressed a convert in such a manner if in fact converts cannot be rabbis.

And speaking of a person named Ovadia. Ovadia in the Tanakh was a member of King Achav’s cabinet. He was also a proselyte from Edom. Not a bad resume for a convert (Prophet/Navi and Cabinet Member).

Luke says: Other prominent Orthodox rabbis who are converts include Nathan Lopes Cardozo and Yaacov Deyo (who invented Speed Dating and runs education for Aish Ha Torah Los Angeles).

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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