Rabbis, Converts & Jewish Law

I got into a discussion via email with Orthodox rabbi Yehuda Yonah Rubinstein who wanted me to remove from my website a claim that he was a convert to Judaism.

I decided to publish our private email exchange after he told he he had forwarded it around the web without my permission.

Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein wrote (and I leave intact his typos): "I read you piece on converst and judaism and it was well written and well presented. YOu featrue a response by someone called Yaakov who writes about examples. This violates the Torah’s requirement not to remind a convert of his status ever. He cites two modern day Rabbojim whom he saays are Gerim. Whether they are or not does not remove you obligation as the host not to publicise the fact.The people mentiond may well be very offended indeed by seeing themselves cited so.  I would ask you to remove the reference at least to Rabbi Y Y Rubenstein."

I replied: "I read the piece. My only concern in this matter is journalistic. I have no concern about people being offended. You are probably a rocking rabbi but I am only going to remove a reference in this sort of thing if the facts are wrong."

He responded: "Could you tell me who converted you?"

I replied: "He, he, I won’t."

He replied: "The conversion should be easy to find out. I am though intrigued by what criteria you apply to your decision and why that outweighs Halocho in your mind?"

I replied "It should be easy… This is a great discussion… It should help me sharpen my thinking. I apply journalistic criteria to the question. Just as if you went to have surgery this week, you’d want your doctors to follow the latest medical technology rather than talmudic medical practices. Rabbis are public figures… Their feelings don’t matter to me when it comes to publishing elementary facts."

He replied:

Dear Luke,

Well actually you are wrong. I would want my doctor to follow latest medical practice if it did not offend or contradict Halocho. If you are an Orthodox convert, you should to. he same applies to Journalism.

I have forwarded this correspondence to the rabbi who wrote the piece and you will see below that I am trying to contact whoever converted you to let him or them read your views and unconcern for others feelings or the Halocho.

I reply:

Dear Rabbi,

I see that your concern with halacha is highly selective and does not apply to the halacha against reading others mail (as you forwarded my private email to others without permission). I do not want you to violate halacah unnecessarily, so I now give you permission to forward my emails to you to anyone you want. I may blog about this discussion then as you have decided to move it around.

As I think about this issue more deeply, I realize that I would never in personal conversation bring up someone’s conversion status unless the person had made it clear that that was fine. But if the person was a public figure and I was writing about them for publication, then I’d include the fact of the conversion if it was relevant to the article.

I love this exchange above because it is so typical of my interactions with many religious Jews. When the halacha is to their advantage they cite it. When the halacha gets in the way of what they want to do, they ignore it.

Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein emails:

Dear luke,

I am writing today to rabbi sauer of Los Angeles requesting a Din Torah.

I think you most foolish indeed in revealing your behaviour to those who read a page that uses the word “moral” in its title.

I believe the correspondence will suffice to demonstrate that you have three times refused to remove the offending piece.

I think a beth din and jewish court case will serve at the very least to demonstrate to you that your perceptions and behaviour are very far from the torah’s requirement.

Wow, three times I denied him!

I’m curious. Are you aware of any Beit Din that has punished someone for publishing the truth about public figures? I would enjoy reading up on such cases.

I’m curious. Isn’t there any teaching in the Jewish tradition about not being hasty to take someone to a Beit Din? Within a few hours of not getting his way, Rabbi Rubinstein informs me he’s taking me to a Beit Din.

"I’ll take you a Beit Din!" Is that any way for a Torah scholar to behave?

Who is Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein? Rabbi YY is one of the most sought out speakers in the Jewish world.

How do I know? Because Rabbi Y.Y. says so on his website. He publishes all sorts of glowing things about himself. He also includes numerous photos of himself looking inspiring and morally serious. I think I’ll blow a few of them up and put them on my wall above my computer and maybe it will make me a better person.

I wish I had a spare $3.50 to purchase Rabbi Rubinstein’s lecture "Humility: Changing or Controlling[?]"

Rabbi YY is undoubtedly an eloquent speaker but he’s a lousy speller. His website is riddled with typos.

I will quote excerts from his website leaving the typos and bad grammar intact: "Rebbenzen Tzipprah Heller: "Listening to Rabbi YY speak is fun. The demarcation between one of his lectures and entertainment is that it is impossible for his words to fail to force all but the most unwilling listener to thinking deeply."

"Rabbi Berel Wein: Rabbi YY Rubinstein is an outstanding, provocative, informative and entertaining speaker. He always has something important to say and says it well. He is a fascinating person with a sense of humor and gift for reaching peoples minds and souls."

I asked two Orthodox rabbi friends for their views on this matter. One emailed:

If something is a well-known thing then I don’t see how there is an issue. Furthermore, there are people who make a big deal about their conversions, speak about it etc. I don’t live in England so I don’t know the case. In the example you quoted it was a relevant halakhic point. However, apparently it is not so well known and [a rabbi may be] embarrassed about his status. In the haredi world converts are not given such respect, and he apparently wants to be a teacher etc. in that world. As such, one is not supposed to remind him of his background. In most of the world, people are not embarrassed of the fact that they are converts. They are actually proud of it. But obviously [this rabbi] feels differently. Judging by his name, it is possible that only his mother wasn’t Jewish and maybe people thought he was a secular Jew but really he wasn’t even halakhically Jewish which is why he converted.

In any event, I think that if you went to Beit Din they would tell you to take it down, even though it is true, because of the special command not to remind a convert of his past status.

Another rabbi says: "I know YY, and bunch of people that grew up with him, he is a very nice fellow, and perhaps this pains him for whatever reason, this is a question of Ztar Baalie Chaim (causing pain to God’s creature) which even applies with regards to animals. Have compassion – remove his name."

Rabbi, if I had compassion on everyone who was troubled by my website, I’d have nothing left on my website. Rabbi YY needs to butch up.

I love how Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein describes himself in this bio: "Rabbi YY is probably the most sought after Jewish speaker in the U.K. He regularly speaks in the United States, Gibraltar, South Africa, Israel and Belgium. He is a regular broadcaster on National BBC TV & Radio and the "Terry Wogan Show" which is the UK’s largest Radio Show with 6.5 million listeners. Four years ago the "Independent" Newspaper cited him along with Tony Blair’s Mentor, as being amongst five people in the Britain to turn to for advice. He writes for "HaModia" and teaches at the Beis Yakov girls Seminary in Manchester as well as Ezras Torah Yeshiva. His main position, is Campus Rabbi for the North West of England serving over two thousand Jewish Students. His Book "Dancing Through Time" is available worldwide and his next book, "Where Time and Destiny Meet" is due for publication in the near future."

Undue modesty along with over-punctiliousness in matters of spelling and grammar are not among Rabbi Rubinstein’s faults.

It reminds me of Rabbi Eliyahu Safran of the Orthodox Union who published a book on modesty and described himself on the back cover thus:

Rabbi Safran is renowned as a charismatic and dynamic rabbi, educator, lecturer and author… He…headed highly regarded schools in Pittsburg, New York and New Jersey.

The scion of a distinguished rabbinic family…

Perhaps I should stop getting in trouble and start getting in touch?

I love how my email conversation with Rabbi Rubinstein developed. He opened with an email riddled with spelling errors. When I refused his request, he immediately went for the heavy guns to try to force me to bend to his will.

Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein emails me:

Sorry luke, I am not trying to cause you distress but i think this should be settled by the beth din.
Loshon hora as you may know is prohibited by the Torah. That is precisely its definition, telling the truth about someone to their detriment.
It is allowed under strict conditions if the intent is to protect or help. When character assassination is a lie, it is called Motzei shem ra and is unsurprisingly worse.
That is why alerting rabbi gil to this situation in the hope he could influence you was I believe allowed.
Telling loshon hora about yourself is surprisingly not allowed which is why I suggested you are making a mistake by publicising this dispute.
Reminding someone they are a ger is prohibited by the torah and is the conclusion of a debate between Rav and shmuel in the talmud sanhedrin 94a.
If you like, I can send you a link to a video of me giving a shiur on the subject. It is at an advanced level though with some yiddish hebrew and aramaic un translated but you still might enjoy it.
So the truth as the dictionary might define it requires weighing by the torah’s requirements before it can be used. Even in the non jewish world it is a dangerous thing.
You write you use journalistic criteria. I write regularly for 3 jewish newspapers and a magazine. I also write and present programmes for the bbc. In all of that writing as well as my two published books and the new one, I disguise the people whose stories I tell unless they tell me not to. This despite only using positive stories. Both in the Secular and jewish world, there is much scope to challenge your approach
Last point. I regret all of this.

In other circumstances we may have become friends and I may have been some help too.

I will only be asking the beth din to rule on whether you have violated halocho and should remove the piece as well of course as paying costs.

I would of course prefer that you changed your mind and made a friend.

In my view, here are some of the mistakes Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein made in this matter:

* Don’t go into the world seeking things for yourself such as this. Just let it go. Best for you, best for everyone.

* If you do seek something like this from a stranger, don’t immediately jump to calling the person by his first name and do pay attention to your spelling. An error-riddled email makes you, the rabbinate and the Torah look bad. It screams, I don’t take you seriously enough to care about how I write this request.

* When the person refuses the request, don’t quickly jump to asking about his conversion. This is asking for war, no matter how pure and lofty you believe your motives are. You should know better than most that once you are in a dispute with someone, you don’t bring up their convert status unless you are trying to goad the person into hating you.

* When the person repeatedly refuses your request, don’t immediately jump to taking him to a Beit Din. This is asking for war.

* Don’t share private correspondence with a third party without permission unless you are looking for war.

* When you realize you have made mistakes, don’t cling to portraying yourself as entirely righteous and aggrieved and don’t offer to "help" the person you just threatened to take to a Beit Din.

* Don’t describe yourself on your websites as the "most sought-after Jewish speaker in the UK" and other superlatives. They may well be true, but they make you, the rabbinate and the Torah look bad. Let other people praise you. You don’t need to publish their praise on your websites. Do take care to spell and punctuate your website correctly so that you, the rabbinate, and the Torah don’t look bad to the world.

Rabbi Yehuda (YY) Rubinstein emails June 5, 2009:

Dear Mr Ford,

I honestly want to pose you a question if I may. I watched the video of you sitting in the car the other day and it was really sad to see.

I am sorry your life has become as sad as you express it to be. I sincerely hope things go much better from you soon.

In our recent exchange you wrote,

"I read the piece. My only concern in this matter is journalistic. I have no concern about people being offended. You are probably a rocking rabbi but I am only going to remove a reference in this sort of thing if the facts are wrong."

At the same time you wrote,

‘It doesn’t bother me that there is a substantial case in Jewish law against converts such as myself becoming rabbis.’

My honest question to you is why do you claim here (the same claim appears on your Wikipedia page) that you are convert to Judaism, which obviously requires someone converting you other than yourself, when in fact you are not.

Your claim to be concerned about journalism and facts not being wrong so why do you claim to be what you are not?

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein

About Luke Ford

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