Home » Rachel Sacks-Davis, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

Conversion Disorder

August 2, 2009 – 4:30 pm47 Comments
Ruth, the first convert, with her mother-in-law Naomi

Ruth, the first convert, with her mother-in-law, Naomi

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

The mikvah itself was a non-event, so much so that she wondered whether she had done something wrong. By that stage she already felt Jewish; the internal transformation had taken place sometime earlier.

Francis* didn’t have a Jewish upbringing in the classical sense, but she had Jewish ancestry. “We were assimilated,” she tells me. “It was very late when I realised ‘Oh, Dad’s Jewish.’” But earlier, when she was two years old, her family had left the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees, and ultimately the influence of her Jewish background became increasingly important to her.

As a young adult she felt strongly that being Jewish was her heritage. “We would never have left the Soviet Union if we hadn’t been Jewish. It changed the course of my whole life.” And similar to many other Australian Jews, Francis’ extended family had perished in the second world war.

So even though her parents hadn’t encouraged her to try to marry Jewish (it would have been somewhat hypocritical if they had), she decided that she wanted to date Jewish men. Although by the time she finally approached the Bet Din, she wanted to marry her Jewish boyfriend, the process that had taken her to that point had begun much earlier.

By that stage, Francis had already considered converting through Reform rather than Orthodox. “I tried to look at it analytically, made a pros and cons list, then realised that was the wrong way to go about it.” Given that Reform Judaism recognises patrilineal descent, converting Reform wouldn’t change Francis’ status. “I would still be in the same position. People could still say, ‘You’re not Jewish.’”

Before she contacted the Orthodox Bet Din, Francis spoke to people who were in the process of converting, read a lot, tried out multiple synagogues, settled on one, and started attending regularly. “By the time I got to the first interview, I had already done so much that I was exhausted, and that was just the beginning.”

Initially, they wanted to explore whether Francis might already be Jewish. Her mother’s ancestry was not well documented and all Francis could tell them was what she been told: her mother had Jewish ancestry but wasn’t halakhically Jewish. From that point on, her Jewish ancestry did not have any influence on the conversion process.

Neither did her age. By the time Francis began the conversion process she was thirty-four, and wanting to get married fairly quickly so as to maximise her chances of having children. I asked her whether the Bet Din tried to accelerate her conversion process. It wasn’t even a consideration.

They explained to her that the process would take at least two years. “One rabbi told me that it takes ten years to become observant. From their point of view, two years is short.”

The conversion process consists of eight core modules, and for each the conversion candidate (and where applicable, their partner) must become proficient enough to pass an oral exam. At each oral exam the candidate and their partner are also asked about their participation in halakhic Jewish life.

After completing the eight modules, the candidate is required to sit a lengthy written exam, which is divided into eighteen sub-modules. Candidates can take as long as they wish to complete the exam and can do different modules in different sittings. Francis completed the exam in twelve and a half hours. She describes the entire process as extremely thorough. When she spoke to friends with Jewish high school education about what she was learning, they were surprised. “They didn’t know that kind of stuff.”

Despite the thorough educational process, ultimately the main test is whether the candidate has taken on the mitzvot. In the final interview, Francis and her partner were asked numerous questions about her observance of Jewish law. For example, whether her partner was wearing tzitzit and kippah, and whether she was keeping kosher.

Some of the questions were extremely personal. The Bet Din were concerned that Francis was not socialising enough with religious Jews. “They want to know that you’re integrating into the frum community.”

The experience was particularly stressful for Francis because her father passed away after suffering from cancer for many years, shortly before she finished converting. In the final interview, when she was asked why she wasn’t making more of an effort to socialise with religious Jews, Francis had to explain that at that particular juncture in her life she needed support from old friends, and didn’t have the emotional resources to make new ones. “One of the dayanim asked whether my father had a Jewish funeral and that really upset me.”

The basic description of the conversion process that appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b) says that someone who wants to become a convert should be told about the dangers confronting the Jewish people (“they are persecuted and oppressed”), instructed in some of the major and minor commandments, informed of the punishment for transgressing the commandments, and rewards for fulfilling the commandments. If he accepts these terms, he is to be converted.

The idea that conversion entails a total commitment to observe the mitzvot is a relatively modern conception (Professors Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar date this idea to the nineteenth century), which arguably developed as a reaction to the development of non-Orthodox  Judaism.

Whilst it is important for converts to be properly inducted into Jewish life and learning, there is also an imperative to treat potential converts with respect. It says in Baba Metzia (59b) that someone who causes anguish to a convert thereby transgresses thirty-six commandments; some say, forty-six commandments. A more compassionate conversion process that is flexible and sensitive to the convert’s needs is essential and need not transgress the halakhot of conversion.

* Name changed to protect identity.

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47 Comments »

  • Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately I think that the Rabbis may interpret what is said in the Talmud, that “someone who causes anguish to a convert thereby transgresses thirty-six commandments” as meaning that those who have undergone the conversion process, and are already deemed by the Beit Din as Jewish, should be treated equally. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the same respect is accorded to people undergoing the conversion process, and who have not yet been accepted as halachically Jewish by the Beit Din.

    I also think it is interesting that even within a culture which is so concerned with Kiddush Hashem, of sanctifying god’s name, and in particular the Jewish people’s name, that the Beit Din is not concerned about coming across as being fair and decent to the conversion candidate. It seems very likely that the applicant is going to go home and tell her friends and family about the way she/he was treated, or mistreated. Even if they are not willing to be decent to the candidate, simply because that is the way people should behave, you would think that the Kiddush Hashem factor would be an added incentive.

  • Chaim says:

    I really dont get what you are angry or upset about. Today there are too many people conveted who don’t practice and once the conversion is through it is practically ompossible to annul.

    The fact that most Jews dont know what a convert has to know is irrelevant as they are already Jewish and are not trying to prove something.

    There can be no secondary gain for conversion. A person has to belive and want compltetely to be Jewish and all that it entails. We too can not worry about what people think. The question is is it the right and true thing to do.

    Yesterday I was in Shul with David – a black man who was a Religious Christian and came to his own understanding his religin was false and Judaism was true. He looked into converting but came up with the conlcusion that he felt that the possibility of keeping the 613 commandments was virtually impossible but he could do the 7 and be satisfied with what that meant – being true to who he is now to himself and to G-d. He became a noachide Jew. He goes to an orthodox shul (Chabad) and is fully accepted and integrated with everyone knowing he is not Jewish.

    and you are right – that halacha refers to a converted Jew.

  • 3300 years of history, culture & practice in just eight core modules? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

    The term for a convert is “Ger-Tzedek” – righteous convert. That indicates that it’s a title that must be earned.

  • rachsd says:

    Anonymous and Chaim,

    I agree that ‘someone who causes anguish to a convert thereby transgresses thirty-six commandments’ refers to the person who has already converted, but (in addition to the general respect that every person is owed irrespective of their religion) wrongs done during the conversion process can certainly cause anguish to the convert once converted. In particular, any process that leads to postponing the marriages of potential-converts who are at an age at which this might prevent them from being able to have children can certainly cause great anguish to these people once converted.

  • rachsd says:

    David,

    Of course conversion is a title that must be earned, and there is nothing wrong with having eight core modules as part of the conversion process. Not everything in the article is a criticism of the conversion process. However, there are some problems that the interview raises: first, it is unacceptable that conversion processes should take a minimum of 2 years in cases where the applicants are women in their 30s. Not only does such a policy lead to untold amounts of suffering for the women involved, but also to preventing an unknown number of Jewish children from being born. Second, the intrusive nature of the questioning that was directed at the convert in this article (I’m not referring to questions about shabbat, tzitzit and tephilin) is insensitive and completely irrelevant. Whilst it may be more difficult to practice halakha without having religious friends, it is not impossible. Third, although the particular convert interviewed for this story is intellectual and academic in character, this is not the case for all potential converts, and it is not at all clear why extraordinarily lengthy written exams should be necessary when ultimately Judaism is a way of life and not an academic subject.

    That all of these things are done in God’s name makes it much worse, and really constitute a desecration of His name. I can only imagine that converts who were treated in this way during the conversion process would harbour negative feelings toward halakhic Judaism after the fact because of their experience.

  • rachsd says:

    Chaim,
    Your view that to become a convert “A person has to belive and want compltetely to be Jewish and all that it entails [sic]” is certainly the dominant one in the Orthodox world today. However, consider the following passage from Talmud Yevamot 24b:

    “Mishnah: If a man is suspected of [intercourse]…with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her, they need not be separated. Gemara: This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man…are not proper proselytes. These are the words of Rabbi Nehemiah, for Rabbi Nehemiah used to say: Neither lionproselytes nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted as at the present time…Surely concerning this it was stated that Rabbi Isaac bar Samuel bar Martha said in the name of Rab: The halakha is in accordance with the opinion of the one who maintained that they are all proper proselytes.”

    Although Rabbi Nehemiah believes that all converts must have pure motives, the halakha goes with the view of those that believe otherwise.

  • Chaim says:

    As I said once they have already converted, it is accepted and impossible to annul, no matter what the motives where or even if they do not practice everything. This is the meaning of the Gemorrah.

    This is exactly why the process has to be prolonged, fully investigated and thorough.

    She should trust in Hashem – he will find her a spouse, provide her with happy and successful children and bless her no matter what her age. A convert is like an only child of Hashem. He watches them closely, comforts them, provides for them and blesses them. And once the have converted we as Jews should do the same.

    It is hard to discuss a specific case without the person, Rabbis being present but:

    As per her fathers buriel: She should have understood how important a proper Jewish buriel is for the soul of a Jew – her father – Did she attempt her best to fulfil this and understand the significance even if she was unable to accomplish it.

    Don’t get me wrong – G-d fobid any person should really have anguish and pain. This is to be prevented at all if possible but Halacha is not altered to deal with a persons emotions. this is why the Rabbis tried to get her to find support within the Jewish community. She should know where o get help and support from and to find Jewish answers in pain and suffering not from her old life.

    The Jewish comminuty is large and she should have been about to find some friends and support. That fact that she couldn’t, could indicate she is not integrating well because of some reason which would raise red flags.

    The conversion process is very emotional for the prospective convert but from the Rabbis perspective, it is not about emotion. They need to decide is this person going to be a true torah Jew who can deal with the possible extreme difficulties to what that entails. if the conversion process is too hard for her – Could she cope with even more difficult problems – Giving her life for torah and G-d? Withstanding possible terrible anti semitism and yet remain Jewish?

    If they can not deal with even the process, then they should consider if this is right for them – there are perfectly acceptable alternatives. Keeping the noachide laws would provide a true spiritual path for her. She could find a similar person to marry. She would be loved, accepted and rewarded in G-d eyes and in every Jews eyes and fully supported, encouraged and appreciated.

    Not everyone needs to be a Jew. Nothing is wrong with being a rightious gentile. You could reach very high spiritual levels. And if converting is so essential and internal to her then she needs to accept the difficulties with love and meaning, as this is who and what she is and the trials and tribulations bring out the deepest love and longing for Judaism and G-d from the depths of her soul which is very hard to do otherwise. Her connection with G-d would be so much more intimate, stronger, developed and revealed.

    Since when is suffering automatically bad.

    You and she should read Man’s search for meaning by Victor Frankl.

    A Jew whether a convert or born Jewish who does not follow the Torah is the greatest desecration of G-ds name.

  • Eri says:

    Very wise Rachel. Conversion to Judaism shouldn’t be exasperating.
    Eri.

  • Rachel,

    So women in their 30s (who want to have children) should be able complete the required study in less time? Does that mean they have to study less than everyone else? Who else gets this special consideration? Do universities offer the same “fast track” degrees to people who deserve it?

    Where do you draw the line? I’m sure everyone who wants to convert will have some reason why they should be able to finish it sooner than everyone else.

  • "Francis" says:

    I feel that I must respond to a couple of posts – David: “3300 years of history, culture & practice in just eight core modules? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

    By way of clarification, firstly, my understanding is that it is not the role of the Geirus program to “teach” 3300 years of history, culture and practice in a relatively short time. Nor could it – this would be totally unrealistic. Such a starndard, would also, arguably, be a great deal more than most “born Jews” would know and learn in 12 years of religious day school or through the home (or even throughout their lifetime).

    In fact, the ‘history’ element of the program covers a very small amount of secular history – its focus is on religious history, ie. development of Mishna, Gemarra and each of the main subsequent Rabbinic phases.

    Secondly, the ‘cultural’ aspect is largely not ‘taught’ through the eight core modules. Rather, in addition to the formal learning component, it is expected that the applicant would Daven, regularly attend Shiurim and integrate in to an observant community.

    Thirdly, the practice element, of course, can only come through actual practice!

    Lastly, in relation to the ‘eight core modules.’ These is a somewhat arbitrary number, in the sense that each of the modules includes a number of topics (this is clear from the description of the final exam – 18 topics). It also means that it won’t be too short or long a time interval between each interview (depending upon how long it takes an applicant to complete learning a module). At each interview, proficiency in Hebrew (ie. reading from the Siddur, or reciting T’fillah from memory) is also tested.

    I hope this sheds some more light on the process. Your comment seemed somewhat flippant. I can assure that it is not like attending TAFE (not that I have attended TAFE … not that there is anything wrong with that).

    Re Chaim, thank you for the recommendation to Victor Frankl’s profound work. (It is the kind – like Freud – that you would not find on the Beth Din’s reading list). With respect to “Withstanding possible terrible anti semitism and yet remain Jewish?” – this is a very interesting point, on which there is obviously an enormous gulf between Jewish understanding and a non-Jewish one. The interview process before being accepted as an applicant covered persecution and anti semitism. My response to your point here is the same as the one I gave then – history has taught us that I would have been ‘eligible’ (G-d forbid) for such anti semitism whether I had converted or not. Anti semites care little for Halachic status.

  • rachsd says:

    David,

    The reason that university courses can only be completed in inflexible amounts of time is that they are large institutions with great numbers of students entering courses each year. Even if a student is intellectually capable of absorbing material over a shorter period, they will invariably have to wait to sit the final exam at the same time as everyone else.

    Conversion to Judaism is not a university course, and isn’t limited by the same bureaucratic considerations. The intellectual component of the course is taught through private reading and one-on-one tutorials. There are no set dates for examinations. There are far fewer ‘students.’ Unfortunately, at the moment potential converts (regardless of personal situation) have no option to have more than one lesson per week; and there are no facilities to cover more material independently (without the teacher). However, there is no reason that these kinds of facilities couldn’t be introduced, particularly for potential converts who are in extenuating circumstances.

    Induction to halakhic Judaism should be a compassionate process that is befitting of the Creator of the Law, and which promotes the same values that are embedded in the system – such as the value of family.

  • Chaim says:

    “Francis” I assume by this you were successful.

    I hope the longing and desire to be a Jew brings out that special spark of G-dliness you always had in you.

    I bless you with comfort, success, fulfilment and growth. May Hashem lead you and enlighten your ways and provide for you a family which will be brought up in a true Jewish spirit.

    I hope the difficulties you had, reveal to you your hidden strengths and give you the power and confidence to tackle and overcome all the future tests and hardships (which should be none!)

    I came once to a realization that we all suffer throughout our lives. We all go through extreme hardships individual to us. I may not have been able to overcome the difficulties you had in your conversion process like you did. Out of my personal trials and tribulations I know I came out a better person – with a deeper connection to G-d through faith and love and to my family and community.

    We should all have compassion and support our fellow Jews to overcome their difficulties including the hardest of all – this exile and the concealment of revealed G-dliness with the coming of Moshiach now.

  • “Francis”,

    Yes, my comments were a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I hope you didn’t take offence. I have no idea what the curriculum of study is; your comments offer a good insight into this.

    The point was that there should be a lot to learn in accepting a religion like Judaism.

    Rachel,

    We can probably take the duration of the course as a reflection of the barriers that are setup before prospective converts. If it was too easy, then people would do it for the wrong reasons. It is an unfortunate truth that many people would like a quickie conversion so they can marry, or for some other peripheral reason. This makes it that much harder for the ones who are genuine.

  • Shimon Chaim says:

    Yet another plea for the conversion process to be liberalised. Okay, it’s couched in a call for more compassion, more flexibility and more sensitivity but that makes the inference all the more untenable. What makes you think that the conversion process is NOT compassionate, felxible and sensitive? Because you read about the the highly publicised tales of some individuals who complain about their experience? Some of the individuals may, indeed, have been treated improperly. I would be surprised that any human endeavour would function so perfectly as to please everybody all the time. How many others have an axe to grind? How many went into the process with false expectations and felt resentment when those expectations were not met? How many took umbrage at things they themselves misunderstood (and continue not to understand)? (Eg. the woman in the essay was upset by the Dayan’s question about her father’s funeral: was she more upset by the question or by the answer?)
    I look back on my own conversion in Australia and marvel at how sensitive the rabbonim and others in the community were. I was full of bad habits and was so morally ignorant I didn’t realise how bad – and how numerous – they were! And yet I was accepted and, gently, gradually, learned how to be a better person. I learned from the shiurim, I learned from the recommended books, but most of all I learned from example. It was a journey full of ups and downs. The downs I look back on with intense embarrassment and shame but baruch Hashem I now have a family; we’re living in a frum community which helps me to continually strive to raise my own levels of observance and I am dedicated to raising my children with solid Torah values. I know many people from a very wide variety of backgrounds and ethnicities who have converted – in Australia and in other countries – and none of them have any complaints about their experiences.
    The conversion process is long and challenging. But those who are sincere in their desire to join the Jewish People and to take on the responsibilities of representing Hashem to the world can only benefit from such a process. A watered-down version would do them no favours, nor the families they would go on to have. The more you work at something, the more you appreciate it. And being Jewish is something you have to cherish. It is an enormous privilege as well as a daunting responsibility. You need to pursue it with the humility of knowing that the Jewish People do not need you. The Jewish People have Hashem’s guarantee that they will survive and flourish. That guarantee does not depend on accepting converts. Those who respond to the assimilation tragedy by calling for liberalised conversion base their strategy on a material mentality which is bereft of bitachon.
    While many born-Jews may feel passionate about this subject out of a conscious desire to be compassionate, I fear that underlying those emotions lies a failure to truly value the preciousness of their heritage. When you have something of such inestimable value you don’t hand it over to some stranger for safekeeping. You want to check the person out, make sure they’re qualified to guard it well. So do converts a real favour: support them in their quest to be Jewish by explaining to them that they may not understand everything straight away, that they may find some things they learn objectionable, but that eventually, if they accept that everything that comes from Hashem is good then they will – with enough learning – realise how everything fits together into a positive, uplifting and fulfilling whole.

  • rachsd says:

    David,

    First, it’s not clear to me that shorter in time always translates to easier – covering the same material in a shorter period of time may be harder.

    Second, it is my understanding that when someone first states their intention to convert, they are supposed to be discouraged. However, once they have established that they are genuinely serious, the process itself – whilst deep and thorough – need not be discouraging. In Hilkhot Issurei Biah, for example, Rambam writes that the process of teaching the convert the mitzvot should not be overly prolonged “lest we cause him anxiety and thereby turn him from the good path to the bad path.” (13:17)

  • rachsd says:

    Chaim,

    Your advice about dealing with suffering is good advice for someone who cannot avoid suffering, but it isn’t good advice for someone who causes others to suffer.

    The point is that the halakha is more flexible than the current practice would suggest, and therefore some of the suffering caused is avoidable.

  • Chaim says:

    rachsd –

    Do you really think the Rabbis had no compassion or understanding?

    Can you understand fully a situation without speaking to both sides?

    The current practice is more stringent (a fence around the Torah) precisely because of the problems that have been cited here numerous times.

    A true convert will persevere. Sufferening is subjective to the person. Many others would not have suffered at all in the same situation (which should not belittle “Francis’s” suffering).

    ALL change is hard. You have to completely uproot and throw out your prior self. We as Jews should support those through the suffering and that is exactly what the Rabbis were trying to do by encouraging socializing and support from within the community.

    Orthodox Judasim does not change halacha to make you feel better and halacha is set by Hashem as divinely interpreted by shulchan aruch and subsequent Rabbis. Unfortunately the Rabbis are human and are too flexible in some situations with disasterous results and too inflexible with also negative results. It is impossible to set a line without outliers being adversely affected. halacha is set by what most normal people would act and does not take into account gender, age or background.

    You took on an inflexible one-sided perspective in this debate.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Chaim,

    I didn’t say that “the Rabbis had no compassion or understanding.” I just said that the current practice which doesn’t allow individuals to complete the conversion process in less than two years (even when they are women in their thirties who want to have children) amongst other things could be improved in ways that would alleviate unnecessary suffering.

    The current Australian practice is not a direct derivative of the process described in the shulkhan arukh. Amongst other things, the shulkhan arukh doesn’t specify any particular lengths of time required, doesn’t require oral and written examinations etc. The shulkhan arukh provides only short guidelines and these are put into practice in particular ways which can as you say benefit some people and cause suffering for others. The challenge is to continually improve this system to make it work best for everyone. Luckily human beings are blessed with the creativity required to think of better solutions.

  • Chaim says:

    The current practive is based on experience and is always adjusting.

    Did you ask the beis din why they set 2 yrs and are not inflexible?

  • Shimon Chaim says:

    Rachsd:
    You quote Yevamot 24b. I think it should be pointed out that we do not necessarily pasken according to the Mishna. It would be unfortunate if people were to be misled. Practical halachah has subtleties and nuances which, if your essay on conversaion is anything to go on, appear to have escaped you. Anyone who habitually depends on their rav to guide them on the halachic implications of everyday situations would tell you that. To prove the point: a rabbi may well pasken differently on the same question to different people simply because he has to take into account the personal circumstances of each individual. To take one case of conversion and to try to extrapolate from that general problems is, quite simply, a nonsense.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Chaim,

    If someone from the Bet Din would like to write a reply to address some of the points that were raised in the article then Galus Australis will gladly publish it.

  • Chaim says:

    Rachel – If you were writing an unbiased or balanced article you would have asked them and presented their view.

  • Chaim says:

    Chazal comment (Yevamos 47a) that gerim are as difficult for the Jewish people as spachas (an affliction of the skin).

    ON the one hand, non-Jews who convert for ulterior motives, who basically masquerade as Jews, are a plague and sickness to the Jewish people.

    On the other hand, Jews who convert for the reasons Rambam describes and who undergo a halachic gerius are a pleasant affliction for the Jewish people.

    Just a tzora’as is a lesson to goad one to repent and improve, the devotion and meticulous observance of mitzvos of a true ger is an indictment of those born Jews who are not as devoted, meticulous or appreciative of their heritage.

  • frosh says:

    Chaim,

    Rachel wasn’t making a feature length documentary film. She was merely conducting a short interview with a very brave interviewee.

    The offer for the Bet Din to write a reply article is a genuine one.

  • Chaim says:

    Frosh…

    An article in a magazine should be thorough and balanced or there should be a disclaimer. The “feature length documentary film” comment is silly.

    If you make accusations you should give the accused a full upfront chance to refute it. My criticisms are meant to be constructive not personal.

    There is no doubt “Francis” is a very brave individual. There was no comment or conclusion that the conversion was completed. If it was my blessings above stand and I hope she understands what an honor, privilege and responsibility she now has. If not I hope she understands what a Jew is and how hard it is to be a true authentic Jew and she uses her learning to be a better person who loves and is loved by G-d.

    I am not the beis din – ask them…

  • frosh says:

    Chaim

    You write, “There was no comment or conclusion that the conversion was completed.” This is a fair criticism. The writer made the mistake of assuming an audience educated in the basic components of a Jewish conversion.
    Writers should be more aware that we also have non-Jews (as well as Jews uneducated in religious practices) reading our articles, and we apologise for any confusion.

    The first sentence that began, “The mikvah…” was a description of the final ritual in a Jewish conversion. Thus it would have been clear to many readers that the conversion was completed, but your comment serves as good reminder to our editors to make sure we are catering for all readers.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Shimon Chaim,

    When any (Orthodox) Rabbi paskens, their decision is informed by the various halakhic texts that on the issue, with Mishna and Gemara being formative and of particular importance. As you suggest, there are many possible ways to read the texts. My argument has not been that there is only one way, but rather that they current dominant reading is not the only possible one.

  • Chaim says:

    Frosh – sorry it was me. I switched computers and did not realize i had not put my details in.

    I read the article a while go and do not reread it each time but you are right, I should have remembered the line.

    You can apply thosw comments to me.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Chaim,

    The idea of this website is to publish op-ed pieces – these are meant to express opinions. The idea is that there are a broad range of writers so a variety of opinions are expressed, but no one article is supposed to cover all ground.

  • frosh says:

    Ok Chaim,

    No problem – I have edited it as such, so it now applied to “Chaim,” and I have removed my comments regarding refraining from “anonymous” comments.

    Fair enough re the mikveh, easy one to forget – but it still serves as a reminder to us that not every reader would know the significance of the mikveh.

  • Chaim says:

    I can understand that… and accept that

    A disclaimer to that effect would suffice i.e. that not all sides are fully represented and the beis din was not given the opportunity to address the concerns brought up (knowing that confidentiality could not be broken).

    Rachel, you have dismissed all the arguments brought up because you feel Francis’ particular situation should take absolute preference. I assume the beis din has been “burnt” so many times in the past that they feel extenuating circumstances can not apply.

    I know in Perth there were a lot of conversions in the 90’s whether the convert did not practice anything after being accepted and as i wrote originally once it has been approved it is almost impossible to revoke and annul.

  • Shimon Chaim says:

    rachsd:

    You recognise that halachic decision making relies on various sources but conclude that “the current dominant reading is not the only possible one”. Are you saying that the mishnah you quote could (or even should) be taken as halacha today? Do you subscribe to attempts made by some who use minority rulings in the Talmud and various peripheral sources to change contemporary halachic practise?

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Shimon Chaim,

    In some issues I would support following minority readings.

    In the case of conversion, the book and article that I’ve linked to from the article make a good case that the current dominant practice is based on sources that were not considered to be important for conversion until very recently (the 19th century).

  • Chaim says:

    In earlier centuries, for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism, it would mean a death sentence. There would have been no doubt at those times to their sincerity.

  • Gabbi Sar-Shalom says:

    I want to applaud RachelSD for her patient argument. She is uncovering what is a painful topic for many converts. I have one friend who has converted through a Conservative Beit Din and is wanting to convert Orthodox so as to be universally accepted as a Jew. One of the things delaying his conversion is his unwillingness to wear socks with his sandals which was required for reasons of modesty. There was a time when the rabbis were interested in darkei shalom – ways of peace- that made it possible to live functionally as a Jew – (that is to not be religious and by necessity be disfunctional)
    My husband said if Ruth were to apply for conversion through the Rabbanut today, they’d probably kick her down the stairs.

  • cyberjew says:

    Just a quick comment for Chaim:

    Not every article can fully provide all sides to a argument, that’s why in order to be an educated person you need to talk to lots of different people and read diverse literature… The experience that Rachel and her interviewee describe is so widespread that for us not to want to understand it is criminal. In Australia I met few converts, but now that am residing in Israel I have spoken to a great number and never once have I heard even a vaguely positive account of the process (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but it’s rare). That’s a problem. That isn’t what Chaza’l were trying to achieve.

    And it doesn’t mean that the Bet Din are bad, it just means that once someone is accepted into the process they should try to be a little more understanding.

    And btw, if you would check out the Tosfot on Yevamot you’d see it isn’t that simple. I’m doing this from memory so I might get the name wrong, but look at the perush of R’Avraham haGer – and I’m pretty sure it’s the last opinion brought which makes it look like the maskana. But my memory might not be serving me properly.

  • Chaim says:

    CyberJew – i have a feeling you did not read all my comments thoroughly.

    I will summarize my points.

    Every transition is hard and causes suffering whether it is university, a new Job or moving to another city. How much more so leaving and uprooting yourself from your family, community and religion. Dunking in a mikvah does not solve this and the hardships after the conversion can be even worse. Rambam clearly says that a significant proportion of converts slip up and fail.

    Having said that, the Beis Din and the Jewish community at large should be extremely supportive, compassionate and understanding and the prospective convert needs to make use of these services.

    It is naive to think that changing the standards of the conversion process to make it more lenient even in extenuating circumstances will help diminish the hardships. Rather they will allow more suspect and illegitimate conversions.

    This brings me to the quote that I brought from Yevamos above which I assume you are talking about. there are always many interpretations of the the Torah and the one I brought does not negate any other as they do not negate this one. Divrei Elokim Chayim. The teaching here is clear and I don’t need to repeat it.

    Of course people’s hardships should be heard, validated and be seen as teaching lessons for all Jews including the Beis din. I do not believe in censorship. I am not defending the beis din. I have no idea what the full facts are in this particular case. An article should attempt to bring a balanced view or should have a disclaimer to that effect.

    I too know know a lot of Gerim and Bnei noach and I find little resentment to the process down the track. A lot depends on who they are, what their true motivations are and which community they are a part of.

    I am not being judgmental to “Francis” or anyone else. If they still have problems we should help them. There are one of our people. We have a the basic commandment of Ahavas Yisroel.

    A nice article:

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3002/jewish/How-Does-One-Convert-to-Judaism.htm

    All the best

  • YN says:

    it is interesting to note that, as I understand it, the Rabbinate in the UK is pressing the London Beth Din to specify its guidelines for conversion. This is because the process has become so arbitrary and inconsistent and at the whim of the Dayanim that, when approached by a prospective convert, the Rabbis are unable to give any definitive guidance – apologies, but I can’t cite any written source for this

    for what its worth (and yes, I am Orthodox (possibly ultra) I think that we should make the conversion process as easy as possible. while most will disagree, I am troubled by the amount of singles who don’t want to marry out but are approaching an age where they are prepared to compromise for the sake of a long term relationship – why should we lose the children of these relationships – Halacha has always met the challenges presented to it and I think that this is one of the big ones.

  • The Hasid says:

    I’ve read the comments on this post with great interest and appreciate the academic/intellectual/halachic arguments raised by rachsd, Shimon, Shimon Chaim, DW, et al.

    Now, an anecdote – which I think is quite pertinent to YN’s comment:

    A friend of a friend of a friend (sorry about the vagueness, but I don’t feel at liberty to mention her by name) gave up on her Orthodox conversion for the very reasons that rach mentions: children, and absolute frustration.
    There’s no doubt that her desire to convert was deeply felt and sincere. She was given a lot of support by her partner and his family. They had every intention of raising their future children as committed, Torah observant (however you would like to define that, as it differs from person to person) Jews. However, after several years of struggle with (and rejection by) the Beit Din (there was a machloket of some sort, over what though I’m not sure – perhaps her perceived reasons for converting and her commitment), she got frustrated and decided to forgo her Orthodox conversion in favour of a Reform conversion. It’s my understanding that this woman was very upset to do so, but was becoming increasingly frustrated by her ticking biological clock, and the intransigence of the Beit Din. (Not saying that the BD didn’t have legitimate concerns here – I don’t know exactly what their concerns were – rather that this woman had NO recourse and no way of appealing the decision of the BD.)

    So now they have a couple of kids who aren’t halachically Jewish, but who they are raising in a kosher, Shabbos-observant home. These kids will inherit the problem of ‘questionable’ Jewishness.

    I’m relating this anecdote not to point blame at the Beit Din (or the woman in question), but to point out that we can argue back and forth as much as we like on the minutiae of halacha, but ultimately people are getting screwed over.

  • Shimon Chaim says:

    To Hasid:

    “Not saying that the BD didn’t have legitimate concerns here – I don’t know what their concerns were…”

    Surely the pertinence of your anecdote rests upon the nature of the Beit Din’s concerns.

    In addition to my own astonishingly positive experiences of converting Orthodox in Australia I have come to known people who have converted in London, which is, I think it’s fair to say, stricter. These people come from an astonishing variety of backgrounds: Italian Catholic, French Catholic, Afro-Caribbean, Greek to name a few that come to mind. None of them have ever mentioned anything but good things. They are all loved and respected in the frum community and return those feelings a hundredfold.

    I can not escape the feeling that in most cases of conversion broiges there are – like in Hasid’s anecdote – highly relevant bits of information which we don’t know and which renders the general public’s intervention presumptuous.

  • Chaim says:

    Shimon Chaim- I fully agree. Because of the Beis Din’s respect for confidentiality we will never know the full facts in any specific case including what the Hasid wrote.

    Some selected sound bytes from the comment:

    “struggle with (and rejection by) the Beit Din (there was a machloket of some sort”

    “she got frustrated and decided to forgo her Orthodox conversion”

    “These kids will inherit the problem”

    “ultimately people are getting screwed over”

    – People always have free choice in every situation and have to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. Like you said it is not about blame.

  • The Hasid says:

    Chaim and Shimon Chaim:

    You’re both right. There are lots of gaps in the anecdote I provided above, and therefore it’s not the best example from which to draw conclusions about the efficacy or legitimacy of the Beit Din. (That wasn’t my point.) Also, Shimon Chaim, I do not doubt for a second that there are people for whom the conversion process has been overwhelmingly positive, as you yourself experienced. (I’m sorry if you think I was being dismissive of that, as that wasn’t my intention!)

    My aim was really just to demonstrate that the current system is not ideal, and that innocent children are being disadvantaged as a result.

  • A couple of points:

    All through this discussion a phrase kept coming back to me. It’s something we talk about at work very regularly: managing expectations. In my business, we take great effort to explain to our prospective customers that what we do is very complex, and there are no shortcuts or ways to make it easy. That way they understand and stop asking annoying questions that start with “can’t you just …” (people in IT will appreciate that).

    Discussions of this nature are always going to be one-sided – we hear stories of disgruntled customers of a public institution, neither of whom can tell us the whole story due to confidentiality and/or other reasons. They say “a fool listens to half a story” and yet people are very happy to pass judgement on even less than that.

    I guess we’d like to think that people with authority within the Beth Din actually read this stuff and maybe learn from it.

  • Chaim says:

    I think one thing we can all agree on –

    The Beis Din should be receptive to all constructive criticism and needs to continuously evaluate and refine their practices so that the best outcomes are reached while not compromising on their values, beliefs and laws.

    – sounds like a goal for every organization.

  • CTzadikes says:

    The question is, what’s the difference between causing less anguish to more potential converts and Avraham’s plea to save Sdom if even for ten men?
    Argument: Insincere Jews will destroy Judaism from the inside
    Avraham’s situation: Bad people will destroy humanity from the inside. But, they should live if that spares the lives of the few good people.
    Argument: If a convert goes off the derech, it’s on the beis din’s cheshbon.
    Counter-argument: How can you ever predict? Do you cause the sincere person years of anguish by doubting them and doubting them until they wonder what on earth made them such a suspicious and untrustworthy person that they must be doubted continuously? See above argument.
    Why can’t we be more like Avraham Avinu?

  • CTzadikes,

    There is a very big difference. Avraham’s argument to God was: “should you kill a righteous man together with a wicked one?” It was against a punishment to be applied to an entire group of cities on the chance that some innocent people were there. In short, better to let wicked people go unpunished, than punish an innocent. This is a broadly accepted principle in modern legal systems.

    This bears little comparison to the level of due diligence a Beit Din applies in dealing with prospective converts. It’s not reasonable to say: better to take insincere converts rather than reject a sincere one.

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