Bintel Brief: Yitz and Blu Greenberg Peer Across the Denominational Divide
Dear Rabbi and Rebbetzin,
I am a convert to Judaism and have been living a “Conservadox” life for about 15 years. My conversion was traditional, with all of the rites, including hatafot dam brit, immersion and questioning before a beit din [rabbinic court] after a period of about two years of study. However, the rabbi overseeing my conversion was not Orthodox. I want to participate in an Orthodox minyan but face the ethical quandary of maintaining my anonymity with regard to my conversion versus divulging the full details of my conversion to an Orthodox rabbi. I believe my conversion was valid under halacha [Jewish law] and that anyone questioning my status is acting outside the bounds of Jewish tradition. But I also respect the halachic process and would not want to compromise the halachic status of a minyan if the other participants viewed my conversion otherwise.
I have three questions: What are my responsibilities under Jewish law in this case? What are the rights of the Orthodox minyan in questioning my status? And what is more important, Jewish unity or adherence to a legal opinion that is not universally accepted?
Yitz and Blu reply:
Your dilemma dramatizes one of the great tragedies of Jewish life — one that is often overlooked. A generation ago, your conversion would have been accepted by important Orthodox rabbis, just as a get (divorce certificate) issued by observant and respected Torah scholars such as Boaz Cohen of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary were honored because they met Orthodox standards. Today, however, actions by non-Orthodox rabbis, even when they comply with halacha, are almost universally rejected by Orthodoxy. In personal-status conflicts, it is as if we are of two different religions.
In the 1980s, I (Yitz) warned that denominational polarization was leading to a split in the Jewish people. The conventional wisdom is that the split did not happen. But in fact, in matters of personal status — such as recognition of converts to Judaism or in legitimation of marriage and divorce — the split has already occurred.
A year ago, I received a call from an Orthodox colleague asking about the Shabbat observance of a Conservative rabbi whom I knew personally. The call was about the pending marriage of an Orthodox layman to a Conservative woman who was fully observant. The woman had been married and then divorced within the Conservative movement. She secured a get that was issued by a learned and observant Conservative beit din. But my Orthodox colleague was reluctant (or afraid) to accept that get. He had heard (and was hoping that I would confirm) that the Conservative rabbi who performed her first wedding was not truly shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) — which would disqualify the first wedding as invalid. My colleague was disappointed to learn from me that the Conservative rabbi was, in fact, shomer Shabbat!
To strike a blow for Jewish unity, I urged him not to disqualify the original marriage but to accept the get as valid (her get technically had met all halachic requirements). In the end, he performed the marriage by disqualifying her original marriage on the grounds that a Conservative rabbi had performed it. In effect, he stipulated that all marriages performed by Conservative (or Reform) rabbis have no halachic standing and need no get to be terminated. It was easier and safer for him to disqualify liberal marriages generically and act as if she never married and never received a get than to accept a get properly done by a Conservative beit din. This process is taking place all over America.
This situation symbolizes another tragedy — the spiritual breakdown of Modern Orthodoxy. While it calls itself Centrist Orthodoxy, it has surrendered its own values and orientation toward klal yisrael — the unity of the Jewish people. Instead, it has accepted haredi authority and standards in these matters.
As we write, the Rabbinical Council of America is completing a deal where, in return for the Israeli chief rabbinate giving it exclusive authority to certify American conversions, RCA batei din around the country will take over the conversion process and no longer stand behind individual rabbis’ conversions, even those done by its own members. In return, the RCA batei din will follow Israeli chief rabbinate standards, which are much more restrictive, requiring total Orthodox — and sometimes even haredi — lifestyles to qualify for conversion. This is a time when thousands of potential converts are open to joining Judaism, but most are not willing to live wholly observant, let alone haredi, lifestyles. Hundreds of thousands are in a similar situation in Israel. This highly restrictive approach is a betrayal of the security of the Jewish people and the needs of klal yisrael. This new RCA arrangement constitutes further splitting of the Jewish people and pushes less observant Jews toward not converting their partner, which will increase assimilation.
Personally, we feel that this double-barreled exclusion of would-be converts and dismissal of observant Conservative Jews is wrong. The whole restrictive, anti-conversion approach constitutes an assault on gerim — converts and outsiders — that violates the instruction (given 36 times in the Torah) to be kind, loving and sensitive to gerim.
To us, your situation summons up the Talmud’s comments (Vayikra Rabbah, Parshah 32) on Ecclesiastes 4:1: “I observed the oppression that goes on under the sun — the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them and the power of their oppressors.” The Talmud explains that “the tears of the oppressed” refers to illegitimate children, mamzerim. And “the power of their oppressors” refers to the members of the high court of Israel who come after them using the power of Torah to remove them from the people of Israel. In your case, revealing your process of halachic conversion would be used to remove you from the congregation. The Talmud, driven by the injustice of the halacha in punishing innocent mamzerim — it was their parents who sinned; they did nothing — ruled that kayvon shenitme’oo, nitme’oo. If illegitimate children successfully infiltrate the community, let them be. They (and others who may know their status) are not to reveal it. Since they were absorbed, they should not be uncovered and rejected.
Were your ability to marry at stake, or if the revelation would have a catastrophic impact on your personal status, we would be tempted to encourage you to hide your background and evade this status — following the Talmudic model for mamzerim.
However, in your case, what is at stake is your ability to join a particular Orthodox minyan. Every minyan or community has the right to define its own standards for membership and practice. It is highly likely that were you to reveal your background, your minyan cohorts would not accept you as a Jew. You might first try discreetly to get a reading as to the rabbi’s and the minyan’s attitudes on conversion and on halachic behaviors of liberal rabbis. Perhaps they are of the saving remnant who maintain the old klal yisrael standard.
Yet, given the probability to the contrary (i.e., that they would not consider your convert status valid) your presence as one of 10 attendees for the minyan would make them feel that their communal prayers were not valid. We think, therefore, that you should give up the privilege of davening with them rather than mislead them. However wrong they may be to exclude you, they legitimately constituted their community to live by their standards.
You have the choice of undergoing an Orthodox conversion or finding a minyan — perhaps a Conservative minyan or perhaps one of the up-and-coming traditional egalitarian communities that do not play denominational politics — that would likely accept your conversion and your status as a Jew. To force yourself upon them by withholding information from a group that does not accept your status is wrong. We say this although we believe that the disqualification process is a sin against Jewish values and against converts, an act we deeply deplore.
We believe that those who have the authority should rule that all denominations give full faith and credit to the halachic acts of others that meet their halachic standards. They should not allow the politics of delegitimization to disqualify the other. Alas, this is not what is happening. The sectarians and the splitters are in the saddle in this generation. You will have to find your place within that reality. We are all the poorer for it.
Blu Greenberg was the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She is the author of “On Women & Judaism” and “How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household,” among other books. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the founding president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and served as the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. He is the author of “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” “Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World” and “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.”