Converts and Positions of Communal Authority

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I. Loving Converts

Converts are Jews just like the rest of us, except that they are not like the rest of us. They have very different backgrounds from the typical Jew and made tremendous life changes in order to join the Jewish people. In most aspects, they are treated just like every other Jew. However, there are ways in which they are treated differently.

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.

III. Ordination

In times gone by, rabbinical courts were very clearly communal organizations. Therefore, the rule is clear that a convert may not serve on such a court (Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 7:1, Yoreh De’ah 269:11). If so, can a convert even be ordained? The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Sanhedrin 4:8) writes that the Mosaic ordination may only be given to someone who, in theory, can fulfill any rabbinic function. If a convert may not serve on a court then perhaps he may not be ordained either.

R. Ya’akov of Lissa (Nesivos Ha-Mishpat, 7:1) writes that since a convert may serve on a rabbinical court that judges another convert, therefore he can fulfill all rabbinic functions and may be ordained. This is different from a woman who may not serve on a court, even to judge a woman, because women’s exemption from testifying precludes their serving as a judge.

However, even if ordained, the convert may not serve as a pulpit rabbi. Presumably, teaching in a school is permitted as is serving in charitable organizations which, despite sometimes being called communal organizations, are nothing of the sort.

IV. Historical Proof

The beginning of Mishnah Avos lists the pairs – zugos – who led the Jewish community in the early Second Commonwealth as the nasi and the head of the Sanhedrin. Among the list of pairs are Shemayah and Avtalyon (1:10). The commentators note that these two were converts and, if so, how could they be appointed to such important positions of communal authority. The answers given differ in significant ways.

1. The people voluntarily accepted this pair upon them. As a general rule, even someone who is entirely invalid for serving on a religious court may still serve if both parties accept him as a judge. Thus, the people accepted Shemayah and Avtalyon to sit on the great court (Kenesses HaGedolah, Hagahos Beis Yosef, Hoshen Mishpat 7:1). However, R. Yonasan Eybeshutz (Urim Ve-Tumim) points out that this only explains how they could serve as judges on monetary cases. The Sanhedrin ruled on other issues as well. Rather, he explains, because the king appointed them and the king retains power over people’s lives, they could also serve on cases regarding life and death. [Note: R. Eybeshutz uses the phrase “Torah U-Mada” in his comments on this issue.] However, this does not explain how they could preside over the Sanhedrin in ritual matters, e.g. determining the laws of Shabbos or food blessings. R. Yitzhak Sorotzkin (Gevuras Yitzhak, Avos 1:10) distinguishes between positions of authority and positions of Torah. Ruling on ritual matters is a position of Torah, and that is open to converts (cf. R. Elhanan Wasserman, Kovetz Shi’urim, Bava Basra no. 59). Additionally, the Noda BiYehudah (Doresh Le-Tziyon 3, cited in Tzitz Eliezer 19:47:5) points out that the biblical text seems to indicate that we may not appoint to convert to such positions even if we want to, i.e. we ac.cept him

2. They were the most qualified candidates.R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (Magen Avos 10:1) suggests that because there was no one else as qualified as these two, they could serve despite being converts. This is an important exclusion to the general prohibition. When a co
nvert is hands down the most qualified candidate for a position of communal authority then he may serve in it. R. Meir Don Plotzki (Hemdas Yisrael, Ner Mitzvah 89, cited in Tzitz Eliezer, ibid. 7) quotes the Semag as taking this approach as well.

3. They were not converts. The Maharal, in his commentary on Avos (cited approvingly in the Tosefos Yom Tov, states unequivocally that Shemayah and Avtalyon were not converts because otherwise they could not have served as the Nasi and Av Beis Din. There are no exceptions to this rule. All the talmudic evidence, according to the Maharal, only points to this pair being descended from converts but not necessarily converts themselves.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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