Conservative Annulments

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Over the past few years we have witnessed a disturbing questioning of the validity of long-standing conversions to Judaism. This is a very sensitive topic because many converts — nearly every single one I’ve ever met — are extremely devoted to their adopted religion, having overcome great obstacles to adopt the faith they love and fully accept. Any implicit questioning of their sincerity is a terrible sin. Yet there are exceptions, people who convert insincerely. While I have objected to the overly broad application of annulments, I firmly believe that there is a place for retroactive annulment of conversions in specific, highly limited circumstances. Indeed, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik even invalidated a conversion himself (see below from Iggeros Ha-Grid Ha-Levi, p. 107 and here: link).

I would like here to briefly discuss the issue from the perspective of Conservative interpretations of halakhah, not because I believe they merit a place within traditional halakhic deliberation but because I see value in recognizing that even non-Orthodox scholars of Jewish law, who are often much more inclined to leniency, accept the concept of retroactive annulment of conversions in certain circumstances. (Note to avoid confusion: All rabbis quoted below are Conservative)

In a 1982 responsum on Reform conversions (link – PDF), R. David Novak argued that if the conversion deliberately omitted immersion in a mikvah, it is invalid because it demonstrates a failure to accept the rules of Jewish law. “This does not mean that the convert is expected to observe every aspect of Jewish law — clearly an impossible demand, intellectually, morally and religiously. Rather, it means that conversion must involve an unconditional acceptance of the valid authority of Jewish law and an initial rejection of none of its specifics… I find no cogent basis in halakhah for accepting, even ex post facto, converts who did not undergo specific tevilah for the sake of conversion, unless it can be shown that they are strictly observant Jews, particularly scrupulous in the use of a mikvah.” (pp. 7-8 of PDF) R. Novak recognizes the possibility of retroactively annulling a conversion due to failure to accept the commandments. While he allows for non-observance (and strangely claims that it is unreasonable to expect a convert to be fully observant), he does not accept, even ex post facto, a conversion where the prospective convert implicitly rejects even a single Torah law.

In a 1984 responsum on whether rabbis are obligated to inquire about the Jewish status of a bride and groom before performing a wedding, R. Joel Roth assumes that some conversions are invalid (link – PDF). “As regrettable as the fact may be, it is virtually undeniable that a presumption of a halakhically valid conversion without proof or verification thereof is radically weakened today by our reality. Therefore, an investigation of its kashrut is not only desirable, but necessary even if we had no prior knowledge of the gentile status of the convert.” (p. 3 of PDF) And further, “because the negative consequences of the marriage of a Jew to one improperly converted are very great, we too should insist on proof or verification of a valid conversion before permitting the marriage — me’alah asu beyuhasin.” (p. 4)

In a 1989 responsum, R. Steven Saltzman responded to a case of two Arabs who converted to Judaism under false pretenses in order to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return (link – PDF). I’m not sure what they gained from it but they immediately moved to an Arab village where they could not practice Judaism. R. Saltzman argues that religiously improper behavior subsequent to conversion is insufficient to annul it. However, “[w]here it can be clearly demonstrated that the proselyte acted dishonestly, withholding information vital to [the converting court’s] ability to make a coherent decision [on the convert’s sincerity], then the conversion may be considered null and void.” (p. 9 of PDF) In a concurring 1989 responsum, R. Avram Reisner examines the core texts regarding annulments and presumptions of validity of conversions (link – PDF). While he limits the cases where annulment is possible, he allows for it where “the converts appear to have perpretrated a fraud with no intention whatsoever to function as Jews…” (p. 4 of PDF)

More recently, R. Wayne Allen addressed this issue in his Further Perspectives on Jewish Law (pp. 259-267) and offered a view I find puzzling. He begins a discussion of retroactive nullification of conversion by exploring the requirements to serve on a rabbinical court for conversion. Quoting scholars such as the Maharam Schick, Maharatz Chajes, R. Maurice Lamm and R. Marc Angel, he objects to the idea that a judge for conversion must have specific beliefs. Rather, he accepts anyone who is knowledgeable in the laws of conversion, even if he is not a rabbi.

However, he adds two further qualifications: the person must not be otherwise barred from serving as a judge, and a non-observant rabbi, who knows the laws but fails to fulfill them, is also invalid as a judge for conversion (“[s]uch people are disqualified from serving on any Bet Din”, p. 267). The first qualification seems to me to bar anyone with heretical beliefs and the second would bar most non-Orthodox rabbis. Which means that R. Allen effectively agrees with those who retroactively annul (most) non-Orthodox conversions. But that is beside the point.

What if one of the conversion judges fails to meet R. Allen’s criteria? “[S]o long as the judges who serve on a rabbinical court for conversion are well-trained in those laws and knowledgeable of them, and so long as they are not otherwise legally barred from acting as judges, the conversions performed by them are valid.” (p. 66) In other words, if any of the judges is legally barred from serving on the court for conversion then the conversion is retroactively invalid despite the fact that the prospective convert immersed and was circumcised. R. Allen agrees with the concept of retroactive nullification of conversions if a judge is invalid but disagrees with overly broad invalidations.

None of the above Conservative scholars believe in willy-nilly nullifying conversions, wreaking havoc on people’s lives. Nor do they believe that sincere converts should live their lives in constant fear of losing their status in the community they have overturned their lives to join. That notwithstanding, they accept that some conversions are completely invalid and effectively null and void.

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 and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance 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.

58 comments

  1. Thanks! Interesting article.

    On a different but related topic, reportedly Rav Soloveitchik approved of the Lieberman clause (which Conservative ketubot use to prevent the aguna problem), and only later was it deemed unacceptable by the Orthodox community. Isn’t there a way that something like a Lieberman clause can be put into Orthodox ketubot to prevent agunot? We live in a society now where we can’t beat people up for refusing to give a get, so why not change the language and get around the problem if at all possible?

  2. R’ Gil: “However, he adds two further qualifications: the person must not be otherwise barred from serving as a judge, and a non-observant rabbi, who knows the laws but fails to fulfill them, is also invalid as a judge for conversion (“[s]uch people are disqualified from serving on any Bet Din”, p. 267). The first qualification seems to me to bar anyone with heretical beliefs and the second would bar most non-Orthodox rabbis.”

    What you say surely applies to most non-Orthodox rabbis, but not all. Can we forget that R’ Saul Lieberman and Louis Ginzburg were personally observant? Regardless of what most Conservative rabbis condone from their congregants, we must always remember that many of them are still shomrei Torah u-mitzvot b’lev v’nefesh.

  3. What a lousy article. Every conversion in the cases discussed above was clearly void at the time it occurred.* Accusing these rabbis of being in favor of retroactive annulment of conversions would be the equivalent of accusing a rabbi who voided a wedding because the witnesses were brothers of supporting hakafat kiddushin in the sense of Rackman.

    * Lack of tevillah or kosher beis din would be me’akev according to the gemara and no one would claim that the conversion of someone who committed outright fraud and showed no interest in joining any sort of Jewish community was ever valid.

  4. And I thought this was going to be an article on Marriage annulments.

    Can you give more details on the extent and limits of when Rav Solivitchik would allow conversion annulments?

  5. In the Rav’s case, there was no hatafas dam bris. Everyone agrees something was lacking. As this issue arises today, the problem is in the kabalas mitzvos: according to some shitos, their kabalas mitzvos was enough, but according to others, their level of observance is such that some feel they did not accept some mitzvos. It is a very grey area.

  6. Shachar Ha'amim

    I agree with the comments above. This post is terribly misleading.
    The cases discussed involve situations where readily recognizable and objective criteria for a conversion to be valid just simply weren’t there at the outset.

  7. I wonder who is the authority to decide that conversions are invalid. It seems to me there is no final authority. R’ Soloveitchik or someone in the Rabbanut might declare that your conversion was invalid, but you could go to another rabbi who might declare otherwise. The final result would be a machloket over whether you are Jewish or not. Not a socially desirable situation, but a legally possible one. I don’t think the case is comparable to a financial matter which is decided by a constituted beit din.

  8. The first person quoted in the above article, Rabbi/Dr. David Novak, is my father in law. He received smicha from R. Shaul Lieberman, and a PhD in Philosphy at Georgetown. Age served as a pulpit rabbi in a number of shul’s, including an orthodox one in Baltimore. He has written 13 books(and counting), and currently is holds an endowed chair at the University of Toronto in Philosophy. He left tr Conservative movement with Prof. Halivni and helped found the Union for Traditional Judaism(given their experiences, they do not affiliate with any movement, but they are well within the contours of Orthodoxy, except perhaps as defined by the blog host). He has been through Shas(bavli and yerushalmi) I think seven times, and I can honestly say has learned and knows more than 99.9 percent of rabbonim. He is also personally scrupulous with his shemirat ha mitzvot.

    To use him as an example of how ‘even those meikil Conservatives annul conversions’ Is absurd. I suggest that this just shows that the labels we use do not always describe reality, and perhaps we should be a bit more careful when we throw them around

  9. Dr. Stadlan: I was basing myself on Wikipedia: “He is an ordained Conservative rabbi”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Novak

    Is that incorrect?

  10. Z: Every conversion in the cases discussed above was clearly void at the time it occurred.

    One of R. Avraham Sherman’s primary arguments is that R. Chaim Druckman is invalid to serve on a conversion court.

  11. Josh: What you say surely applies to most non-Orthodox rabbis, but not all

    That is why I used the word “most” in making the statement.

  12. Lawrence Kaplan

    Dr. Stadlan: This teshuvah of your father-in-law, whom I know very well and greatly admire, was written in 1982 when he was a member of the Committee of Law and Standards of the RA and self-identified as a Conservative Rabbi, as is clear from the teshuvah itself. It was only later that he very strongly disassociated himself from the movement.

    That said, I agree with the bloggers who noted that this post is very misleading. To somehow equate the Rav’s invalidating a conversion of a circumcised person that lacked hatafat dam brit or R. Novak’s invalidating a conversion with no tevilah with today’s spate of retroactive conversions is ridiculous. This is NOT one of your better posts Gil.

  13. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: Come on. Do you really expect us to believe that R. Sherman’s claim that all the conversions performed by R. Druckman are invalid because he was, in R. Sherman’s view, improperly meikil on converson law(!) is in anyway remotely the same as the cases cited here?!

  14. Dr. Kaplan: I am surprised that you missed the entire point of the post — conversions can be annulled. Just because a beis din affirms a conversion does not mean that it cannot be later invalidated. This is a matter of debate within the Orthodox community and some interpret the Rambam as ruling that conversions cannot be nullified.

    I’m not sure why anyone would expect a defense of R. Sherman here when the first paragraph say that it is not a defense.

  15. “— conversions can be annulled.” In only three very specific instances. Misleading to say otherwise.

  16. avi: Did you see the description of the 1989 responsum and R. Wayne Allen’s chapter? Misrepresentation and invalid judge.

    And did you see the first paragraph of this post: “I firmly believe that there is a place for retroactive annulment of conversions in specific, highly limited circumstances”

  17. Not that I think this post will have any real world impact, but because this issue is so politicized now and because it results in real difficulties, if not oppression, for gerim – wouldn’t it be better to remain silent rather than go on record supporting the concept of retroactive annulment? How do you think any gerim reading this post will feel?

  18. Prof. Kaplan, thanks for the comments. Of course the teshuvah was written when he was affiliated with Conservative movement, and yes R. Gil, his smicha certificate is from JTS. The point I am making is that he and his teshuvot are not emblematic of the conservative movement as the movement is now seen, and using him as an example of how current Conservative Judaism thinks laughable. And, by the way, in the conversations we have has regarding the issues in Israel, he thinks that what R. Sherman did was totally wrong(I think his words were much stronger). So to use his position to indirectly support R. Sherman is not appropriate.

  19. Dr. Stadlan,

    With reference to your father-in-law’s smicha from R. Leiberman… I’m curious, it was old lore, that R. Leiberman gave personal smicha with his name affixed (in the “Orthodox” sense) to only a handful of graduates of JTS rather than the typical JTS ordination which all of its graduates received. He was only willing to “guarantee” the smicha of those few. When you refer to smicha from R. Lieberman, was it that type of smicha?

  20. S: wouldn’t it be better to remain silent rather than go on record supporting the concept of retroactive annulment

    No, I think those who are objecting to any annulment of conversions are distorting the Torah and we should use this as a teaching moment. I tried to write this with sensitivity to the feelings of converts. I believe that sincere converts — the vast majority of converts whom I have met — recognize that some people convert insincerely and should have their conversions annullued.

    Dr. Stadlan: My only point was to answer in advance those who will ask why I even bothered to consider what Conservative (or Traditional, for that matter) rabbis have to say on the matter. And my point was that even they recognize the issue. I don’t really care, in this context, whether they are representative of the current Conservative movement.

  21. “I believe that sincere converts — the vast majority of converts whom I have met — recognize that some people convert insincerely and should have their conversions annullued.”

    This may be, but my impression is that converts are exceedingly worried – perhaps the vast majority – about the situation today and cannot see how it cannot happen to them and what that would do to their children, etc. As far as I can tell many converts feel that there is now a perpetual sword hanging over their head.

  22. See the first and last paragraphs of this post.

  23. I read it already. What I was saying is that despite that a post like this probably would do nothing to allay these fears. If you can’t do posts mainly about how annulling conversions is wrong, then my suggestion was not to do one. Of course I can’t speak for geirim, but my impression is that a post like this would not be helpful if the goal is to have gerim feel truly welcomed and supported. I don’t want to belabor the point since I certainly don’t think you had any ill intent or anything like that. But that’s my view.

  24. I have not had the time to read the post in sufficient detail, but the broader controversy as referred in the comments is not about how different Rabbinic authorities view an individual conversion, per se; it is the impact of this in Israel where dina d’malchuta on certain life-impacting issues related to “Who is a Jew” has been delegated to a set of Rabbis with an agenda that is out of line with normative Religious Zionism.

    As R. Sacks articulates (in the linked News & Links article):

    He also warned against mixing religion and state.

    “Religion cannot handle power and there has to be a division … It can only work through society, and that means working through individuals and communities,” he said.

    “Religion loves power and it should always be denied power.”

  25. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbi Student: Of course, conversions can be annulled in very specific limited circmstances, where there is a flaw in the procedure (no tevillah) or very clear evidence of fraud at the time of the conversion. Did anyone say differently? That is not the issue today. While I appreciate your first and last paragraphs they does not counterbalance the weight of your post.

  26. Dr. Kaplan: Don’t overlook R. Wayne Allen’s position that an invalid judge nullifies the conversion or R. David Novak’s view that a lack of tevilah is problematic not because of a procedural flaw but because it demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the commandments.

  27. Gil: Dr. Kaplan: Don’t overlook R. Wayne Allen’s position that an invalid judge nullifies the conversion or R. David Novak’s view that a lack of tevilah is problematic not because of a procedural flaw but because it demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the commandments.

    You’ve seriously misrepresented Rabbi Novak’s teshuva. The core argument is that lack of tevillah is meakev based on the gemara. He is willing to be lenient in the case of people who were scrupulous in mikvah because he relies on the rishonim who consider any tevillah done for religious purposes* to be sufficient for giyur. The distinction between those who are scrupulous in mikvah and those who aren’t is that the latter can never be assumed to have undergone any such tevillah, not because the latter don’t accept the commandments. The paragraph which you are latching on to is not the central thesis of the article and does not affect the analysis in any way.

    You should really be embarrassed to put your name on such a lazy analysis.

    * As opposed to a swim in the ocean.

  28. gil – “recognize that some people convert insincerely and should have their conversions annulled.”

    this is contrary to your post or so it appears to be. this statement in the comment section implies (or could imply) active looking into conversion – as oppose to the safek that its good. contrary to your post statement ” I firmly believe that there is a place for retroactive annulment of conversions in specific, highly limited circumstances.” – which would indicate that in only rare circumstances should this be done. which one is the real gil (of course you can say both and teich it out)

    is it a policy to go after and recheck all conversions – to find those insincere (which seems to be your implied point when you say they should be annulled) or is like memzeirut – we try to annul weddings because one of the eidim may not be a kosher witness so there is no memzeirut. or do you want to purify the jewish people of insincere conversions? or should the safek be all orthodox conversions are ok unless proven otherwise.

  29. MiMedinat HaYam

    out of curiousity, what led the RA to investigate / issue this “tshuva”? was there a pending issue / controversy?

    having said that, i like the last paragraph (postscript) — only look into a conversion if there is legitimate reason, not rumors, not third generation issues.

    (nevertheless, for our ( = O) purposes, a C or R conversion no matter how far back disqualifies.)

    2. “nearly every single one I’ve ever met — are extremely devoted to their adopted religion, having overcome great obstacles to adopt the faith they love and fully accept”

    i take issue with that stmt. i’ve seen numerous pblms with converts. perhaps cause i dont live in insular brooklyn anymore. one (quasi charedi) rabbi says if the girl wouldnt live out of walking range of shul, her parents wouldnt drive her. another friend pays his (charedi) rav $750 for conversion and chuppa ve’kiddushin –now that he’s a BT, he realizes his daughter is not really jewish, let alone his ex wife. another friend marries a convert who keeps kosher and shabat at home( to make him happy), but not on her frequent extended visits to her out of state family, etc. and is afraid of her job regarding yom tov, early fridays.

    3. “we must always remember that many of them are still shomrei Torah u-mitzvot b’lev v’nefesh”

    didnt r gil post a while back a survey that vast majority of C rabbis do NOT believe in Torah MiSinai?

  30. Moshe Shoshan

    Gil,
    The very comparison of contemporary cases with those treated by conservative rabbis (the Rav case is totally irrelevant to the post). R Sherman treats conversions under taken by talmidei chachmim and yirei shamayim as if they were done by conservative rabbis. Of course a Conservative conversion has no chezkas kashrus, and no one knows that better that these conservative scholars. But an Orthodox conversion is supposed to be accepted with out question by other batei din.

  31. MiMedinat HaYam

    “But an Orthodox conversion is supposed to be accepted with out question by other batei din.”

    we dont exactly accept orthodox kashrut hashgachot, either. even if the brother in law is the gadol hador, with numerous she’alot in his sh”ut.

    but interestingly, we will accept their gitten. (i dont mean that one; which we accept)

  32. Ye’yasher kochakham R. Student and respondents.

    Once upon a time, any three talmidei chakhamim could conduct a conversion (following the procedure outlined in Shulchan Arukh), and it would be universally accepted, as R’ Moshe Shoshan indicated. However, a change appears to have evolved in recent years, as reflected in a recent lecture by R. Mordechai Willig at http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/766510/Rabbi_Mordechai_I_Willig/Geirus_Controversy_ Namely, R. Willig introduces the idea of a preference/necessity (-not clear from his lecture which it is) for geographic centralization of conversion. Namely, R. Willig speaks of a concept of a recognized Beth Din of conversion for every geographic region in order to guarantee sincerity of acceptance of shemirat mitzvot. [It is not clear to me from R. Willig’s lecture whether this is only a lekat’chilah preference or even a bedi’avad issue.]

    Although R. Willig does not fully explain why today we need geographic centralization of batei din for conversion, perhaps we can suggest that since we live in a post-Cold War era, when the Jewish People enjoys the greatest freedom and prosperity ever before in modern history, there is more need than ever before to ensure that convert accepts shemirat mitzvot. [After all, “we do not accept converts in the days of the messiah”, as per the gemara in Yevamot 24b, and the post-Cold War era is closer to messiah than any previous period in Jewish history. Some synagogues (mine included) even recite a prayer calling the State of Israel “resheet tzemichat ge’ulateinu”. If so, it is understandable why conversion should be more difficult today than ever before, since the eschatological era is already at our doorstep…] I find it remarkable that, in a lecture delivered in 1988, just as the Cold War was ending, R. J. David Bleich announced (or at least seemed to announce) that he does not accept candidates for conversion altogether. See http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/733609/Rabbi_Dr_J_David_Bleich/Tikun_Olam:_A_Jew's_Responsiblity_to_Society , relevant excerpt at 6:55-9:00 into the recording. Could it be that R. Bleich was reacting to the end of the Cold War? Tzarikh iyun…

  33. Lawrence Kaplan

    Z. In fairness to Gil, R. Novak at one point in his Teshuvah does say that absence of tevillah in the conversion process is evidence a lack of kabalat ol mitzvot. I fail to see why this point was necessary, and, as you say, it is not his main point, but it is there.

  34. ruvie: this statement in the comment section implies (or could imply) active looking into conversion

    What do you consider the 1989 responsum about the two Arabs? I implied nothing more than that.

    Moshe Shoshan: R Sherman treats conversions under taken by talmidei chachmim and yirei shamayim as if they were done by conservative rabbis

    Then you disagree with him on facts but not on theory. Is that correct?

    Z: I resent your accusation of lazy reading. You clearly missed the paragraph at the end of p.7 of the PDF. But at least you agree with my reading of R. Wayne Allen’s essay.

  35. Valid conversions cannot be annulled according to the Rambam. A conversion is valid if it fulfills a couple of general criteria. The retroactive annulment of conversions is just a power grab and is an improper ADDITION to the Torah.

  36. gil – don’t know the responsum well enough to to know what you are referring to. i assume you do not advocate re corroboration of conversions as a general klal and only looking into cases when there is a major reason and then reluctantly (like meimzerut). unless you believe in a more active approach. i am just trying to clarify what you meant since the post and the comment can be read differently. you really didn’t answer the question of where you stand. everyone would agree that a conversion can be annulled on technicalities. that is not the issue here.

  37. To elaborate on my previous post: I think the most charedi rabbis would agree that it is impossible to “annul” a conversion. All one can do is point out the fact that it was never valid in the first place. And others can dispute whether that “fact” is indeed the case.

    The implication being that any rabbi who nullifies conversions on grounds you disagree with can simply be ignored, except for practical issues like will you have to fly to Cyprus to perform your marriage. I get the feeling that most people assume otherwise.

  38. ruvie: I’m not suggesting that converts should be routinely subjected to inspection, especially those who remain observant. But, as R. Joel Roth pointed out in his responsum quoted in this post, when a rabbi conducts a marriage he has to make sure the couple is Jewish. And in R. Avram Reisner’s case, the flaw in the conversion became evident to the converting rabbi, who then asked the question.

    David S: Valid conversions cannot be annulled according to the Rambam. A conversion is valid if it fulfills a couple of general criteria

    I believe that everyone agrees with this, and indeed that is the point of this post. The question is what constitutes those general criteria.

  39. “I believe that everyone agrees with this, and indeed that is the point of this post. The question is what constitutes those general criteria.”

    I’m not really sure that is the question, though. The question is as Ruvie posed it: Do we assume that conversions are valid, (Orthodox at least, though you might possibly be able to presume on certain Conservative ones as well), and not go poking around unless there’s a very good reason to do so? And by good reason, I mean to prevent something like mamzerut, or perhaps, in certain circumstances, to remove the issue of agun/agunah. Or does every rabbi have to do a thorough investigation of every person he marries? For that matter, at what point do we demand that such poking stop: if the person’s mother was a convert, or maternal grandmother was a convert, do we examine that? Or, if the ger has been part of the observant community, do we presume that the conversion was valid and stop prying? Or does this have to get examined every generation until there are no direct descendants on the female line?

    The criteria to annul conversion may be important, but if the decision is that we only closely examine things under specific circumstances, then it’s irrelevant in most cases.

  40. Gil: Z: I resent your accusation of lazy reading. You clearly missed the paragraph at the end of p.7 of the PDF.

    Z. The paragraph which you are latching on to is not the central thesis of the article and does not affect the analysis in any way.

    Did you bother reading my comment? I saw the paragraph and accused you of misrepresenting it, making it seem as though lack of kabbalat hamitzvot was the deciding factor in the article, rather than the technical lack of tevillah. Like Lawrence Kaplan, I’m can’t figure out why the paragraph was included, but quite clearly the rest of the article is predicated on the fact that the conversion is considered void based on the gemera’s technical requirement of tevillah, not on kaballat hamitzvot.*

    But at least you agree with my reading of R. Wayne Allen’s essay.

    Except that I don’t believe he is saying anything interesting. The lack of beis din is meakev going back to the gemara, so a conversion where the dayanim that were heretics would be void in the same way that a kiddushin where the eidim were heretics would be. We would hardly refer to the latter case as retroactive annulment of kiddushin and it would be unfair to do so in the former case as well.

    Incidentally, the case for true retroactive annulment is much stronger in the case where non-rabbis are serving on the beis din based on the Rambam’s discussion of conversions performed by hedyodot in the era of Dovid Hamelech.

    * The analysis in the article would remain the same if the convert immersed in a pasul mikva, a case where the kaballat hamitzvot argument wouldn’t be present.

  41. I saw the paragraph and accused you of misrepresenting it, making it seem as though lack of kabbalat hamitzvot was the deciding factor in the article, rather than the technical lack of tevillah.

    I leave it to others to read the paragraph at the bottom of p. 7 and decide for themselves whether it implies that lack of acceptance of commandments is sufficient to nullify a conversion. I believe that it does.

  42. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbi Spira: R. Bleich in the section of the lecture you refer to was discussing primarily the seven Noachide comnmandments. His comment about not accepting converts was made in passing. I wouldn’t build too much on it. Also, while he delivered the lectrue in 1988, he was refering to a long standing practice of his.

  43. Thanks, Jewish Ideas. Yes, a strange article. Surely everyone can agree that a conversion done under false pretences, or without a conversion ritual, can be invalidated. But why slide right from that to the composition of the beit din? The author’s only comment is “I find this puzzling.” What is the author’s position?

  44. I am grateful to Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan for his kind insightful response to my query.

    See also Contemporary Halakhic Problems III (KTAV Publishing, 1989), p. 250, where R. Bleich seems to write that every single machaloket ha-poskim in every single area of Halakhah will automatically create a nafka minah for conversion (-although, as is my wont, I may be misinterpreting R. Bleich). R. Bleich writes as follows (in the particular context of whether a Jew must eat meat on Yom Tov):

    “Another matter that is directly contingent upon the resolution of this question is addressed by R. Moshe ha-Levi Steinberg, Hukkat ha-Ger, Kuntres ha-Teshuvot, no. 1. The question concerns the conversion of a proselyte who is a vegetarian and hence will not assume the obligation of eating meat on Yom Tov. If such consumption of meat is an absolute obligation, the conversion is invalid. This conclusion follows from the principle formulated in Bekhorot 30b and the Mekhilta, Parshat Kedoshim 19:34, which provides that the candidate’s failure to accept any provision of Jewish law invalidates a conversion. [21] If, on the other hand, the eating of meat on Yom Tov is not a normative requirement, the conversion is entirely valid.”

    Footnote 21 (indicated above) reads as follows:

    “Even were such conversions valid, assistance in such a conversion may yet involve a transgression of lifnei iver. R. Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, Minhat Shlomoh no. 35, sec. 3, questions the validity of conversions in which it is known that the proselyte does not intend to observe the commandments of the Torah, and adds that were such conversions to be regarded as valid, “all who assist” in such procedures would be guilty of “placing a stumbling block before the blind” since, were the proselyte not to have become a Jew, such actions would be entirely permissible.”

    I note the contradictory implications of R. Bleich’s main text (which takes a stringent approach to the validity of a conversion) and the footnote (which is more flexible in accepting the validity of a conversion). I also note that the footnote is not exactly accurate in capturing R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s message. From what I can discern at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=15096&st=&pgnum=247
    R. Auerbach actually thinks the conversion is invalid. He raises the argument of “lifnei iver” only according (to what he regards as the mistaken) belief of those conducting conversions where acceptance of shemirat mitzvot is not complete. Yet, it is interesting that R. Auerbach was very nuanced in this responsum; he could have written it much more clearly to say “unless the convert is 100% mitzvah observant, the conversion is void”. I can therefore understand why R. Bleich wrote the footnote the way he wrote it.]

    If my interpretation of R. Bleich is correct, this might be another reason why conversion should become more difficult as years progress, for disputes among poskim increase with time. E.g. there is currently a machaloket ha-poskim whether NYC tap water is kosher. No such dispute existed 10 years ago. Ergo, according to R. Bleich (as interpreted by Shalom Spira), there is now a dispute whether any convert in NYC who fails to filter his water is a bonafide convert.

    Cf. the shiurim of R. Moshe David Tendler on the laws of gerut (at http://www.yutorah.org ), where R. Tendler says it is sufficient for a convert to accept the mitzvot in principle. Thus a machaloket ha-poskim here and a machaloket ha-poskim there (such as whether one must eat meat on Yom Tov or whether one must filter NYC water) would presumably not hinder the validity of a conversion, according to R. Tendler. R. Tendler compares conversion to joining the military; as long as one accepts – in principle – to obey the instructions of the Commander in Chief (Melekh Malkhei Ha-Melakim, HKB”H), this is considered acceptance of shemirat mitzvot.

  45. Lawrence Kaplan

    R. Spira: I don’t understand R. Bleich’s view. The vegetarian would be convert is not refusing to fulfill a precept of Jewish law. He is relying on the poskim who say it NOT a requirement of Jewish law. R. Bleich’s view, as you correctly (if implicitly)indicate, leads to absurdities. What of a convert who carries on Shabat relying on Eruvin that in the view of some poskim are invalid? Ein le-davar sof.

  46. R. Spira
    There is a great difference between a view that it is desirable to centralize gerut ( as you cite r willig) – with therefore telling rabbanim who listen to you not to perform gerut – and treating gerim who underwent gerut kosher by shulchan Aruch as goyim…

    Gil – this discussion is not occurring in a vacuum. No one, has ever argued that a conversion that doesn’t meet technical criteria clearly articulated in shulchan Aruch (eg hatafat hadam) is valid. The question is that a conversion by a bet din of people who are generally accepted, and which denies that there is a problem with the conversion, is today being “annulled” – and comparing the two cases is intellectually dishonest

  47. I thank Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan and R’ Meir Shinnar for their kind and illuminating responses.

    Regarding the Eruvin example that Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan provides, it is of interest that just last month I approached the two batei din shel giyur in my own city (Montreal, Canada) precisely on this basis. Namely, as one can see from the websites at http://www.mk.ca/geirus.html and http://www.judaismconversion.org/batei.din.html , there are two independent batei din in Montreal performing conversions, one of R. Yonatan Binyamin Weiss, shlit”a, and one of R. Michael Whitman, shlit”a, respectively. They are geographically very close to one another, separated by a mere distance of 1.8 km (according to Google Maps). Since R. Willig’s aforementioned shi’ur speaks of the importance of centralizing gerut, I approached both of these batei din with an e-mail on Jan. 2, 2012, suggesting that they might wish to conglomerate in order to meet R. Willig’s goal. I further suggested that the issue (in terms of sincerity of the convert acceptance shemirat mitzvot) separating these two batei din might be the “Westmount Eruv” supervised by R. Whitman, described at http://www.shaarhashomayim.org/Eruv/ . As one can discern from the map of the Westmount Eruv, it includes a street named Sherbrooke, which is a well-trodden thoroughfare in Montreal (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherbrooke_Street ). Until Jan. 2, 2012, the Westmount Eruv did not appear on the website maintained by R. Weiss’ beit din, so I suggested in my e-mail that perhaps R. Weiss’ beit din would be more comfortable if the Westmount Eruv were reformulated to exclude Sherbrooke Street (since perhaps R. Weiss regards Sherbrooke Street to constitute a potential reshut ha-rabim), and then the two batei din . The next day, R. Weiss’ beit din’s website was updated, and now recognized the Westmount Eruv. It remains there at http://www.mk.ca/eiruv.html . I am grateful to HKB”H that I was able to orchestrate this unification of Eruvin recognition among the righteous batei din of Montreal.

  48. Sorry… I left out the end of the third to last sentence in my last comment. It should read “and then the two batei din shel giyur can conglomerate”. Thank you.

  49. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbi Spira: Your response, once again, illustrates the truth that one person’s reductio ad absurdum is another’s ein hakhi nami. Except this is really absurd. What next? All converts in Japan will have to be hoshesh for the Hazon Ish’s shittah and avoid melakhot deoraita on Sunday, or their conversions will be invalid? Give me a break.

    Bu let me ask you the following, since you are extraordinarily knowledgeable in this matter. Is there any precedent at all for R. Bleich’s view?

  50. Lawrence Kaplan

    R.Spira: I just reread you lengthy original comment, and it seems that this the view of R. Moshe Halevi Steinberg. It still seems absurd to me.

  51. I thank Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan for his very kind words. The question he poses is a legitimate one. This may be the reason (or a contributing reason) why R. Bleich declines to perform any conversions. Further research is merited…

    Regarding the particular question of conversion in Montreal, however, I did (on Jan. 5, after the successful reconciliation regarding the Westmount Eruv) take the initiative to contact R. Michoel Zylberman, shlit”a, the co-ordinator of conversions at the Rabbinical Council of America, in order to ask him how to reconcile the reality of two batei din shel giyur in Montreal with the vision of geographically centralized conversion recently bespoken by R. Willig. The following is a transcript of the e-mail I was privileged to receive from R. Zylberman on Jan. 10:

    “On our website we have a list of 12 batei din that operate under our auspices.

    http://www.judaismconversion.org/batei.din.html

    There are many other fine batei din in the world, but we can only take responsibility for those that operate under our auspicies.

    If you have any further questions feel free to call me at 212-807-9000×3.

    All the best,

    Rabbi Zylberman”

  52. Parenthetically, leaving aside the question of whether the halakhah follows the stringent implication of R. Bleich’s remarks, there is a typographical correction that should be rendered to his text, pursuant to the gemara in Ketubot 19b that there is a mitzvah to correct a mistaken text that one discovers. R. Bleich ostensibly refers to a “Mekhilta” on Leviticus 19:34, but of course this should be corrected to “Sifra” (as Mekhilta is dedicated to Exodus). See here:
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37625&st=&pgnum=402

  53. Lawrence Kaplan

    R. Zylberman’s e-mail is a wonderful example of a non-responsive, beautifully evasive, reply.

  54. Indeed. Yet I do wish to add on behalf of R. Zylberman that he saved my life while I was studying at RIETS, and so his righteous merit is exceedingly great. [Specifically, one week during 5767 I went without food due to a lack of money. That Friday night, a sign was posted in the RIETS beit midrash inviting the public to a Shalom Zakhar hosted by R. Zylberman. Famished, I obviously went, where R. Zylberman graciously fed me, restoring my soul.] I suppose, then, what R. Zylberman is communicating in his reply is that he regards the vision of R. Willig (of geographically centralized conversion) to represent a utopian goal which is still a work in progress.

  55. “Meir Shinnar on February 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm
    R. Spira
    There is a great difference between a view that it is desirable to centralize gerut ( as you cite r willig) – with therefore telling rabbanim who listen to you not to perform gerut – and treating gerim who underwent gerut kosher by shulchan Aruch as goyim…”
    Whether or not centralization of gerut is preferable is to me an open question-I can see arguments both ways-but the issue is primarily currently of those who underwent gerus decades ago and their children and perhaps grandchildren. Less than a month ago I spoke to a Rabbi who was doing what Rabbonim sadly are doing attempting to find proof of a conversion almost 50 years ago-why the converts daughter now wants to make Aliyah-judging by first and last name certainly brought up Jewish-but Israel now won’t accept the person for Aliyah. Living as Jews in family clearly for almost 50 years-not proof enough. Nature of things Rabbis who apparently were in BD 50 years ago are all in Yeshiva shel maalah.

    “Gil – this discussion is not occurring in a vacuum. No one, has ever argued that a conversion that doesn’t meet technical criteria clearly articulated in shulchan Aruch (eg hatafat hadam) is valid. The question is that a conversion by a bet din of people who are generally accepted, and which denies that there is a problem with the conversion, is today being “annulled” – and comparing the two cases is intellectually dishonest”
    Agree-except that I am not willing to charge Gil with being intellectually dishonest-I believe his comparison is mistaken. People can be mistaken and /or wrong wo being dishonest.

  56. “that he saved my life while I was studying at RIETS, and so his righteous merit is exceedingly great. [Specifically, one week during 5767 I went without food due to a lack of money”

    No one in RIETS/YU would ensure that a starving person in danger of losing their life wouldn’t starve to death?

  57. R’ Mycroft,
    Thank you for your kind words of concern. RIETS did generously give me a monthly stipend ($300) and a free apartment while I studied in the kollel that year. At the same time, as we say in the ne’ilah liturgy “merubim tzorkhei amkha”, and as we say in the birkot keri’at Shema “ve-khulam mekablim aleihem” [which may be homiletically applied to the worthy mendicants accepting tzedakah]. So my financial management skills were not up to par during one of those months that year, and the result was zero cash flow and, hence, “va-yehi ra’av ba-aretz milvad ha-ra’av ha-rishon asher hayah bimei Avraham…” Be-chasdei HKB”H, Yishtabach Shemo, I survived.

    Back to the conversion question: From R. Willig’s lecture, it sounds like he is saying one may need to ignore conversions performed even going back 80 years [i.e. regard the individual in question as a Noahide instead of as a Jew], if shemirat mitzvot was not accepted by the convert. I hope we will hear further guidance from our poskim on this important interface of Hilkhot Bnei Noach and Hilkhot Bnei Yisrael.

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