On Conversion and Concealment

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One point emerging from the Pew Survey about which all commentators agree is that hundreds of thousands of Jews are increasingly entering a personal status which renders them or their children questionably Jewish according to even the broadest interpretation of halacha. This tragedy of immense proportions places enormous responsibility for outreach on rabbis and all Jews. It also places a burden of honesty on rabbis that will only increase in urgency over the years.

As a rabbi who occasionally sponsors a conversion to Judaism — averaging maybe one conversion a year through a thirty-year Orthodox rabbinic career — I am intellectually fascinated, yet emotionally wracked, by how many of those who seek my assistance already have undergone previous conversions. In many such cases, someone previously has undergone a Reform conversion, thereafter a Conservative conversion, and now an Orthodox conversion. The first question I am asked during such a pastoral setting invariably is: “Rabbi Fischer, why didn’t Rabbi [Surname] tell me at the outset that the conversion (s)he conducted would not be accepted by so many other Jews? Shouldn’t they have warned me in advance so that I could have made a more informed decision whether to convert that way?”

Today, more than ever, it is so important that prospective converts consider whether their grandchildren someday may want to be recognized in Israel, or even in America, as Jewish

For informed Jews, such a plaint might seem tepid, evading the converting party’s own responsibility in having chosen a poor conversion path. He should have known better. How could she have expected the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize that conversion?” However, fairness dictates greater sensitivity in appreciating how these problems of failed conversion unfold. How many Jews know that there are at least three different denominations of Lutherans? Very few, i am certain. Then how can a fair-minded observer expect a non-Jew who lives far outside any landed, established Jewish community to know that the Reform temple that she passes daily when driving to work or the Conservative temple or the Orthodox shul is but one form of organized Judaic expression? If she lives distant from a significant Jewish community, and she has only one temple in her town, why should she know more about Judaic expressions than we know about Lutheran sub-denominations? Yet, when she chooses to convert to Judaism, such a person enters that local house of worship and meets that rabbi whose temple she drives by daily, often thinking that she is about to become a Jew, for once and for all.

All too often, a few years later, she is back seeking a new conversion. And then, a few years later, sometimes yet again. Even Orthodox conversions range a gamut. Not all are of the same repute, and I have been asked to see people through “re-conversions” arising from those, too.

Today, more than ever, when undergoing Orthodox conversion outside Israel, it is so important that prospective converts consider whether their grandchildren someday may want to be recognized in Israel, or even in America, as Jewish — long after the grandparents have passed away and after the converting rabbis have passed from the scene. If the conversion is not done under auspices in America that have established firm relationships with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and that are based on established procedures that will command widespread trust and respect among American Orthodox rabbinic authorities, then the long-term viability of those conversions is imperiled. That is what it is, and that arises in no small part from a social reality where, as the recently released Pew study of American Jewry documents, more than half of all American Jews intermarry. Often such an intermarriage is followed by a conversion that clearly falls short of any objective yardstick of traditional accepted Jewish conversion. This phenomenon of our century — the massive influx of thousands of questionably converted people — mandates on a responsible Orthodoxy that it more carefully monitor and gauge the legitimacy of every new person who comes into the community without Jewish lineage.

Rabbis should be expected to advise prospective converts, in writing, to consider carefully whether that rabbi’s status and that of his or her associated bet din enjoy the kind of widespread approbation that will provide reasonable assurance of a convert’s acceptance as authentic, for now and for future generations, here and in Israel

We live in a time when some Conservative rabbis sometimes cannot accept conversions by Reform rabbis who have failed to implement such Jewish-conversion basics as mikvah immersion and male circumcision. There are Conservative rabbis, too, who sometimes use a swimming pool for ritual conversion immersion instead of a mikvah, for example, prompting concerns from some of their own denominational colleagues. And there are Orthodox rabbis of many and variegated stripes, too. Some outliers have followed dubious standards and conduct conversions of doubtful authenticity and legitimacy. Some of these flawed conversions happen solely because they were conducted by an unqualified rabbi seeking a source of extra income. Some flawed conversions trace back to rabbis who act sincerely but are not studied in proper conversion practice. Some do it perfectly right, but are not known and never will be known ubiquitously in their lifetimes. Fifty years after they have passed, people outside their immediate neighborhoods, as well as most people living in the heart of their former congregational communities, will not have heard of them, will have no idea how to determine the level of competence that they had manifested half a century earlier when they had lived, and the documents bearing their names and signatures will be virtually impossible to validate. Such validation problems already exist.

When an American convert’s child, grandchild or great-grandchild goes on a Birthright-like program thirty or fifty years from now and, “turned on” to Judaism by Israel or otherwise inspired by some unexpected Jewish experience, opts to make aliyah or falls in love with an Israeli or even with an American Jew right here at home, there is a chance that their grandparents’ converting rabbis will have passed from the scene by then. All that will speak for the conversion that happened once-upon-a-time in America will be documents: perhaps a conversion document signed by a rabbi or bet din, perhaps a graduation certificate from a Jewish day school, perhaps a burial in a temple’s cemetery section. If the rabbi or his bet din never was famous or established, nor known to nor accepted by the Israel Chief Rabbinate in the rabbi’s lifetime, or was reputed to be on the very liberal side of the Orthodox aisle during his lifetime or affiliated with rabbinical institutions on the very liberal side of that aisle, it may well be assumed today that his signed attestations will have reduced value during his lifetime, even further reduced profoundly after his lifetime, when he no longer can agitate personally for acceptance of his conversion cases.

Through the experience of three decades’ rabbinic practice, I have come to believe that it borders on socially tortious, and definitely could be civilly actionable (but for the ecclesiastical exception that keeps religious matters out of America’s secular courts), for any rabbi of any denomination to conduct a conversion to Judaism without first providing the same kind of honest-and-open kind of written disclosure that we expect from medical doctors before surgery, realtors before closing, and home-maintenance technicians before they ply their respective trades. Rabbis should be expected to advise prospective converts, in writing, to consider carefully whether that rabbi’s status and that of his or her associated bet din enjoy the kind of widespread approbation that will provide reasonable assurance of a convert’s acceptance as authentic, for now and for future generations, here and in Israel. Failure to provide that kind of full disclosure and advisory may not be legal actionable because of church-state technicalities, but it definitely borders on tortious concealment, the antithesis of rabbinic ethics.

The problem is deep and real. Innocent, idealistic non-Jewish people are walking into conversions-to-Judaism every day, often completely oblivious to the perilous ramifications for their children and future generations, deriving from innocent but uninformed choices they are making now. If only there could be a mechanism in American Jewish society to institutionalize, across the denominations, a rabbinical ethical imperative to provide full disclosure to prospective converts in advance. But how to devise and implement that mechanism?

About Dov Fischer

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an adjunct professor of law and former Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and has practiced and consulted on complex business litigation and professional malpractice law for nearly twenty years. He also is a columnist for several online magazines, a member of the National executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

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