We all know tragic stories of non-Jews who thought they had converted to Judaism, only to learn later that their “conversions” were not consonant with the standard they expected. People who go to a Conservative temple and learn that the Conservative rabbi does not recognize the Reform conversion that was done a year earlier — perhaps without even a non-halakhic circumcision or “water immersion” — sometimes are shocked that their conversion met few standards. People who go to an Orthodox shul and learn, to their surprise, that their Conservative conversion failed halakhic standards — whether because they immersed in a swimming pool and not in a mikveh, or in a mikveh that was not kosher, or converted under standards that did not include a sincere commitment to live a lifelong observance of Torah laws — can be so disappointed, feeling that they were cheated.
The problem extends even to “Orthodox conversions” that fail to meet bona fide standards that are held by the mainstream normative Orthodox community in America. In the past three years alone, I personally encountered three situations of people who thought they had undergone proper Orthodox conversions but, in fact, had not. Therefore, I could not count such men in a minyan nor allow them a Torah aliyah. I could not perform a wedding for someone who simply was not Jewish despite her tragically inadequate and sub-standard “Orthodox conversion.”
Notice, by the way, that none of this problem has anything to do with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate or even Israel. This is a profoundly American problem: Twenty-First Century American Judaism 101. Thus, it is a falsehood and defamation against the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to assert that they are being unfair when, in fact, the kinds of “Orthodox conversions” and “Orthodox rabbis” they do not instantly recognize are similarly not accepted without further exploration by the mainstream normative Orthodox rabbinate of America.
An “Orthodox rabbi” who does not abide by Mesorah (accepted halakhic tradition) is no Orthodox rabbi. That is not only the position of the haredi Agudath Israel but also of the Centrist/Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America
We would not seek out such a “convert” to sell him or her our chametz (food forbidden to be owned by a Jew on Passover), but we also would not drink wine from an open bottle that person had touched. We would not count such a “converted” man in a minyan, even if there were only nine other men in the room, and the shul rabbi needed to say Kaddish for his father’s or mother’s Yahrzeit. We would deem the children later born to such a “converted” woman as non-Jewish. No hesitation.
We do not regulate religion in America, but that does not make Jewish conversion easier. It actually makes it worse. It is, for lack of a better word, a mess. We spend the day not knowing who in this country is Jewish and who is not. There are prominent politicians who are thought to be Jewish, but are not. Olympic athletes. The whole thing is a mess. It even invades the most sacred Jewish institution in America: baseball. The good news: Ty Kelly, formerly of the Mets, is Jewish (via the intermarried Mom). But the mad dash among Jews to declare and sing that Hall of Fame great Rod Carew is Jewish . . . well, his kids are, but not he. It is a mess.
I sponsor an average of maybe a conversion or two a year. I can go three, four years without sponsoring any conversion, and then a year can see as many as three conversions come my way. I never take a penny for my time or role in a conversion, and I sponsor all prospective conversions through the Rabbinical Council of California bet din (conversion court), the regional conversion court of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). In my career, I would estimate that at least half the twenty or so conversions I have sponsored have been for people who already had gone through one, two, or even three prior “conversions.” They come to me, as others come to others among my RCA colleagues. Did I say mess?
They come with their tales of woe. “Rabbi, I was non-Jewish, living in a place where there are no Jews. Every day, while driving on the freeway (highway) to work, I would pass this building with a big Star of David. When I decided, after much soul-searching, that I wanted to become Jewish, I went to that building and met with that rabbi. She (or he) explained to me all about Judaism, and I began a six-month intensive conversion program. Finally, the happiest day of my life came: I was declared a Jew by my rabbi."
“A year or two later, a friend at the Reform temple invited me to a bat mitzvah at a friend’s temple in another neighborhood, half an hour’s drive away. I drove to that temple that Shabbat morning, and I loved it. In that temple, they prayed in Hebrew, or mostly Hebrew. I had thought from my home-base Reform temple that Jewish prayers are mostly in English nowadays, just as my Catholic church had moved from Latin to English. And the rabbi’s sermon had a different flavor to it. Instead of it being about the latest liberal political cause, the rabbi quoted something from some prophet or something. I spoke to the rabbi after the services, and she (or he) told me that the temple is Conservative Judaism, not Reform, so they have different standards. I enrolled in that rabbi’s conversion program, attended faithfully for a year, worked on creating a kosher-style kitchen, limited my non-kosher eating to only outside my home, drove to temple every Shabbat for classes and prayers, and I was converted a year later.
“Rabbi, you never will believe this, but a year or two later someone else invited me to another bar mitzvah at another place, this one an hour’s drive away, in The City. And this was like a whole new Judaism, all over again. Everything was in Hebrew. They read the entire Torah portion of the week, not just a third of it. I was told that women pray on one side of the aisle, men on the other, with a physical partition running up the middle. The rabbi’s sermon was all about the portion of the Torah they had just read, and he was talking about commentators and what they had said about it. On the one hand, that rabbi also was advocating kindness, caring for the underprivileged, being sensitive — but there was something different in the way he did it. It did not feel political. It did not feel that he was taking those positions because they seemed the politically correct positions to take. Instead, it seemed that he was telling everyone to behave that way because those were exactly the words of that week’s Torah portion.
“You probably are guessing what happened next, Rabbi, and you are right. I spoke to him after temple, and I told him about my two conversions, and he explained — very nicely, actually, that I still was not Jewish. He explained why, and I was not at all offended. It turns out that I have to be kosher all the time, have to observe two days of the holidays, not just one. I told him that, well, I may as well give up another year of my life and convert the right way. But he said something I did not expect. He said, first of all, that an Orthodox conversion probably would take closer to two years than one year. And he said, secondly, that he could not be the sponsor of the conversion because a real conversion includes having to live by the Torah laws, so I would not be able to drive on the Shabbat to his temple. I would have to find a temple closer to my home, within walking distance. And that’s you.”
This is what goes on in America. The whole conversion situation in America is a complete, total mess. We have "converted Jews" running around, calling themselves Jewish, and they simply are not. They then have kids whom they eventually bar and bat mitzvah — but the kids are not Jewish. Way-more than half of all non-Orthodox Jews in America marry non-Jews: 71% of all non-Orthodox Jews in America marry a non-Jew. That is a documented fact, documented many times over. It is not an opinion. To quote a meme that apparently was coined by Ben Shapiro: Facts don’t care about your feelings.
My thirty-year experience and that of my colleagues is that the overwhelming majority of those intermarriages are Jewish males and non-Jewish females. Under Jewish law, the child of a non-Jewish female is non-Jewish. That is a fact. Again, facts don’t care about your feelings. That means that the Jewish male who has intermarried has permanently terminated his family’s Judaic line. His branch has fallen off the tree forever. That reality still bothers many non-Orthodox Jewish parents who, despite never having observed anything Judaic and having shown up in shul only once a year on Yom Kippur (and perhaps for a Yahrzeit or a non-kosher Hannukah party), still demand that their kid marry a Jew or be cut out of the will. And lots of those parents have oodles of good stuff in their wills.
The chaos has led Reform temples to do conversions on the most lax of standards, whatever it takes to keep the fellow in the will and keep the moneyed family in the temple. No sooner had the temples reduced their conversion standards even lower than imaginable, when a new era arrived and non-Jewish women started insisting honestly that they just do not want to convert to Judaism. So Reform changed their rules further and declared that, as long as the father is Jewish and says he is rearing the kid Jewish, Presto! The kid is Jewish. And that way the non-Jewish kid can enroll for thousands of dollars in the bar/bat mitzvah Hebrew School program, subject first to the parents paying thousands of dollars more for the annual temple membership prerequisite to enrolling the kid.
It is a mess. The whole thing is a mess. And now that this has gone on for a generation, it is even more of a mess.
Add to all that the emergence this past decade of a new class of “Orthodox rabbis” whom mainstream normative American Orthodox rabbis do not deem to be Orthodox rabbis without quotation marks. And yet these “Orthodox rabbis” present themselves to the public as “Orthodox rabbis,” and some even boast that they fly all over the United Statyes, even all over South America, doing “Orthodox conversions.”
Oy! If the Torah tells us not to oppress the outsider, not to oppress the prospective convert, can there be a more tragic oppression than that? Has anyone ever sold you something — a service, a product, a promise — only for you to learn later that you paid for something that was not what you thought? A Rolexx watch — yes, with two x’s on the watch face? A used car that was not in the condition you were told? A cosmetic surgeon who promised results that never were going to be possible? A product that sounded and looked pretty good, but then broke down a month later and could not be repaired. A for-profit school that gave you a professional degree that no one in the industry or profession honors?
In America, we protect the public before they undergo medical care and procedures by requiring, as a matter of law, that the physician give the prospective patient “full disclosure.” Sometimes that “full disclosure” of what theoretically might go wrong can be scary, even “over the top” ridiculous. But the patient, who already knows all the prospective benefits of the procedure, then has the opportunity to grasp and balance against those possible benefits the possible risks of anesthesia, an invasive procedure, the recovery time, posible side effects.
And so it goes in almost every walk of professional life in America. I teach my law students that they, as prospective attorneys, must expect to provide their future clients with full disclosure: the possible financial costs of the representation and potential litigation, the prospects of winning versus losing, how many years the lawsuit could end up running. Similarly, pharmaceutical companies provide full disclosure and warnings when they advertise their medicines. Home mortgage lenders offer full disclosure that their interest rates are subject to change, and they are required by law to disclose the real final full payment the borrower will have repaid after all the years of principal-plus-interest payments have accrued — so much more than the original face value of the loan.
It is time for the Jewish public to demand that rabbis who perform or sponsor conversions do as I do when I sponsor a conversion: A rabbi should be required to provide a prospective convert a full written disclosure that sets forth who may be expected to recognize that conversion’s validity, who may be expected to question it, and who may be expected to reject it outright. It should be in writing so that the prospective convert will have easier doumentary evidence later if she needs to sue for fraud in the event of intentional deceit or otherwise for negligent misrepresntation and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Certainly, almost everyone who converts with a Reform rabbi will not mind if the Orthodox rabbi down the block does not recognize that conversion. There is a reason the person has opted for the quicker, less-demanding conversion. They do not want to be kosher, and they want to drive on Shabbat, on Yom Kippur, whenever, wherever. But they deserve to know, formally in writing, all the same. And the Conservative convert knows the story, too. If the Conservative rabbi drives on Shabbat and eats in non-kosher restaurants, while the Orthodox rabbi teaches and practices otherwise, the Conservative convert knows the clear demarcation for which she is opting. And yet that Conservative convert deserves full written disclosure.
And so with an Orthodox conversion. Will normative mainstream Orthodox rabbis recognize the conversion? Will they refuse to conduct the convert’s marriage to a Jew? Will they count that “Orthodox convert” in a minyan, call him to the Torah, drink from an open bottle of wine she passes to them? Even for an Orthodox conversion, there should be full written diclosure so that the “Orthodox rabbi” can known that he (or she — yes, it is a mess) is not oppressing the convert.
And what if a rabbi, when asked for a signed and dated full written disclosure, refuses to give one?
Well, guess what? In that case — and there may be thousands — the convert has just received a full disclosure.