In previous columns, I related how the slander about the conversions in Vienna was spread. The slander had many parts: that the people responsible for the conversions were either ignorant of Torah or Reform, the conversions were done without studying, the number of converts was six times greater than what it was in practice, and it was done without understanding the language, the converts were persuaded to sign a paper and immerse in the mikveh. All this was of course a lie.
Admittedly, the Beit Din in Vienna was not established in an orderly manner by the Chief Rabbinate. The initiative was taken by the rabbis in the Aliyah Department in the Jewish Agency, so that non-Jews would not immigrate to Israel, and assimilate into the public as Jews. The initiative was led by Rabbi Mordechai Kirschblum, one of the leaders of the Jewish Agency, who also made sure that the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Unterman ztz”l, was aware of it.
The Gaon, Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, who worked at the Agency, accompanied and guided Rabbi Alter Steinmetz, who operated the Beit Din. As written in his memoirs with Rabbi Greenfeld, the Rabbi of the Agudat Yisrael community in Vienna, it was agreed that he would be the halakhic authority, and in all matters, would be consulted beforehand. It was agreed that the Av Beit Din (head of the conversion court) would be the official rabbi of Vienna, Rabbi Dr. Eisenberg. Indeed, Rabbi Greenfeld in practice accompanied Rabbi Alter in every matter, as Rabbi Alter prayed with him regularly every day.
Towards the Meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council
The activities of the Beit Din in Vienna had the support of the leaders of the Mafdal, especially the Minister of Religions, Zerach Warhaftig. It was clear to them that the Chief Rabbinate Council would approve the conversions, since they were done appropriately. And when the slanders against them began to be published, Rabbi Unterman ordered them, on two different occasions, to ignore the criticisms against the conversions.
In general, Rabbi Unterman’s position was that it was preferable to convert the non-Jewish spouses before immigrating to Israel, as he repeatedly told the members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, because after immigrating to Israel they would be “very busy with their affairs, will not have time to be converted, and in the end, will not want to convert”, “they will acclimate to social life in Israel, and will not want to convert.” On the other hand, while waiting to make aliyah they wish to convert, have free time, and consequently, will learn the basics of Judaism well, and convert out of identification.
The Growing Slander and Pressure on Rabbi Unterman
Following the publications of slander in the media against the “fake conversions” in Vienna, and dozens of rabbis and rebbes signing the declaration against them, Rabbi Greenfeld no longer agreed to publicly support the Beit Din. Without his support, Rabbi Alter Steinmetz was left alone, and thus, the allegations against him grew stronger.
In addition to this, prior to the meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council, the activists who were engaged in slandering the Vienna conversions went to the homes of all the members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, and incited them. They inserted and hinted that Rabbi Unterman was liable to fold before the religious and secular politicians.
At the same time, they put a lot of pressure on Rabbi Unterman: they stirred up agitation of students in his kollel against him, organized petitions and protests by rabbis and avrachim (young, married Torah students) in yeshivas against the Rabbinate which was about to surrender to the members of the Jewish Agency, and organized delegations of rabbis who contacted him almost every day to pressure him.
From the letters of the activists of the “Committee for the Integrity of the People” it appears they were debating how to pressure him —whether “with violence and shouting” or through “educated people, and quietly”, since Rabbi Kolitz told them “that Unterman is not influenced by religious people. Only educated people, and the like, can influence him”. They acted vigorously in both ways. For example, they reported to the Rebbi of Lubavitch that they had gone to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach “and asked him to intervene and influence matters. He said that he did not have the necessary time, but later it turned out that he had visited Rabbi Unterman, together with Rabbi Eliashiv and another avrech named Stern, and they told Rabbi Unterman that if the Rabbinate certified the Vienna conversions, they would issue a ban on the conversions”.
The only one who repelled the slanderers was Rabbi Goren, who was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv at the time. When they came to him, he asked them if they had served in the army, and they answered they had an exemption as yeshiva students whose “Torah is their profession”. When he took out a pen to write down their names to check if they were allowed to be absent from the yeshiva, they ran away.
The Decision to Send a Delegation to Investigate
Following the pressures and threats placed on Rabbi Unterman who was then about eighty-five years old, he responded to the demand to forbid public representatives from speaking before the Rabbinical Council. Thus, it turned out that despite the pleas of the Minister of Religions Warhaftig to appear before the Chief Rabbinate Council and tell them the truth about the Vienna conversions, he was not invited. Rabbi Kirschblum, who repeatedly asked to appear, was also refused a hearing.
After two tense discussions, the decision was made to send rabbis to inspect the Vienna conversions. The rabbis chosen were Rabbi Kolitz and Rabbi Werner, both Avot Beit Din in Tel Aviv. What tipped the scales was the joining of Zionist rabbis in the Chief Rabbinate Council, such as Rabbi Yisraeli, to the position of the activists against the Vienna conversions.
When it was decided they would send envoys to Vienna, the religious activists of the Jewish Agency were still certain that since they had conducted matters appropriately, for the sake of Heaven and according to halackha, the delegation would clear their name. Rabbi Kirschblum wrote to Rabbi Alter Steinmetz that the rabbis are “trusted people, and will certainly do what is right and good”.
Meanwhile, the Haredi world was disturbed and angry about the “scandal” of the Vienna conversions, and even Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Yisraeli and Rabbi Neriah demanded a thorough investigation. Thus, Rabbi Kolitz and Rabbi Werner left for Vienna from a hostile position. They treated all those involved in the conversions as suspicious, and inquired about Rabbi Dr. Eisenberg, the official Rabbi of Vienna who served as the Av Beit Din of the conversion court, whether he publically profaned Shabbat. He was a modern Orthodox rabbi, and the mere raising of such a suspicion against him indicated a clear bias on the part of the investigating rabbis.
They first asked all of them if they regretted what they had done, given that the Gedolei Yisrael (eminent rabbis of Israel) had come out against them. When Rabbi Alter said that he had been ordained to the rabbinate, they were sure that he was deceiving them. When they met Rabbi Bruner, the headmaster of Agudat Yisrael’s school who was ordained to the rabbinate and participated as a member of the Beit Din, they wrote that his ordination was not authentic, but rather, given for the purpose of obtaining the position of a teacher. Concerning Rabbi Stein, who also participated in the conversions, they wrote he was a merely a teacher and were unable to meet him, even though he lived in Israel at the time, and they could easily have met him and proved he had indeed received rabbinical ordination. In addition to this, they demanded particulars from the Beit Din in Vienna which it was not customary to request elsewhere, such as that the members of the Beit Din who accepted the converts should also have been present at the immersion in the mikveh and they should not have relied on three faithful Jews, and based on this, they cast doubt on the conversions.
It should be noted that the rabbis felt they were fulfilling a mitzvah as emissaries of the Gedolei Yisrael. They said on behalf of Rabbi Werner that “he sees his action in Vienna as one of the greatest privileges in his life, which he would bring with him to the Heavenly Court.”
The Decision of the Chief Rabbinate Council
The rabbis returned to Israel and testified before the Chief Rabbinate Council that there were serious problems with the Vienna conversions. Rabbi Werner said that the court in Vienna is an “asheira (tree for idolatry) at the altar.” Rabbi Goren got angry at him, and asked: If this is an asheira, how is it possible that Rabbi Greenfeld accompanied them, and answered their questions? After all, he should have thrown them out of the synagogue! Rabbi Goren continued, and claimed: According to halakha, even a Beit Din of laymen is kosher for conversion! Therefore, the discussion should be ended, and the conversions approved. Rabbi Chaim David Halevi also agreed with his opinion. Apparently, there was a majority for this, and Rabbi Unterman asked for a decision to approve the Vienna conversions. However, Rabbi Goldschmidt, one of the leaders of the opponents, said he was not well versed with the issue, and asked to postpone the decision to the next meeting (Minutes of the meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council, 26th of Shevat 1971).
In the meantime, pressures on the rabbis, members of the Rabbinate Council, intensified. Rabbi Goldschmidt arrived at the next meeting with a resolution formulated in coordination with the activists, that each and every conversion would be examined individually, and so it was decided. Rabbi Goren boycotted the meeting in protest for them not having acted appropriately by immediately approving all the Vienna conversions.
The Beit Din in Vienna was closed, and with it, the possibility of connecting the aliyah activists to the inquiries into Judaism and the conversion courts. Since then, hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish “Law of Return” beneficiaries immigrated to Israel. Had the policy of the Beit Din in Vienna continued, many of them would have converted before immigrating to Israel, and those who would not have connected with Judaism would have remained in exile. For the government, headed by Golda Meir, very much desired aliyah to be coordinated with the Rabbinate, in such a way that they would have converted almost everyone, and rejected those who were not interested in Jewish identity.
In addition to this, ever since the slander against the conversions, many rabbis began to fear stating their position. Until the year 1969, the majority of the rabbis who had written their view, tended to the lenient opinion. However, since then, in a gradual process, their voice has been silenced.
Rabbi Unterman, who saw reality more clearly than the other rabbis and understood how useful it was for conversion courts to be abroad as part of the Aliyah system, withdrew due to the heavy pressures placed on him, and was unable to advance the Beit Din in Vienna.
In my estimation, following this affair the representatives of the religious community came to the conclusion that Rabbi Unterman, having already reached the age of eighty-five, warranted being replaced in the following elections. Two years later, Rabbi Goren was elected in his place.
About ten years later, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, who led the campaign against the Vienna conversions, was at the center of a difficult controversy. Lithuanian rabbis who were partners with him in the fight against the Vienna conversions, denounced him and the Chabad Hassidim in a terrible and harsh way. As a result, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who worked with great devotion for Jews and Judaism all over the world, and desired with all his heart to bring peace, unity and redemption to Israel, suffered from one of the most difficult controversies, and who knows what loss this caused to the people of Israel.
According to Rabbi Alter Steinmetz’s testimony, two years later he met with Rabbi Yisraeli for two hours, and Rabbi Yisraeli justified himself in acting on the information he had, and was even incensed that those responsible for the Vienna conversions remained silent, and did not respond to the allegations against them. He also said: “Chief Rabbi Goren also told me at the time that we had seriously transgressed for not responding to the ruling and ‘having been silent, the assumption is [that it is correct]…”
The article was written with the help of Rabbi Dr. Boaz Huttrer and Rabbi Tzuriel Halamish.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.