Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

While the government considers it a national task, the state of conversion in Israel continues to deteriorate. Official data indicate a 12% drop in the number of conversions to Judaism in Israel in 2009. Just 986 out of 300,000 people with no religious affiliation have converted to Judaism in the last year. The drop in the Israeli Defense Forces stands at 4% compared with 2008. The reason for this drop is because of the feeling shared by many potential converts who fear that the Haredi  rabbis in Israel may invalidate their conversions for whatever the reason they conjure. Therefore, the state itself – no longer considers them or their descendants to be Jewish.

What are the practical implications of such a scenario unfolding? All denominations of Judaism–from the Reform to the Modern Orthodox–suffer from the Haredi approach Halacha that violates both the letter and the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch. In an earlier blog, I have already demonstrated why revocations of conversion has never existed until fairly recent times. In a country where all personal status issues – from birth through marriage, divorce, and death – are all controlled by Haredi rabbis, this means children who suddenly will not be able marry, spouses can’t be buried next to one another. Unfortunately, this type of policy making establishes a cast system where converts have a second class status. We have not seen this type of marginalization of an entire group of people since the  Spanish Inquisition period, where the Marranos were singled out for stigmatization by their fellow Jews.

Why is there so much distrust toward the “Jew by Choice” in the ultra-Orthodox world?

I often wonder whether  Haredi or Hassidic Orthodoxy suffers from a psychological illness that I call, “The Groucho Marx Syndrome.” The story goes that once Groucho Marx wanted to join a certain country club. Much to his surprise, they refused to give him membership.  You see, the club had a policy: No Jews allowed. In one of the more spirited exchanges, Marx wrote:

‘I have received your reply, and I think I understand.   It seems that I cannot join your country club because I am Jewish.   Now, my wife is not Jewish, so I expect that she could join.   Where I am confused is about my son, whom I guess you would consider half-Jewish.  Does this mean that he could join, but only go swimming up to his waist?’

Several years later, when Groucho Marx resigned from Hollywood’s Friar Club with the following quip:   “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Continue reading “Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome””

Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?

If parallel worlds exist, I wonder what would the world be like if Judaism became one of the world’s largest religions? The question for some people may seem kind of funny. Can you imagine donating money to the government so that they could print the pictures of your parents or grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah on the national currency? But on a serious note, ask yourselves this question: Why didn’t Judaism attract the same following that Christianity and Islam later achieved?

Interesting question, no?

Historically,  there was a time when Judaism during the days of Late Antiquity went out of its way to welcome non-Jews to Judaism. A sizable portion of the Roman Empire had Jewish citizenry. The Jews of Alexandria specifically translated the Tanakh into Greek to help attract new converts to the faith. Jewish thought made philosophers like Philo of Alexandria and Aristobulus popular scholars the Graeco-Roman world enjoyed reading.

Yes, the Alexandrian Jewish community envisioned Judaism as a universal faith–a view that most the rabbis did not share because of their hatred of Hellenistic culture.  Jewish efforts to proselytize gentiles was so successful that the Roman Senate decided to expel the Jews in the year 139 B.C.E. and later in the year 19 C.E., according to Josephus (Josephus, Ant. 18.81–84). Incidentally, the NT indicates that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time engaged in outreach efforts to bring in new proselytes, thus we read, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15).

With respect to our original question: Why didn’t Judaism evolve into a much larger faith? In a nutshell, it had much to do with war, attrition, and internecine politics between the Early Roman Church and the synagogue. Basically, once Christianity became the state religion, proselytization became a forbidden activity for Jews to engage in. By many estimates, the Romans killed over 1.1 million Jews as a result of the failed Jewish rebellions against Rome.[1] Exponentially, one million people could over a millennium result in hundreds of millions of people given enough time. Add to this another 97,00o that were taken captive by the Romans. Continue reading “Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?”

Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha

There is a tendency among most Jews to think that Halacha by definition must always lean toward conservatism. However, the historical facts do not support this hypothesis.

Modern Halacha examines an interesting question: Should we go out of our way to attract potential conversions?  There are serious circumstances where we should openly encourage conversion whenever possible– specifically when we have an intermarried couple. There is every valid Halachic reason to go out of our way to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and their offspring to Judaism. We have already examined Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s attitude and he certainly was not alone (see the previous thread for examples). Another great rabbinic scholar reflecting this liberal approach comes from Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who later became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Of Israel.

In 1943, the following case came before him requiring an important Halachic decision. The Chief Rabbi of Istanbul once wrote to Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who was at that time the Rav of Rishon LeTzion. The Chief Rabbi asked Rav Uziel whether conversion for the sake of marriage is valid. Rav Uziel opened his Responsa with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268: 12) which states we must examine a potential convert to see whether his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Obviously, it would be wonderful that the potential convert for purely sincere reasons and certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Rav Uziel then goes on to state how intermarriages are common in the civil courts, and that we ought to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the Jewish partner from the problem of intermarriage. We should also do so that their children should not be lost to the Jewish fold.

But what do we do when the situation is less than ideal?

If we are faced with de facto case of mixed marriage, we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children whenever possible. If this is true when the couple is already married, it is certainly true before they have begun their forbidden marriage! Such a conversion could prevent future transgressions and religious difficulties. Continue reading “Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha”

Using Compassion in Determining Halacha: An Early 20th Century Example

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman was a most unusual rabbi for his time. His attitudes toward a perspective convert was pretty liberal–especially when compared to the positions taken by numerous Modern Orthodox and Haredi rabbis living today. It is unfortunate the past generations of rabbinic scholarship expressed far more imagination and creativity than the newer generations of rabbinic leaders we have today.

R. Hoffman was born in Verbo, Hungary in 1843, and he died in Berlin in 1921. His great erudition encompassed all branches of Torah knowledge: Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Halacha. He was the type of quintessential scholar who could critically discuss various theories concerning biblical criticism and the history of rabbinic thought while still remaining a loyal and devoted son to his sacred tradition. Rav Hoffman also served as rector of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, he educated generations of rabbis and communal leaders. His collection of responsa, Melammed Le- Ho’il, deals with a wide range of modern problems.

In this specific case, Rabbi Hoffman deals with a Jewish woman who marries a gentile man and later discovers she is pregnant by him. It is unclear whether the woman’s family exerted pressure on the gentile husband to convert; or alternatively, he chose to do so for the sake of his wife. Rather than sending the couple away, Rabbi Hoffman found a way to welcome the woman’s husband to the Jewish fold. He explains:

“The Code of Jewish Law states, ‘We refuse any convert who comes to be converted because he desires a certain Jewish woman.[1] However, the school of Tosfot disputes this opinion in BT Yevamot 24b based on the well-known rabbinic story concerning the Gentile who appeared before Hillel and wished to convert so that he might become a High Priest. Obviously, the man had ulterior motives for converting. Nevertheless, Hillel still converted him. Another Talmudic story relates how a certain woman who came before Rabbi Hiyya and wanted to convert to Judaism so that she could marry a young Talmud scholar (BT Menachot 44a).

In both cases, Hillel and Rabbi Hiyya felt confident that these candidates would eventually become sincere in their motivation. [2] From this principle, rabbinic tradition teaches that the court has the right to make special waivers when it sees fit to do so. Ergo, it is permitted to accept him as a convert. Continue reading “Using Compassion in Determining Halacha: An Early 20th Century Example”

We’ll Be Watching You–Big Brother and the Haredi Rabbis

“The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.”

Allan Bloom – The Closing of the American Mind

As I have mentioned in previous articles I have posted, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe raised the issue of “Who is a Jew?” and made it one of the most explosive issues affecting Israeli politics. The spillover effect galvanized the Haredi world, who have created new walls separating Jews of all denominations from one another. In the past, it was only Conservative and Reform converts who were rejected by the Haredi Israeli rabbinate–but this has all changed. Now Orthodox converts are affected.

In today’s Israeli news, Rav Nachum Eisenstein, a leading Haredi leader in Israel, is challenging the Israeli courts who insist on recognizing the Orthodox conversions of candidates who have already gone through the process in Israel, while under Orthodox auspices. The Haredi leadership in Israel insists upon a total separation between the Haredi rabbis and the State of Israel. Eisenstein went so far as to say that the majority of converts today—including those converting through the IDF—are not ‘converts’ in accordance with Halacha, and many do not accept living a lifestyle of kiyum Torah and mitzvos, invalidating the process.”

Of course, this position is totally outlandish and reflects the civil war that is taking place between the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox communities. In some respects, it is difficult to feel sorry for the Modern Orthodox, who repeatedly supported the Haredi and the Habad communities’ attempt to isolate and delegitimize the Conservative and Reform converts. Now that their ox is being gored, suddenly the Modern Orthodox are yelling, “Gevalt! (Unfair!), how can they do this to our converts?”

By supporting draconian policies championed by some of the most retrograde forces of contemporary Judaism, they are now experiencing the same kind of rejection “Jews by Choice” have experienced for decades. I would add that when a Chabad institute or a Haredi yeshiva solicit  Reform, Conservative–and now Modern Orthodox–“Jews by Choice,” no person with a conscience ought to give a nickle to underwrite these institutions’ exclusionary positions regarding, “Who is a Jew?” Money talks, so make your money talk by just saying, “No!” to Judaic discrimination.

Let us examine the substance of the Haredi concern. What if an Orthodox  “Jew by choice” chooses to not follow Orthodoxy down the road, does Jewish law give any rabbi the right to retroactively revert such a person to his former non-Jewish status? Of course not! Such behavior has never been historically done–even during the most oppressive periods of Jewish history.

What exactly does Jewish law say about a convert who abandons his observance of Jewish law? Consider the Shulchan Aruch:

סעיף יב שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות גרים סימן רסח

כג כו] כשיבא הגר להתגייר, בודקים אחריו שמא בגלל ממון שיטול או בשביל שררה שיזכה לה או מפני הפחד בא ליכנס לדת. כז] ואם איש הוא, בודקין אחריו שמא עיניו נתן באשה יהודית. ואם אשה היא, בודקין אחריה שמא עיניה נתנה בבחורי ישראל, ואם לא נמצאת להם עילה מודיעים להם כובד עול התורה וטורח שיש בעשייתה על עמי הארצות, כדי שיפרשו. אם קיבלו ולא פירשו, וראו אותם שחזרו מאהבה, מקבלים אותם. ואם לא בדקו אחריו, (ט) או שלא הודיעוהו שכר המצות ועונשן, ומל וטבל בפני ג’ הדיוטות, ה”ז גר אפי’ נודע שבשביל דבר הוא מתגייר, הואיל ומל וטבל יצא מכלל העובדי כוכבים, וחוששים לו עד שתתברר צדקתו; כח] ואפילו <טז> חזר ועבד עבודת כוכבים, הרי הוא כט] כישראל מומר שקדושיו קדושין. כד (ישראל מומר שעשה תשובה, א”צ לטבול; ל] רק מדרבנן (י) יש לו לטבול לא] ולקבל עליו דברי חבירות בפני ג’) (נ”י פ’ החולץ).

Shulchan Aruch Y.D. Hilchot Gerim 268:12

When a candidate comes to convert, we investigate the matter, for perhaps his motivation is because of pecuniary gain, or he wishes to attain respect within the community, or because he is motivated by fear. If the candidate is male, we investigate whether he might be interested in marrying a Jewish woman; the same applies if it is a female candidate, for perhaps she is converting because she is interested in a Jewish man.

If the court determines that s/he is sincere, the court informs the candidate the weightiness of the yoke of Torah, and the difficulties that are involved in its practice among the peoples of the lands. This is done in order to give the candidate the opportunity to change his (or her) mind and walk away. If, after this disclaimer has been given, he still accepts the precepts and refuses to separate, and the court sees that he  is responding out of love—we accept him wholeheartedly.

In the event the court did not investigate the candidate’s motivation, or alternatively, and they neglected to inform him about  the full gravity of his decision to embrace the faith, and the convert underwent ritual circumcision and immersed himself in the mikveh, in front of three commoners—this candidate is still considered as a full-fledged Jew, even if it is known he had an ulterior motive in wanting to convert.

Once that candidate already underwent  ritual circumcision and immersion, he permanently  loses his gentile status; however, we remain cautious of him [ the person who converted without disclosing his true intent to the court] until his integrity becomes evident. Should such a person revert to paganism, Jewish law still regards him as an Israelite in every respect; even as an “apostate Jew,” his act of betrothal is legitimate [However, even in the case where the convert to a pagan faith, he still has to undergo a ritual immersion–as a rabbinic precaution–Rema] and accept the precepts in front of three commoners. Continue reading “We’ll Be Watching You–Big Brother and the Haredi Rabbis”

Maimonides’ famous Responsa on “Converting for the sake of marriage”

Maimonides once wrote in his Responsa about a certain Jewish man who was living with a non-Jewish maid-servant. The man was suspected of having a sexual liaison with this woman.  The Beit Din found out about this–what was the man to do? Remove the woman from his house?

In response to this question, the Rambam stated that technically according to the law, the woman should be forced out–period. After it learned of his wrongdoings, the beit din was required to exert all its power to have the Jewish master free her and then marry her. However, the Talmud tells us that if a Jewish man has an immoral affair with a gentile woman, he must free her and not marry her (Yevamot 24b).   Maimonides  arrives at a different conclusion from the Talmud and judged in such cases that the man should free her and marry the maid.

What is the reason given by Maimonides?

“Such a position,” maintained Maimonides, “is Halachicly warranted since it is necessary to make things easier for repentents  (Takanat HaShavim).” Maimonides then cites the verse: “It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken.” (Psa 119:126). In other words, there are times when it is necessary to relax the halacha for the greater good of the Jewish people. The Rambam concludes “May the Lord forgive us of our sins.”

Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary

The British conversion crisis in Britain illustrates why a separation between Church and State is vital for everybody involved. The job of being a Chief Rabbi is not without its politics and intrigue.

Yet, in the everyday politics of the job, even the Chief Rabbi occasionally yields to the intransigent forces that define the Haredi community of Great Britain.

It was the year 2005; two women, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, apply to get their children enrolled in the prestigious Jewish Free School of London. Rabbi Sack’s Haredi beth din, however, refuses to admit the children.

Political rivalry between Israel and Britain goes back a long way; back in the 1970’s, even the Chief Rabbi himself, Rabbi Shlomo Goren discovered that his conversions were not recognized by the London Beth Din. In rabbinical terms, this amounted to a public humiliation to the Israeli Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks realizes that he cannot succeed in his job without placating this radical element in his community—even if he must violate the very liberal principles regarding pluralism that he has endorsed in his books.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbi buckled under the pressure. He refused to certify either woman as Jewish. As the issue is examined, we discover that there are certain “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. Jewish law requires that a kohen not marry a convert. However, if such a marriage occurs, the marriage remains intact, but at a loss of the kohen’s personal status in the community, e.g., he would not be able to receive a special honor being called first to the Torah when it is read.

To enforce its standards, the Jewish Free School initiated a litmus test to test the religious attitudes of its students—standards that are not really required by the Halacha itself—as the rabbis attempt to micromanage the families involved. For example: each family had to have a mezuzah on their door; students and families had to attend at least four services a year at the synagogue. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance. Continue reading “Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary”

Augustine and the “Mark of Cain”

What is the significance of the “mark of Cain” (Gen. 4:15)?

The text does not identify exactly what the sign was. Historically, this passage has often served as a scriptural support for Christian persecution of the Jews. For Cain, this was a mark of God’s special loving care and protection. For Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine, this idea proved to be a fertile concept for his comparison of Cain to the Jews. Curiously, Augustine, said nothing about this mark serving as a protective device; instead, he (and his contemporary, Jerome) subverted what was originally an act of grace and mercy into a fiendish excuse to treat the Jews with cruelty. In his “Reply to Flaustus the Manichean,”Augustine employed one of the most anti-Semitic tirades in his allegorical interpretation of Cain and Abel. Augustine wrote:

—Abel, the younger brother was killed by the elder; so too Jesus, head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people—the Jews.

—Just as Abel’s blood cursed Cain, so too does  the blood of Jesus accuses the Jews.

—As Cain was cursed from by the earth, so too unbelieving Jews are cursed from the Holy Church.

—As Cain was punished to be a mourner and an abject on the earth, so too are the Jews.
In one lurid passage Augustine wrote:

Then God says to Cain: “Thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. For thou shalt till the earth, and it shall no longer yield unto thee its strength. A mourner and an abject wanderer shalt thou be on the earth.” It is not, “Cursed is the earth,” but, “Cursed art thou from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. So the unbelieving people of the Jews is cursed from the earth, that is, from the Church, which in the confession of sins has opened its mouth to receive the blood shed for the remission of sins by the hand of the people that would not be under grace, but under the law. And this murderer is cursed by the Church; that is, the Church admits and avows the curse pronounced by the apostle: ‘Whoever are of the works of the law are under the curse of the law.’ Then, after saying, Cursed art thou from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s  blood at thy hand, what follows is not, For thou shalt till it, but, Thou shalt till the earth, and it shall not yield to thee its strength. . .”

Continue reading “Augustine and the “Mark of Cain””

The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges

As mentioned earlier the levirate marriage takes place between a widow who’s husband died childless and his brother (known as the levir); halitzah (“removal”) is a ceremony that releases the woman from the obligation of Levirate marriage, allowing her to marry someone else.

Although Levirate marriage itself no longer is practiced, traditional Jews still require halitzah, formally releasing the widow from the biblically required union with her brother-in-law. The widow appears before a tribunal of five people–three of whom happen to be rabbis. After some initial questioning as to what the widow and levir intend to do, the court gives instructions that each must carry out.

Each participant must pronounce in certain phrases in Hebrew; the woman also is instructed to fast until the ceremony. The next day, a special shoe is removed from the levir’s foot. The woman approaches him and proclaims in Hebrew, “My husband’s brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me,” to which he replies, “I do not want to take her.” The widow then removes the shoe from his foot, tosses it away, and spits on the floor in front of him, saying, “So shall it be done unto the man that does not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his shoe loosened.” All present respond three times in unison, “he that had his shoe loosened.” Concluding prayers are read by the judges, and often a certificate that the widow is free to remarry is drawn up.

Even as late as the medieval era, rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, ruled that nowadays, no woman would ever consent to marrying her brother-in-law, and the practice of halitzah was no longer necessary. However, in the State of Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (known as Haredim [= “Tremblers”], a.k.a.  “Jewish Quakers”) refuse scores of women from remarrying without undergoing the traditional biblical ceremony—despite the humiliation this causes both the woman and her family.

In Israel, a most perplexing problem occurred that revealed the awkwardness of the halitzah ceremony as a viable religious practice. An elderly lady—about 60—wanted to register her marriage with the rabbinate after being widowed for four years and divorced from her second marriage. A clerk in the office observed that she never obtained halitzah from the brother of her first husband. Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that she had to obtain permission from her former brother-in-law.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading “The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges”

Book Review: Why Are Jews So Liberal?

Why Are Jews Liberals?

By Norman Podhoretz

Doubleday, 337 pages, $27

Some of you may be surprised to know that shortly before Rosh Hashanah, President Obama made a conference call with more than 1000 rabbis, encouraging them to speak about the health-care reform in their sermons this year. Because of my belief in the separation of Church and State issues, I will respectfully decline. I enjoy writing my own sermons and do not require political assistance from Washington to help craft my holiday message.

The social critic and essayist Norman Podhoretz believes that the appeal to the rabbinic community may be due to the Jewish people’s penchant toward liberal causes, or what he refers to as, “the Torah of liberalism.”

In his most recent and thought provoking book, “Why Are Jews Liberal?”, Podhoretz examines why Jews have been in love with the political left. Podhoretz, you see, was originally a leftist before he moved more toward the right.

The Jewish love affair with the left can be seen in most American elections. With the exception of Jimmy Carter (which was no great surprise given his anti-Jewish and Israel attitude), the Democratic Party has received an amazing 75% of the Jewish vote. Obviously, one reason why the Jews lean toward the left has a lot to do with the fact that Jews have traditionally seen themselves as underdogs in American culture. Our memories of the past still linger with us . . .

Some of our members will certainly remember when Jews were excluded from many of the country’s finest academic schools, or were limited in terms how they could climb up the corporate ladder.  The experience of being socially marginalized has obviously contributed toward the mindset that liberal politics best serves the needs of all of Americans who feel socially or economically earthbound.

There is sadly, a dark side to this kind of devotion. For example, the commitment to the liberal establishment has often supplanted the commitment to Jewish causes and the synagogue. Jews seem to be opting for what  the  sociologist Robert Bellah describes, as an “American social religion.” Statistics seem to support Podhoretz’s premise as well. In the United States, Jews are the least religious group in America—just 16% of Jews attend services at least monthly, and 42% of Jews attend once or not at all. Continue reading “Book Review: Why Are Jews So Liberal?”