Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sickened by the R' Shirman-R' Druckman Conversion Scandal

I am torn by the conversion mess going on in Israel. I’m split in two; I don’t like what has happened on either side. I’m sure people here in town want me to speak about it from the pulpit, but I don’t know that I could say anything coherent, I have such distaste for what has happened in both camps.


1) R’ Shirman’s screed disqualifying R’ Druckman’s conversions is one problem.

The decision itself, with its logic, doesn’t strike me as particularly compelling, certainly not as a justification of such a radical move. Disqualifying a judge because in converting people inappropriately he creates a stumbling block… there are numerous halachic objections to this logic, and to the other arguments summoned in the decision. (And who, exactly, is the שו"ת בית פלוני? I have to look that up.)

2) The language used in R' Shirman's decision is disgusting, entirely inappropriate; scandalous chillul HaShem, to call it for what it is.

3) On the other hand, I have real problems with some of the justifications for the practices of R’ Druckman’s office:

3a) First, I don’t understand the justification for signing conversion certificates when you were not at the conversion. Even if the document is purely adminisrative and not part of the ritual of גירות, why sign the paper at all? (You can find R' Druckman's justification for one case here.)

3b) Second, I can’t understand how so many thousands of גרים were processed so quickly. Did they even have time to inform the גרים of the “light and severe mitzvot,” of which they are supposed to be informed? I have heard conflicting first-hand reports (!) on this.

3c) Third, I have a problem with a system that manufactures so many Jews who do not observe mitzvot. Yes, I agree that a גר is a גר, a convert is a convert, so long as (s)he accepted the legitimacy and binding character of Torah at the term of conversion, regardless of subsequent behavior. But how do you put in place a system which will mass-produce Jews who will not practice? Even if your rate of “success” is higher than those of others, I still don’t understand it.

3d) Fourth, I don’t agree with the idea that converting people is some meta-mitzvah of strengthening the Jewish nation, even if it’s the alternative to mass-yichus confusion in Israeli society. I didn’t like this meta-mitzvah when Rabbi Angel proposed it in Choosing to be Jewish, suggesting that Orthodoxy must go seek converts lest they go to other denominations, and I don’t like it now when it is proposed as a solution for yichus confusion. In my view, each case must be handled on its own merits, in terms of the knowledge, intentions and desires of the actual person who comes to convert.

4) And then I have a fourth general issue with the debate that has gone on: Loyalty to the old boy network.

Even as many condemn the Lithuanian “old boy network” in which certain people are automatically in and certain people are automatically out, the same “old boy network,” on the other side, demanded condemnation of R’ Shirman’s decision even before people had read it, to know what it said.

R’ Druckman is a huge, huge talmid chacham and leader. Nonetheless, I still don’t understand supporting him pro forma, without even knowing the issues. If someone were to level a charge against me, I would hope that people would ask questions before automatically coming to my defense.

I suppose that if I must pick a side, I’ll go with R’ Druckman, simply because I am not impressed by the decision by R’ Shirman, and because of R’ Druckman’s stellar reputation. But I can’t sit in the same camp with the automatic supporters who rubber stamped their public proclamations without understanding the issue.


  1. This event seems to me to be like an infected boil almost ready to burst.
    I came to Israel in 2004 for conversion and ended up with 2 conversions [one Rabbinate, 1 Haredi] because of the "talk" of problems within the Rabbinate. Even though the rabbi's in the States encouraged me to convert in the States, I wouldn't have missed this journey for the world.
    Yes, it's a balagon/mess and much of the conversion process is a very subjective one. The good ol' boys network is very active but it's "how things are done." The religious world is built upon this.

    My friends and I are "holding tight" on these developments even though we don't understand a lot of the language of politics and accusations. I myself have seen only a few questionable conversions due to possible involvement as messianic missionaries. The problem with messianics is fairly high here.

    Conversion classmates who followed me went through their year of classes only to find out that when it came to getting in the mikvah they were asked by the Beit Din, prior to the mikvah, to sign a paper saying that they understood that they might not receive their papers. This was shocking behavior to me on the part of the school and the Beit Din. Most conversion schools here in Israel tell students that "they don't guarantee a conversion". O.K., so let the reason be because of student issues not because of a broken system. And please inform us "up front" if this has to be the case, not a year later and moments before dunking. The lack of these papers held up many of my friend's aliya for another year and they stuck it out financially by cleaning houses.
    It is a known fact here that the government puts many road blocks on the religious conversion process, yet opens its aliya doors to populations which will politically back them up as voters.
    I find it very important that the religious minded people come here because only a remnant remains, as far as I can see. The face of Israel is changing quickly and many cities have little respect for Shabbat observance simply because of the type of populations that are in the majority here.

    The question is: Do we want an Israel?

    As for signing one's conversion papers if they themselves aren't present or involved;I think it inappropriate and unnecessary.
    And for those mass conversion systems, maybe there should be some "hand holding"/supervision after the conversion for a 6 month period. There has been little support for the convert here who has basic questions, especially the women, who can't find a rabbi who is available to answer, speaks English [or the converts birth language], and/or a rabbi whom the convert can relate to.
    Again, I would not trade anything in the world for my experiences here. This is my fourth year here [many more to come] and miracles are seen every day. I have come to know in very practical terms that G-d uses the broken and I pray that we can see this with our very eyes in this unnerving case.

  2. Hi Devorah,

    Thanks for commenting. I'm sorry to hear confirmation of so many of the problems, but glad to hear you've stuck with it. I hope others in your situation will have a similar combination of patience and stubbornness.

  3. The big problem in Israel is that we are telling people who live and die for Israel that they are not really first class citizens. If these people stop serving the army (and I wouldnt blame them) Israel would be in trouble. This is being told to them by people who dont live and die for the country. I have no problem with the Charedi Pesak, if the Chari community would fill the ranks of those they disinfranchise.

  4. Lizette-

    Thanks for commenting, but is that really what you would prefer? That makes it sound almost like we should accept converts just to benefit by having them serve in the army.