How to convert a crisis: Say ‘dayenu’

How to convert a crisis: Say ‘dayenu’

It is tyrannical. It is bizarre. And it is time to end it.

Keeping the FaithPeople who have lived their lives as Jews for years and even decades are being told they never were Jewish because their conversions were invalid from the start.

No, this is not about Orthodox rabbis discounting the conversions of non-Orthodox rabbis. It is about Orthodox rabbis condemning, sometimes in the most vituperative language, the conversions of other Orthodox rabbis.

Making the news this week is one case that occurred back in August. The son of the late Dr. Emil Fackenheim – Holocaust survivor, Reform rabbi, noted philosopher and theologian, and author of the so-called 614th commandment, that Jews have a moral obligation to observe their faith in order to deny Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory – was told by a Jerusalem Rabbinical Court judge that he was never Jewish because his conversion was invalid.

Joseph “Yossi” Fackenheim’s mother was not Jewish at the time of his birth; she converted a short time later. The family then adopted an Orthodox lifestyle. When he was 2 years old, Yossi Fackenheim, a Shakespearean actor, was converted by an Orthodox rabbinical court in Toronto. When he was became a bar mitzvah, he accepted that conversion as binding.

Fackenheim not only thought of himself as Jewish, but when he married in Israel in 2001, the Jerusalem rabbinate thought he was, too, and gave permission for the marriage to proceed. That decision was confirmed by the Chief Rabbinate itself.

None of that, however, matters to Rabbi Yissachar Dov Hagar, a haredi judge on Jerusalem’s Rabbinical Court, who declared that Yossi was never Jewish.

“I am dumbfounded and hurt by Rabbi Hagar’s behavior,” Yossi Fackenheim told the Jerusalem Post this week. “I am a Jew and I was raised as a Jew in a Jewish home where I received Jewish values throughout my entire life.”

Clearly, they were not values Hagar cherished.

Then there is the case of Jose Portuondo-Wilson, a young Orthodox Jew from Chicago who was told in August that he cannot make aliyah because he, too, was never Jewish because the rabbis who decide such things do not recognize the authority of the bet din that converted him.

His case is even more bizarre, and not just because he lives an Orthodox lifestyle (unlike Fackenheim, who no longer does). You see, the Catholic-raised Portuondo-Wilson decided to convert after he discovered that his family are anussim – descendants of Spanish Jews who openly converted to Catholicism during the late 15th century but continued to practice their Judaism in secret. Among the evidence that led him to the discovery, in 2002, was a pair of candlesticks bearing a Magen David that was passed down the generational line to her mother.

By 2003, he was keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, putting on tefillin on weekday mornings and davening three times a day. In 2005, he joined an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago.

In 2007, after years of study and living the life of an Orthodox Jew, an Orthodox bet din in Chicago converted him – not because it needed to, but because it is customary to perform pro forma conversions on anussim. This is known as giur l’chumrah, a conversion of a presumed Jew-by-birth performed only to guarantee that no one would ever question his or her legitimacy as a Jew. It is based on halachic precedent and, in the case of the Chicago bet din, the specific rulings of the late Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, whom no one ever accused of being on the left in halachic matters or not sufficiently learned in the law.

Portuondo-Wilson’s case is now before Israel’s High Court of Justice.

These two cases, however, pale by comparison to what a haredi judge did a little over a year ago when he invalidated what are likely to be thousands of conversions performed under Rabbi Chaim Druckman, in his capacity as head of Israel’s Conversion Authority, between 1999 and 2003.

Druckman is beyond reproach. He is a tireless advocate of the State of Israel and of the cause of religious Zionism. Jewish continuity is not a slogan for him; it is a sacred cause.

And that, said Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the conversion court judge, is the problem. It is what supposedly makes Druckman’s conversions invalid, as noted in my last column.

As I noted then, after engaging in character assassination, including accusing Druckman of such terrible crimes as forging conversion documents, Sherman went after Druckman’s conversions and those of the religious Zionist rabbis working with him.

To these rabbis, Sherman said, “conversion is a means of improving the spiritual situation of the entire Jewish nation living in Israel. It is a way of bringing Jews closer to their Judaism.” Because “bringing Jews closer to their Judaism” is a terrible thing, according to Sherman, these rabbis “should be seen as intentional transgressors of Jewish law” and the conversions they performed should be – and are – annulled.

Who are these newly non-converted converts?

In one newspaper article on the subject, a source within the Conversion Authority described them this way:

“We are talking about a group of people who ended up in Israel because they have some sort of connection with the Jewish people. Their mother may not be Jewish…, but their father is Jewish, or one of their grandparents is Jewish, or they are married to a Jew….In addition, they totally identify as Jews. They do not see themselves as gentiles. They serve in the IDF, they are patriotic, they are Zionistic.”

For years, non-Orthodox religious authorities and secular Israelis have complained about the “tyranny of the minority,” by which they meant the control over their lives that is exercised by the haredi wing of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. Now, even the Orthodox are experiencing that tyranny – and lives are being ruined.

It is time for the tyranny to end. It is time to take back the Torah from its “false and misguided interpreters” who have “perverted and hijacked” it, as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin put it last Shavuot, referring to the haredi judges who run Israel’s rabbinical courts.

It is time. The only thing lacking, it seems, is the will.