Conversion Crisis Part II

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Dear Rabbi Simon,

I was wondering if you could comment on the latest controversial issue of revoking conversions of Israeli immingants who subsequently became less observant. We know you prepare people for conversions yourself, and we have always considered your views on modern issues in Judaism as wise, respectful and balanced, so at the time when the act of leading Israeli religious authority seems so unfair to us as outsiders, we thought you could help us to understand what's going on, both from the technical Halachic and from the wider points of view. I am sure this would be of interest to others in the kehillah as well.

Best regards, Gregory



Dear Gregory,

Conversion is indeed a fraught topic which is likely to remain in the public eye for the foreseeable future. Here in the UK the subject has excited much interest (and comment, and protest) due to the JFS case. In Israel there is the ruling, to which you refer, to de-legitimise at a stroke the conversions performed by certain rabbis. And everywhere there is the spectacular crash-landing of a so-called haredi rabbi from America who had been at the forefront of international efforts to introduce credible, more or less uniform conversion standards worldwide. 

I will not comment here on the first or the last of these, although I may address them, if there is interest, on another occasion.

Fundamentally, "once a Jew, always a Jew". 

One's identity as a Jew cannot be renounced or relinquished, just as a tiger cannot change its stripes, or a bushman, an aborigine or an Eskimo his ethnic or genetic identity. This is true also for one who has become Jewish in accordance with Torah law (which of course is not analogous to the bushman, aborigine or Eskimo, to which identity one cannot possibly "convert"). The rub, however, is in the words "in accordance with Torah law." The central issue is one of accepting the commandments, i.e. undertaking to live in accordance with the principles of Torah law (which logically and inevitably entails a working knowledge of those laws). If the convert subsequently lapses in her observance, though this may be a lamentable transgression (for which she will be called to account in the Next World) the original conversion, and the Jewish status which it confers, is not vitiated thereby. 

However: There are circumstances in which the validity of the original conversion can and indeed cannot fail to be called into question. That is, there are cases where the original intention to live in accordance with Torah law was palpably absent at the time of the conversion. Where this is the case, it is not so much that the convert's Jewish status is revoked, as it has become apparent that the conversion itself was a sham ab initio. Occasionally this is principally the fault of the rabbi who conducts (or confers) the conversion. Often, however, the convert herself, frequently together with a (Jewish) partner, is at least vaguely aware that Jewish observance entails much more than the superficial expression of identification with the Jewish People which is sometimes the extent of the commitment required for her to convert. In other words, one whose conversion to Judaism was based on deception, incompetence, corruption, or similar may find his or her Jewish status called into question in the future. When that happens, the conversion is not so much revoked as revealed for the artifice which it always was. Deplorable, indeed.

Having said that, I do acknowledge the anxiety and even human tragedy which this situation produces. Indeed, in many cases the primary blame and culpability lies with the rabbi who conducts such spurious conversions. But as with someone misled by a cut-rate, incompetent (or venal) health-care professional, the fault may lie with the practitioner, but the patient pays the price.

It is to be hoped that the publicity surrounding issues of conversion generally will help to minimize in the future the circumstances which give rise to this tragic situation in the first place.

Rabbi Simon

Questions & Answers
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Questions and Answers

Ask the Rabbi: Easy as א-ב-ג?
Dear Rabbi Simon,
I hope you fasted well yesterday.
Thank you for the insights into the Kinnot, making them easier to understand.
In the afternoon, I was listening to a shiur on Eichah on Torahanytime.  As an aside, the speaker mentioned that the 1st perek of Eichah is the source for the order of the alef bet as we know it.  Other chapters also follow the alef bet chronology but with ayin en peh interchanged.
He quoted Rabbi Shimon Schwab as his source.
Although he did not elaborate on this, surely Sefer Tehillim predates Megillat Eichah by centuries.  Several psalms are written in the alef bet order (e.g.
psalm 119).
Can you please clarify?
Thank you & best wishes.
PhilippeHi Philippe
TY for your sophisticated Q.
I have also heard that the question of the sequence of samekh and 'ayin is subject to dispute. It seems that there are indications that in Paleo-Hebrew the order is reversed from what we know. It is alleged that chapters 2, 3 and 4 of Eichah (chapter 5 is not alphabetical) reflect the original order. Of course, as you say, ch 1 conforms to the order with which we are family.
You are right that Tehillim predates Eichah, however a critic can claim that the order was redacted to bring it in line with the accepted/preferred sequence. This is particularly true for ch. 119, where each of the 8 vv per letter are their own group, and each set of 8 vv. can easily be repositioned. The question is in Ps. 34 or 145, if the internal logic of the passage sheds light on the correct sequence. In Ps. 34, some claim that the v. starting with the letter peh makes more sense to follow the verse starting with samekh (due to the common appearance of the word ra'). I am not convinced that this argument is compelling.
I will stick with the mesorah, that 'ayin belongs before peh. Best to look before speaking.
Rabbi Rashi Simon
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