Monday, October 20, 2014

Radical Rabbinics Renewed: Flood Waters Rising

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who tried to reconstitute a modern Sanhedrin)

In recent weeks, the rabbinate has again been sullied by the sordid actions of one of our rank. Properly, the RCA repudiated, revoked, and removed said offender, and began to put in place overdue but welcome measures to protect the status of converts, particularly women, placed in a vulnerable position. Sadly, the actions came too late, and it seems they could have done more earlier.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we've also been down this road before.  Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the revered sage and Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) for the RCA's affiliated BDA issued an important ruling, kedarko hakodesh (as is his holy way) ruling that all of the converts are Jewish and need not worry about their status.  As a deservedly revered, humble, learned, and pious Rabbi (who started his illustrious career in Providence, RI and makes us all beam with pride), his ruling will likely be respected and accepted across many streams, and most importantly, by the Rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate.  Still and sadly, the rabbinate is reviewing the conversions, in a move that could cause terror amongst the already vulnerable population, and is almost certainly a collective violation of the biblical injunction of inui hager, oppressing the convert.  Note, I'm not assigning blame, but describing the situation that I'm hearing numbers of real converts describe, and that amounts to a major Jewish law problem that we as Rabbis should and must address.

In the past. the sages from the time of the great assembly to the sages of the mishnah to the medieval authority Rabbeinu Gershom issued legal decrees to protect the vulnerable, the classic origination of tikun haolam, the repair of the world.  These included the institution of the ketubah to protect married women in changed socioeconomic circumstances, the ban on polygamy, the pruzbul to protect the poor, and other bold and brave decrees.  Gittin, divorce documents are destroyed, and courts only keep certificates that a divorce was completed, specifically so that we won't revisit the documents to inquire as to their validity.

In that most traditional of spirits, an in line with Rabbi Schwartz's ruling and the RCA's statement, for the sake of righteous converts (gerei hatzedek) I humbly propose that the Orthodox Rabbinate sign on to a new decree, a bona fide gezeira (decree to protect Torah law) that states as follows:

    אנו החתומים גוזרים שאסור לבדוק אחרי מעשים הרעים לשעבר של דיינים לבתי  דין של גיור כדי לפסול גירות כי אין לדבר סוף ואי אפשר לגרים לחיות בפחד בלי מנוחת נפש.  עושים את הגזירה הזאת מפני תיקון העולם

We the undersigned decree that it is forbidden to inquire into the former immoral actions of conversion court judges in order to invalidate conversions, for there is no end to the matter and it is not proper for converts to live in constant fear with no peace of mind.  We are making this decree to facilitate the betterment of our world.

Several points:

1) Rabbinic Power Generally

Some will point out, rightly, that we have much to fear from unchecked rabbinic power, especially given the current state of affairs.  I don't disagree.  That being said, this is a religious problem, and the rabbis of former generations would have been creative, bold, and solved the problem in just this kind of way.  There are plenty of natural limits on rabbinic power.  For one, the community won't accept a universal decree easily if at all (most would think the idea impossible in the current climate). Secondly, the notion of getting prominent scholars and a wide breadth of Rabbis and legal decisors to agree to new legislation is nearly impossible to fathom in today's divided world.  That's why I'm imploring my rabbinic colleagues defy cynicism and do the impossible.

2)  Halachic Analysis

Rabbi Schwartz's ruling was a current Jewish law ruling.  I haven't heard his reasoning, but am sure he's judged and ruled correctly.  Many others will agree, but it's possible that some, especially in Israel, will not.  I'd like to explore and examine the legal aspects of retroactively invalidating conversions and the status of sinful judges (whose prior sins were exposed after the fact), but even engaging in this analysis is problematic for converts given the immense and dramatic practical implications of the law.  What I'm proposing is, in some sense, unrelated to that type of analysis.

3)  Restoring the glory of Torah

It's been a tough road for organized religion, or organized anything for that matter (see Congress of the United States).  Cynicism is high, popularity is absent, and there's a broad consensus that self-interest, partisan politics, money, and power prevent the right thing from happening always.  Friends, we can actually begin to change that action through bold moves consistent with our mesorah (tradition).  When I was studying in RIETS, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a venerated Rosh Yeshiva and one of the community's brilliant sages and Talmudic scholars would often repeat some version of the following thoughts:

Why is it that the chachamim are allowed to make new decrees?  After all, the Torah is perfect, meaning perfectly balanced between stringency and leniency, as expressed in the mitzvot that we shouldn't add or subtract, and in the Rambam's notion of shevil hazahav, the golden mean, etc.  The sages understood inherently that they were empowered to create fences or obligations to protect the observance of commandments and ideals, positive and negative, that were in the Torah.  They weren't making new rules, but insuring that the Torah was properly followed.

Well, it's the same situation for us today.  The Torah's command to "love the convert" and proscription, "don't oppress the convert," are concomitantly and systematically endangered.  This is precisely the unique kind of situation where Rabbis need to bond together to protect the righteous values and commands of our holy Torah.  A gezeirah is the perfect way to do it, and would help to mend wounds and restore faith in the Torah and religious leadership.  That's the real tikkun to this kind of thing, and I hope people will take my simple but bizarre suggestion seriously.  Frankly, it's the traditional rabbinic answer and long overdue.

I'm also going to ask for allies from across the Orthodox rabbinic spectrum to join together in this fight, and lobby for its acceptance.  It's our responsibility to solve the problem structurally and not rest.  As we said so many times on Sukkot, Please God, save us!  When I first became more observant, my grandfather z''l reminded me that God likes to help those who help themselves first. I'm going to do my best to follow his advice.      

P.S.  If you're willing to sign on, let me know!

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