Facts and Ideals:
Thoughts on the Conversion Controversy


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While so many of the issues that have rocked Orthodoxy in the past number of years have their own specific dynamics, details and concerns, in that the disputants seem to always band together within similar camps, it can be argued that there still must be some underlying, fundamental principle and/or ideological concept in dispute within all these disagreements. It is this consideration that actually dominates my thinking in regard to the present conversion controversy in Israel.

The halachot in regard to gerut, conversion, are actually most complex and, in fact, are somewhat bewildering. Attempting to arrive at a comprehensive theory of the process and mechanics of conversion is a most difficult task. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 13:17, for example, demands intense analysis and clarification. How can a conversion supervised by hedyotot, commoners or, perhaps, better translated as ignorant individuals, possibly be good? What does this law say about the whole process and theory of conversion? A close reading of the Rambam actually further indicates that his statement is truly unclear. We are told that we must verify the converting individual’s righteousness to validate the conversion yet, even if he/she returns, post conversion, to the practice of idolatry, he/she is still to be defined as a full Jew – what does this mean? Rashi, T.B. Shabbat 31a, d.h. gaireha, as another example, also calls for clarification. It is no wonder that there are many different approaches in the attempt to explain the halachic process of conversion, a reality that any student of the subject must recognize. It is thus totally shocking, not that there are those who may disagree with Rabbi Druckman’s specific position on gerut but, rather, that there are those who would consider his position outside the pale. The whole subject is filled with questions, debate and differences of opinion. Even if one disagrees with Rabbi Druckman in regard to his opinion, how can one declare a position presented by such a respected Rosh Yeshiva outside the pale? The issue must extend beyond the limited topic of conversion.

Many contend that this present issue of conversion is but another battleground in the on-going dispute in regard to the relationship that should be adopted by those committed to Halacha toward secular Zionism and the State of Israel. While there have been some changes, over the years, in the Charedi position toward working with the State and the government – for example, Aguda, initially, would not join a secular party in the formation of a government – the basic hesitancy to be involved with secular manifestations of Jewishness still dominates the Charedi consciousness. This is to be contrasted with the view that was promulgated by Rav Kuk, and is basic to what is now generally referred to as the Da’ati Leumi, the Religious Nationalists (or Zionists), which does see some value in such secular manifestations (although clearly still seeing them as removed from the ideal). These divergent views will necessarily colour how one defines and evaluates the problem of the many non-Jews, who may even see themselves as Jews, who came to Israel, under the Law of Return, from the former Soviet Union. This, in turn, will strongly impact on one’s motivations in regard to the whole issue of conversion and it is this policy consideration that is seen, by many, to be at the root of the present controversy. The points of contention within Orthodoxy over the years have, however, extended beyond the issue of Israel and how we should relate to a non-Orthodox Jewishness. There must be an extended issue. (For a further discussion on the halachic issue of how one should relate to secular or non-Orthodox manifestations of Jewishness, please see my article National Identity, Nishma Introspection 5767-1.)

In my Authority and Wisdom: The Slifkin Affair, I developed some thoughts on the significance, in that specific dispute, of the conflict between these two significant values within Torah, namely authority and wisdom. The variant methods that are employed to attempt to balance these two values clearly indeed affect us and our understanding of Torah in general. The issue of authority and wisdom does extend beyond the parameters of the Slifkin Affair, yet it cannot easily be directly adapted to simply assist in further explaining the issues in this conversion controversy. After all, within the Da’ati Leumi world, there is also to be found, in certain elements, an allegiance to authority that mirrors that which exists in the Charedi world. The argument in regard to conversion, as such, can also be reduced, to some extent, to a simple disagreement over which authority should be followed. These reasons for choosing one over another, though, have strong subjective and personal overtones. Is it not difficult to explain the entire theological storm that continues to engulf Orthodoxy as ultimately solely a matter of taste between individuals wishing a manifestation of Torah that gives them personal meaning? The real problem is that individuals, as they choose a side, still want the impact, meaning and force of belief that emerges with a declaration of a position’s absolute value. This is what explains the hostility of such people who, while actually making decisions ultimately based on personal choice, still seek a sense of certainty. The result is that they need to critique other views as if their own opinion is the sole objective absolute. Yet there still must be some reason for why the thinkers within any movement allow their followers to maintain such a delusion.

When I consider the many battlefields within Orthodoxy within the recent past, many different issues come to mind. There is the present conversion controversy as well as the debate that surrounded the establishment by the Rabbinical Council of America of regional batei denim for gerut in North America. There was also, of course, the Slifkin Affair. Another point of disagreement was reflected in the variance in the responses to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, including the contention that it is beyond the pale. This debate reflected the differences in how we approach innovation within Halacha, not just in terms of how we look at change but how we define halachically appropriate change. But, again, the same question can be posed. Aside from what could be simply termed as personal taste, what causes us to lean to one view over another? What is the essential mechanism that fuels these debates?

One seemingly small controversy from a few years ago, though, may actually have reflected the essential core issue and catalyst that is at the root of all these different controversies and considerations. My Uncle the Netziv, a selected translation of a section from the Mekor Baruch, the autobiography of Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the famed author of the Torah Temima, created a storm when it was censored by the very school that initially used this same publication as a centre piece in a fundraising campaign. A review of what occurred is presented by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892, Torah u-Madda Journal, Vol 2 as the author discusses the issue that he believes was at the core of the controversy. In truth, there were many theories as to why this school reevaluated their decision and eventually sent out notices that this work was actually inappropriate. All the issues, though, focused upon some account or episode mentioned in the work of which this school disapproved and, perhaps more significantly, saw as false. Rabbi Schacter focused on the presentation in the work regarding the advent of some secular studies into Volozhin a few years before the famed Yeshiva’s closing. The school itself challenged this assertion based upon the commonly held belief within the yeshiva world that there were never any secular studies in Volozhin and that the Netziv actually closed the school rather than allow any secular studies into the yeshiva. Rabbi Schacter, though, actually shows from historical documents that there is actually no doubt that there were some secular studies in Volozhin in the years prior to its closing, albeit to a very small extent and only in response to pressure from the Russian government. A further problem with this school’s censure of this book, though, is that this report from the book that there were secular studies was not just from anyone but rather from the illustrious author of this text, the Mekor Baruch. It is one authority against another; in challenging this book so forcefully, the school was also effectively critiquing the Torah Temima. The issue really seems to be this school’s perception of an offence from this book because it specifically contradicted the account that was presented in the yeshiva world. In simply ascribing to the yeshiva world’s account, though, the school was ignoring the truth, the facts, even as presented by the Mekor Baruch. What Rabbi Schacter maintains in this article, as evidenced here, and as further developed in a subsequent article, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, Facing the Truths of History, Torah u-Madda Journal, Vol. 8, is that historical truths are actually often subject to scrutiny and even dismissed by certain individuals within the Orthodox community. There has always been a question of the value of the study of history within the framework of Torah. What Rabbi Schacter points out is that, for certain segments of the Orthodox world, there is even a question regarding the value of the presentation of historical truths. There would, as well, appear to be a declarative value in evaluating facts based on the yardstick of the desired conclusion.

On the surface, this would seem to be manipulative and even devious. What is really at issue is the relationship between the presentation of facts and the presentation of ideals. Ultimately, ideals are developed theories built upon the analysis of (and/or instinctual response to) various facts. When certain facts are presented that seem to challenge a specific ideal, what we are really doing is presenting facts that seem to challenge an argument that supports the theory. The expected result would be either that the ideal be abandoned or a rebuttal argument be made to show that the facts do not necessarily challenge the theory and the theory, perhaps with some minor amendments, can still be maintained. If the overriding goal, though, is to protect the ideal above all else, other alternatives emerge. One may reduce the impact of the facts by trying to show that while acceptance of this particular ideal may not be universal, nonetheless, this ideal should still be maintained. Alternatively, and perhaps even more readily, for the sake of the ideal, arguments may be raised to discredit the facts entirely. This alternative further maintains the desired sense of absoluteness and surety. Yet, if theories or ideals are built upon facts, why would one even wish to deny the facts to protect what would seem to now be an unsubstantiated theory? In such a case, the ideal is clearly seen as above challenge so the problem with the facts is simply seen as our inability to understand how they fit in with the ideal. In the case of the Mekor Baruch, it would simply be argued, for example, that we don’t understand or that his work was subsequently amended. Since the ideal is primary in any event, why cause problems with the presentation of facts that will only raise questions? In other words, why confuse the theory, which is still seen as obviously correct, with these facts?

Such an argument is actually not devoid of any merit. In that generally accepted ideals are the developed theories of great thinkers, talmidei chachamim and tzaddikim, there may be some substance to an argument that we should not let facts immediately challenge a theory. The actual theoreticians behind this ideal may actually have been able to have answered the question raised by these facts. (See, for an example of a similar nature, T.B. Baba Batra 130b.) Our task, then, may be to learn how to live with questions. Alternatively, if the facts simply show that others may not have shared a specific ideal, our task may also not be to necessarily dismiss this ideal but, rather, may be to learn to live in a world of disagreement and values in dispute. This is, in fact, legitimate and, even, to a large extent, desired. But, it may be asked by others, what is the value of creating such a situation of one observing an ideal while being bothered by questions or with having to accept an ideal’s lack of universal acceptance? Rabbi Schacter quotes Rabbi Shimon Schwab as writing: “What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity.” While on the surface, Rabbi Schwab’s words could be solely applied to explain why one should not relay negative stories of an individual that will only have the effect of tarnishing his/her image, an argument of a somewhat similar nature could be developed in regard to any theory or ideal. What value is there in presenting any facts that could lessen the impact of an ideal? But the facts may show some problems with the ideal. But within this view of life, it is the ideal that is paramount and has the ultimate validity. The facts may, at most, be the basis for questions but are questions, and the subsequent potential for doubt, really necessary. The facts are actually, more likely, just nuisances.

What emerges from this analysis is a recognition of a tension between facts and ideals. In theory, they are inherently connected; theories are based on facts. The question is what to do when the two do not seem to connect. At one pole is the option to reject the theory based upon the challenge to it presented by the facts. At the opposite pole is the option to ignore the facts and remain with the theory based upon arguments that theoretically maintain that the scholars who originally presented this theory must still be right and, if the facts were even true, these scholars would have been able to respond to any problem presented by the facts’ query of the ideal. Alternatively, in that they contradict the presented ideal, the facts, almost by definition, will be declared to be false. The essential question behind these two poles is really whether we are to give greater weight to the facts or to the theories. If we contend that in regard to any theory or presentation of an ideal, it is important for someone to know the facts upon which the theory is built and understand the connection between the facts and the development of the ideal, the truthful presentation of the facts is a necessity. If we contend, though, that commitment to the ideal is the primary value, it may be even deemed critical not to potentially confuse someone with the presentation of even truthful facts that may lessen the allegiance to the ideal. Of course, a commitment to the value of wisdom would seem to correspond to a perception of the necessity in presenting truthful facts. And, of course, a commitment to the presentation of an ideal notwithstanding the apparent facts would seem to correspond with a belief in the value of abiding by authority and the authority figures that promulgate a specific ideal. Yet this issue goes beyond the question of wisdom and authority and colours the entire process of Torah education. Do we first have the ideal or theory and then work to connect the facts to this conclusion or do we first have the facts and then, perhaps, even some newly discovered facts, and subsequently work to determine the theory that emerges from these facts?

Herein lies the essence of the divergence, not only in theories and ideals but perhaps more significantly in process, which permeates Orthodoxy today. It is true that some debates can still solely be described as sparring bouts between proponents of different theories within Torah, each one bluntly asserting their version of an ideal, sadly, without the mutual respect that should define such disagreements. There is, however, another battle that is being fought. Do we first accept a conclusion and do all that is necessary to maintain, support and advocate for this conclusion even if it means altering the facts in the name of the advancement of this ideal? Or do we first attempt to correctly determine the facts and then try to develop a value ideal based on these facts even though it may cause confusion and lead us to move away from theories and ideals to which we originally ascribed? Do we teach the facts as the ikkur, the essence, or do we teach the theory or ideal as the ikkur? It is upon this question that much of the divergence in Orthodoxy exists. To what extent do we follow our agendas? To what extent do we teach the facts?

And it is with this perception that I see the present conversion controversy. Of course, as in regard to the many other issues that have rocked Orthodoxy in the past few years, the proponents of the variant sides may still both have agendas. There is no doubt the friction between the Charedi world and the Da’ati Leumi worlds and, as I mentioned above, this distinction in ideals and, subsequently, agendas, does play a role in drawing the battlefields in numerous disputes within Orthodoxy. It would also be foolish to maintain that all proponents of any side totally ignore the facts. Yet there is clearly a basis for the divergence – and especially for the hostility behind the divergence – that extends beyond a simple difference in agendas or ideals. There is another foundation to these various disputes that goes beyond the substantive issues themselves but touches upon process. Many, who abide by a certain theory or ideal, see their agenda as paramount to such an extent that any challenge to this agenda – that is any presentation of facts that may potentially raise a question in regard to their ideals and theories – is seen as an even greater evil than simply the advocating of a different value. It is precisely the fact that the ideal is no longer able to be seen as simplistic and straightforward, that the reality is shown to be much more complex and confusing than desired, that is truly found, by some individuals, to be most annoying. Individuals of this nature, so narrowly connected to their ideal, may actually be found on both sides of an issue, advocating for their values, with intense anger toward the opposing view and its proponents. Beyond the opposing view, the very reality of someone with a different view that thereby challenges the desired certainty and simplistic obviousness of their position further upsets them. Yet, an even greater hostility may be felt toward the one who directly challenges, not the position itself but this much desired simplicity and certainty: by simply presenting the facts and raising the questions that flow from these facts. It is actually the demonstration of the complexity of an issue that is often the forceful stimulus of negative hostility. The result is actually a paradox. One attempting to show a basis for his/her theory and thereby ascertain respect from an opponent by demonstrating that his/her opinion falls within the pale of Torah is often met with even greater hostility. Through this type of argument what is also being shown is the complexity of Torah. This in fact further enrages the one requiring the simplicity of a narrow ideal.

The laws of conversion are themselves complex and confusing and this, in itself, presents the greatest challenge to one who wishes to advocate for a straightforward and simplistic understanding of gerut. It is thus the presentation of the very facts of the laws of gerut, which can be most upsetting to one with an agenda and a set understanding of the theory and ideals behind these laws. The goal in defending an agenda is often not simply to argue for one’s perception of the theory but to attempt to show that there is not even any legitimate basis for any divergence of opinion, that the law and the facts behind the law are actually pretty straightforward. We thus find a battle between those who are attempting to uncover the facts and subsequently attempting to understand the ideals that are built upon these facts and those committed to a specific ideal who furthermore attempt to solely advocate for this view by negating any facts that may even raise a question in regard to this ideal. Results of those who first present the facts may furthermore be varied as different theories of the ideal may emerge, each built upon the facts. Those advocating a specific ideal are only further bothered by this as they adopt a goal to demonstrate that this ideal, presented simplistically without any information that may even give some basis for a divergent thought, is the only possibility. We are thus caught between opposing forces, one ultimately advocating for complexity and one ultimately advocating for simplicity.

We have those who promote the presentation of the facts and the subjection of any theory to challenge by the facts. We have those who promote, perhaps on the strength of a belief in the great thinkers who may have originated this thought, a specific theory and will, furthermore, limit the presentation of facts so as not to upset the presentation of this ideal. We have a battle between the advocates of complexity and those who advocate simplicity. Complex halachot such as the laws of gerut are themselves victims of those demanding simplicity. We live in a battle of process – and sadly suffer thereby.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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