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Parsha Lech Lechah

November 3, 2014

The Mission of Avraham
Lech Lechah
Shmuel Herzfeld, 5775

The last few weeks have been a very dark time for the Washington Jewish community.

There are many communal concerns that need to be addressed. I am deeply upset and distressed about them. Eventually I hope to discuss them all with you in a constructive manner. Right now it is very complicated to speak out about any of these things for multiple reasons, which I cannot discuss publicly.

So I am not going to talk about many of the most important things today.

What I do want to talk about is one aspect of the story: the role of converts as an integral part our mission as a spiritual community and what are some of the halakhot that relate to interacting with converts.

This past week, a brave and courageous woman published an article about her attempt to convert to Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Freundel.

When I read this article my heart broke.

This woman writes:

“Over the course of my conversion studies with Rabbi Freundel, I had done two mikveh dunks. At first, upon hearing of the voyeurism charges, all I felt was anger…. How could this have happened? Why did people not take complaints made against him more seriously? Why had people ignored me when I discussed my issues with him? After a week my anger gave way to a full depression.”
Converts like this woman were in a very precarious position. They were told by the Jewish Orthodox establishment that the only way that their conversion would be acceptable is if they worked through their national system, as opposed to the way in which conversions were always done in the past. This new policy was a break from precedent and had the effect of limiting the options of converts and led to greater abuse of converts.

Make no mistake. This abuse of converts is not just an indictment of one specific aspect of Jewish life –the way in which conversions take place—but of an entire breakdown in Jewish communal life.

How we interact with converts symbolizes who we are as a community.

Lets look briefly at the paradigm of Avraham.

We don’t know much about why Avraham was selected to be the father of the Jewish people. But one of the things we do know about him is that he and Sarah were engaged from the very beginning in an evangelical mission of converting men and women to Judaism.

Rashi writes that even before Abraham came to Canaan he was spending his time converting men and Sarah was converting the women (12:8).

According to Rashi, Avraham also taught his Canaanite servants the mitzvot. The verse says about his servant, Eliezer, “vayrek et chanichav,” which Rashi says means, “she-chancho le-mitzvot, he taught him the commandments” (14:4).

So Avraham started out his mission by being an evangelist and spreading the message of Hashem to the nations of the world, but after he achieved great success in this area, he veered from his mission.

According to the Talmud (Nedarim, 32a), Avraham is told that his descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years as a punishment for the fact that Avraham turned down the opportunity to convert the people of Sodom. As the Talmud states: “It is because Avraham stopped people from coming into the community of the Divine Presence when the King of Sodom said to him, ‘Give me the souls,’”

The same Avraham who begins his mission by teaching his servant the mitzvot then goes ahead and abandons his servant, Hagar. As the verse states, “And Abram said to Sarai, "Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes." And Sarai afflicted her, and she fled from before her” (16:6).

After Abraham lost his mission, Hashem needs to remind Avraham of his role as a father to more than just his own tribe. Avraham’s purpose is to be an av hamon goyim, a father amongst the nations (17:5). This is why Hashem changes Avram’s name from Avram to Avraham, to remind him that he has a responsibility to teach the message of Hashem to the nations of the world.

Even though we downplayed this evangelical aspect of our faith when we were living under Latin Christendom and Medieval Muslim rule, we should not ignore or underestimate the importance of helping people join our covenant. According to the Talmud, “the only reason that the Jews were sent into exile was in order to increase the number of converts” (Pesachim, 87b).

We are the children of Avraham. We must be followers of his mission. And being a follower of his mission includes welcoming the convert.

We should not lower our standards of what is necessary to become Jewish, but we definitely need to change our communal attitudes towards how we treat those going through the conversion process and how we treat the converts themselves.

In recent years, our community has seen the horrible institutional mistreatment of converts. This includes some of the recent things we have heard like practice dunks and being forced to make donations and do labor on behalf of their converting rabbi and also living in fear that their conversion might be revoked one day. Included in this we can add stories about converts being subject to demeaning comments and having their cries for help ignored.

The primary reason for these abuses is because over the past several years the conversion process was centralized under the power of a national rabbinic body, the Rabbinical Council of America. Converts were now bullied and frightened into using this centralized process by being warned that if they didn’t use it for their conversion, then their conversions would not be accepted.

Before this centralization, in the past conversions were always done by local synagogue rabbis who were ordained and given permission with their ordination to convert people. I believe that that is where conversions should take place, with a rabbi and a maharat who know the convert personally and have a spiritual relationship with the potential convert.

The centralization of this system under the Orthodox rabbinate in America was not only a deviation from the way the process has historically operated in America, but also from the way the process has ever operated. An Israeli posek and Rosh Yeshiva, R. Nochum Rabinovitch points out that there was never in the history of the Jewish people a centralized oversight of conversions. This in fact is the very basis of a well known Talmudic text in which Hillel accepted a convert that Shammai had rejected. (בכל-עיר-ועיר-נחום-אליעזר-רבינוביץ/ )

Despite the lack of historical precedent and despite the public and private warnings that a centralized approach was open to even greater abuse, the establishment forced this approach upon the American Jewish community and thereby enabled and empowered this type of abuse by predatory rabbis who were now given more power than ever before and potential converts were now bullied and frightened into studying with them. This centralized system cannot be saved. It needs to be abandoned in favor of the original approach—the approach of the last two thousand years--that is more compassionate and localized.

Another danger to this centralized approach is that it removes the feeling of a responsibility for the convert from the local community.

I believe that every synagogue should view it as their responsibility to help people who live in their community to convert to Judaism. Over the past ten years there have probably been around ten people who have converted through the shul. It is not a large part of our mission as a shul, but it is an important part. (I never took part in this centralized conversion process of the Rabbinical Council of America as I followed the warnings of Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss to distrust this centralization.)

How we treat convert and potential converts is a reflection on who we are as a community.

This is why it is important that we publicly review the halachot of how one is supposed to treat a convert and one who is going through the conversion process:

The Talmud says that in 36 different places the Torah warns us not to oppress a convert (Bava Metzia 59b).

Most explicit are the following two biblical verses:

One verse says: “Ve’ger lo toneh ve’lo tilchatzenu ki geirim heyitem ba-erez mizrayim. And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).

A second verse says, “Ve’khi yagur itkhem ger be-artzechem, lo tonu oto. And if there will be a convert amongst you, do not oppress him” (Vayikra 19:33).

Our sages tell us that one who oppresses the convert financially violates three separate negative prohibitions. So too, one who oppresses the convert with words – by embarrassing them or demeaning them --also violates three negative prohibitions. (See Encyclopedia Talmudit, Ona’at ha’ger.)

The Torah is teaching us that although we always need to be careful with our words and honest in our business dealings, we need to be exceedingly careful and sensitive about the way we interact with converts.

For example, one is not even permitted to remind a convert that they weren’t always Jewish. Even an innocuous comment like, “Oh you are such an amazing convert, ” is a biblical violation. Once a convert has becomes Jewish we cannot do anything to remind him that he was at one point in his life any less Jewish than those of us born Jewish.

So even though there is a general prohibition against embarrassing someone and taking advantage of someone financially, the Torah adds specific, additional prohibitions to protect the convert.

The Sefer Hachinuch (prohibition 63) explains why the Torah has extra protections for the convert:

“The reason why there is a special prohibition against oppressing a convert is because we need to especially be mindful not to act on all of our powers and oppress other people. This is true in general and in order for us to learn this behavior the Torah warns us about acting this way amongst the people who live amongst us who have no advocates and about whom many of us could hurt…and if we act properly in this respect we will achieve a high spiritual status….”

If this is the reason why we cannot mistreat converts, then how much more so do these prohibitions and violations apply to potential converts! They often have no advocate and have even less experience than the actual convert.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (in his commentary to Vayikra 19:33) that the prohibition against mistreating converts refers both to individual interactions with converts and to the institutions that govern our community. Rav Hirsch adds: “All of our troubles in Egypt arose because we were geirim and treated as such. The consideration and love for strangers is the true test of your fear of God and your love of God.”

A community should be judged not by how it treats its most powerful, but by how it treats its most vulnerable. We should include potential converts within the category of the most vulnerable.

By this measure the larger Orthodox community has failed the vulnerable potential converts who were desperately trying to become Jewish and were mistreated and taken advantage of.

How we treat potential converts and the actual convert is a reflection on who we are as a spiritual community and what we are community to look like. Are we fair, honest, and respectful? Are we insular or welcoming? Are we loving or selfish? All these questions can be answered in the simple way we treat a convert.

Recently, Maharat Ruth and I discussed an article, which was titled “A Convert’s Bill of Rights.” We were both very moved by that article and in response we both discussed it directly with the men and women who are in the process of converting in our shul.

We told them directly that we will look inward and try to be certain that we are not at fault and violating any halakhot when it comes to the way we interact with potential converts. Even though the abuses happened in other institutions, everyone should take this time for self-reflection and to try and improve.

We also discussed with this group that we are going to make reforms to how we run our conversion process. For example, we will standardize the application to the conversion program that we have. We will (to the extent possible) have clear written requirements that will make the process less subjective and more objective. We will work hard to make certain that our requirements are fair and not onerous.

The full list of requirements and rights are too long to list here, but it is important to share some bullet points.

We will treat all conversion candidates with respect.

We will connect all conversion candidates with mentors from the membership of our congregation.

We will not ask for any donations from the conversion candidates at any point and there will not be a fee for the conversion beit din.

If a conversion candidate has a concern he or she may speak with a designated board member in full confidentiality to ensure that the concerns are addressed.

One more thing: Until now every Orthodox conversion works under the principle that the three rabbis that comprise the Beit Din need to be physically present to ascertain that the convert has immersed in the mikvah and submerged under the water.

Although, I believe deeply that a woman’s modesty has never been compromised in any conversion that I have been involved in as we have taken extraordinary precautions to maintain her modesty, we have heard the pleas of potential converts who tell us that even though the current status quo of a woman’s conversion immersion does not violate their modesty it does make them feel vulnerable in a way that we all can simply can no longer accept.

I discussed this with our Maharat, and with Rabbi Jeff Fox and others and moving forward we will make a radical change in our policy.

We will now base ourselves on a teshuvah of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh deah 3:112), where he writes that when a beit din hears a woman’s immersion in the water it is equivalent to knowing that she has immersed. And so we will operate in a manner that will allow a beit din in an adjoining room to hear the immersion and thus be certain that the potential convert has immersed.

This is just the beginning. And this is just a small snapshot of our tireless efforts to restore dignity to the Jewish community of DC.

The last few weeks have been very dark. But each of us has it within ourselves to declare that we will not tolerate the status quo. We will work to bring light. We will support the victims and address the many, many problems that have been highlighted by this tragic situation. Let us all work tirelessly to restore the sanctity of our community.

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