Last Shabbat, February 28, 2015, a pamphlet publicizing Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s opinions on a wide range of issue was distributed in synagogues throughout Israel.
Among other issues, Rabbi Aviner expresses opposition to the conversion law passed as a cabinet decision early last November, citing a number of reasons including, “No religious Zionist would agree that it’s possible to convert someone without their acceptance of the commandments.”
For those with broad knowledge of the Halakhic aspects of conversion to Judaism, a number of questions arise.
First and foremost, Rabbi Aviner’s claim is simply inaccurate. In fact, Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, one of the generation’s greatest scholars in the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (the rabbinic leader whose philosophy Rabbi Aviner claims to accept) and former spiritual supervisor of students in the famed Sha’alvim Zionist yeshiva, published an article which explicitly calls for the conversion of all new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union without requiring their acceptance of the commandments. And that article was published in the periodical of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim (Iturei Cohanim, volume 67, pp. 34-37) where none other than Rabbi Aviner served as dean of the yeshiva. And yet more significantly, Rabbi Aviner himself wrote a rebuttal to Rabbi Tuzriel’s article in that very same volume, appearing immediately following Rabbi Tzuriel’s (pp. 37-39)!
As Rabbi Aviner’s phenomenal memory is well-known, one wonders if Rabbi Aviner considers Rabbi Tzuriel outside of the religious Zionist camp. Or, alternatively, perhaps Rabbi Aviner maintains that it is acceptable to stretch the truth to the very border of falsehood (if not beyond) to advance his positions on a sacred issue. In other words, perhaps Rabbi Aviner believes that the ends justify the means.
Yet more importantly, as an activist on the conversion issue for years, I can confidently state that not one single rabbi to be empowered by the law to perform conversions is prepared to convert without the acceptance of the commandments, as per Rabbi Tzuriel’s position.
The rabbinic debate about the acceptance of the commandments is not about the requirement to demand that of converts. Rather, the debate revolves around the Halakhic definition of “acceptance of the commandments.”
The more lenient rabbis opine that “acceptance of commandments” does not mean a commitment, promise, or vow of the convert to observe the commandments in practice. In their opinion, “acceptance of commandments” means the understanding and agreement of the convert that from the moment he converts, he, as a member of the Jewish people, will be obligated to observe all of the commandments, and the demands of Halakhic system apply to him from that point forward. This is the opinion of rabbinic leaders from the past, including Rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Moshe Cohen, Yisrael Be’eri, and others. It is also the opinion of present-day rabbinic leaders including Rabbis Ze’ev Whitman, Moshe Ehrenreich, and foremost among them, Rabbi Haim Amsalem who opined in his monumental work Zera Yisrael, bringing support from the Talmud and Halakhic works of both Medieval and post-Medieval Halakhists, that this is the mainstream Halakhic definition of “acceptance of commandments” throughout the 2,000-year history of Halakha..
Rabbi Aviner has the full right, of course, to reject this mainstream position and to opine that “acceptance of commandments” means a commitment of the convert to observe the commandments in practice. But then he must ask himself how many of those who convert through the IDF’s conversion program actually observe the commandments in practice. Is he so disconnected from the reality that the vast majority of these converts do not observe the commandants as demanded by Halakha for even the shortest period of time following their conversion? Is he not aware that all of these converts are recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate?
Assuming that Rabbi Aviner is, in fact, aware of these points, one can only conclude that the debate about the conversion law is not Halakhic in nature, but political; i.e., who should be empowered to perform conversions in Israel. As such, perhaps Rabbi Aviner and the Chief Rabbinate he so supports should accept that traditional Halakha which empowers any three rabbis to perform conversions at their sole discretion. Perhaps Rabbi Aviner and the Chief Rabbinate should cease and desist from their efforts to Reform (typo intentional) the Halakha. And certainly Rabbi Aviner should retract his inaccurate claim, which borders on dishonesty, that “no religious Zionist would agree that it’s possible to convert someone without their acceptance of the commandments.” After all, our Torah teaches us to distance ourselves from falsehood (Exodus 23:7).