Gedalyah Reback

A Rebuttal of Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the head of the conversion court in Teaneck, NJ, resigned with a strong statement today on his personal website in protest of the appoint by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) to review elements of the conversion process. I have to disagree with many of his statements speaking as someone who converted on his Beit Din in 2007. This is an open letter.

Rabbeinu, we only met once because when I finished my conversion process, you were on sabbatical. I didn’t know my way around Teaneck, and I arrived late to our meeting with a dead cell phone, only encountering you as you left your office and had to rush to something else. I came back months later to convert under the Beit Din run by Rabbi Taubes.

I agree with you that conversion should be fun (Image: CC BY .0 littlefishyjes via Flickr)

Rabbi, I have tried my best to keep up with this situation since 13 Mar Cheshvan 5768, and I would like to think that my disagreements with you here are genuine and not motivated by histrionics or media hype.

I am sorry to say it this way, but I find your commentary jarring, ironic, about the distrust the general Jewish (even Orthodox) public has developed for the authority of their Rabbis. It’s worth noting that for every conversation I have had on conversion in the last seven years that expressed unwarranted doubts about the sincerity of people I knew personally, the conversation immediately shifted to the untrustworthiness of the Rabbis who were running such a ‘meandering,’ ‘disorganized’ and ‘lax’ system. The majority of Rabbis weren’t trustworthy enough to conduct localized conversions. Responsibility had to be entrusted to Rabbis who knew better and were supposedly not as prone to screwing up by letting so much riff raff dunk in the mikveh. That is the impression that many lay supporters of stricter standards have. That is the impression that the RCA inadvertently amplified when it adjusted its system at the instigation of extreme pressure from the Israeli Rabbinate.

If there is a general distrust of Rabbis simmering in the Orthodox world, I suggest it’s at the least been fostered by policies that entrusted only 11 batei din across the United States and Canada (at least under the RCA, 11 according to – please inform me if that list needs to be updated) to conduct trustworthy conversions. The distrust of Rabbis among their own colleagues was a constant theme for the Rebbeim I asked in 2006 and 2007, why they couldn’t conduct my conversion on a local level. They wanted nothing to do with that sort of pressure or risk to their reputations.

And I must bring your attention again to the culture of distrust that these restrictive policies have implied, sometimes explicitly claimed, to Orthodox Jews. The message is clear – converts cannot be trusted. They must be suspected. There is good reason to disqualify conversions ex post facto, so this logic goes, because too many of these novices aren’t sincere or informed well enough to justify their presence. Many will fall away and their conversions will be a fleeting memory.

That has many of my peers looking over their shoulders. They are incensed not always by their own personal experiences but the clear follies of what their friends and fellow converts have gone through. No one wants to live in fear. No one wants to live in an atmosphere where policy considerations trumps considerations about how the community looks at and talks about its converts. No one wants to live in a climate where we are d’Rabbanan l’humrah and d’Orayta l’kulah.

I agree to an extent that much of this has been sensationalized. The actions of Barry Freundel do not warrant people making blanket statements about the worthiness of Orthodox Judaism in general. I am not sure if the extent to which feminist discussions have taken this are appropriate either, but I won’t pretend to have put as much thought into feminist viewpoints, particularly on the recent crisis.

But to be frank, the conversion standards are being reviewed because of years of complaints, this just being a watershed. Among my peers, we don’t trust so much power in the hands of so few people. We are not fools. Many of us have not acquired semichah (yet), but we have had years to consider the flaws and contradictions we noticed in the structure that’s been set up in the US.

I cannot pretend to be as intimate with the inner workings of the conversion courts under RCA auspices as you, but I am not willing to accept your more intimate knowledge as a reason not to challenge you on this. I am empathetic to the need to restore a robust standard for conversion in the face of Reform and Conservative Judaism, or in the wake of any rush to convert someone’s non-Jewish fiancé at the behest of a congregant (as you suggest in your statement). But the efforts haven’t been perfect and have caused a different problem, one where many Orthodox Jews flagrantly talk about the precariousness of converts (אל תונו) and some Rabbis complain about converts’ inadequate financial resources to afford a Jewish lifestyle (an odd remark by Rabbi Zvi Romm many converts I know have been discussing with each other).

I am sorry to point out the mistrust you mention is, well, mutual. Sincere converts worry about the system and want to improve it. They know it from another intimate perspective similar to yours Rabbeinu, just from the other side of the tribunal’s table.

And a final comment. I have known one of the members of this committee, herself one of Barry Freundel’s students, for nine years. She is a woman of integrity and does not pretend to know the Halachic caveats as well as other people that will be reviewing things with her. She will raise concerns and trust her colleagues aware of the Halachah to ameliorate things based on their professional knowledge. The system is going to change for the better, I have faith. Thank God that so many Orthodox Jews also feel discomfort by the thought so many converts might feel slighted – thank God so many are worried the Orthodox Jewish community has become too lax with their application of אל תונו את הגר.

I do not imply that your colleagues flagrantly violated such a major principle in the Torah – NOT AT ALL. But the way this situation has been handled from Jerusalem to Brooklyn has fostered a culture that is tearing the community apart. This level of bitterness, this escalation toward a civil war of Orthodox Jews, is just not worth it in an era where Jews face the worst anti-Semitism since World War II and activists for praying to God are shot for wanting to bring Judaism back to the Temple Mount. Even if the system becomes more relaxed than it ever was, which I don’t hope for nor do I anticipate, may it be that disparate corners of Orthodoxy (and all Jewish communities) see that כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה and ואהבת רעך כמוך trump whatever disagreements in jurisprudence we have among ourselves. May whatever comes of this usher in a new age where we all review what we’ve gotten wrong and what our rivals have gotten right – may there be no more mahloket in Israel, but if there is let us not fight and let us respect each other. Let our differences be trivialized and our blessings be plentiful and our curses non-existent.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.
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