Daniel Estrin’s article, “Is Ivanka Jewish? In Israel, she has a Trump card,” brings back to the center stage an issue that has been circulating throughout Israeli society and the international Jewish community for many years now. How does the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decide whether an individual’s conversion to Judaism is legitimate?
This question received a lot of publicity this past year when the validity of Ivanka Trump’s conversion was called into doubt. This issue served as a forum for many to express their criticism of the seemingly arbitrary, if not politically and financially motivated, nature by which the Rabbinate chooses to accept or deny Jewish conversions worldwide. This criticism received further justification when the Rabbinate, who had initially ruled in the earlier days of the US presidential campaign that Ivanka’s conversion was invalid, flip-flopped as the campaign progressed and ruled that it was now valid. What had changed? Well, only the likelihood that Donald Trump may actually be elected president but why should that be a consideration in a decision on a matter of halacha?
The former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, once said in justifying his change of heart during the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, “things you see from here you can’t see from there.” Is it possible that the Rabbinate has a different perspective on this issue than we do? Is it possible that this perspective has halachic precedent?
Going back to the Babylonian Talmud, there is a story about why the Jews deserved the destruction of the Jewish Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70CE. The Talmudic sages cite a well-known story about two men, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The two men were enemies during the final days of the temple. Due to some mistake, Bar Kamtza was accidentally invited to a party hosted by Kamtza. After much deliberation, Bar Kamtza, knowing full well that relations were not good between the two of them, decided that it was best he attend and avoid rejecting a potential gesture of friendship. When Kamtza realized his enemy, Bar Kamtza, was at his party, he flew into a rage and demanded that Bar Kamtza be thrown out of the party, in front of everyone. Despite the presence of numerous sages who knew the prohibitions against public humiliation, Kamtza had his way and, after publicly embarrassing him, had Bar Kamtza thrown out of the party.
In hopes of having revenge not on his old enemy but the sages who had refused to stand up and defend him, Bar Kamtza convinced the local Roman ruler that the Roman Caesar should send a sacrifice to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to be offered up to the one Jewish G-d. He even insisted upon delivering the animals himself to the temple. On the way to the temple, he cut the lips of each of the animals designated for sacrifice, knowing that the Jewish priests would not be able to accept a “blemished” animal as a sacrifice.
When the Jewish priests and sages received the animals designated for sacrifice in the temple, they noticed the blemishes and a debate ensued over what to do? Should the sages be strict and follow the rules laid by the Torah-prescribed halacha, thereby rejecting the sacrifices from the Roman Caesar or should they bend to the political considerations of the moment and recognize that angering the Roman Caesar may lead to far graver consequences for the Jewish people as a whole? Only one sage was willing to argue fervently for rejecting the sacrifices, pointing out that if the halacha were to be subservient to political considerations, then the halacha would eventually be abolished. Despite the majority initially standing against him, this lone sage managed to convince the rest of his peers to, ultimately, reject the sacrifices. When the Roman Caesar heard of this act of insolence, he immediately assumed that this was a precursor to an open act of rebellion by the Jews and declared that the rebellion be put down before it had a chance to begin. This chain of events led to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Jewish Temple.
Reading this story in the context of the Talmud, it becomes clear that one of lessons the Talmud is trying to teach future generations of Jews is that the sages were mistaken in their judgment when they decided to be strict regarding an aspect of halacha that could, potentially, have drastic effects on the political fortunes of the Jewish nation as a whole. It is not important whether the events truly happened but rather that the sages were mistaken in their decision, even though the halacha they were following was a Torah-prescribed halacha.
Applying this Talmudic story to our modern context, another explanation arises for the Rabbinate’s behavior, with regards to Ivanka’s conversion. Before Donald Trump’s fortunes changed for the better, the Rabbinate had the leisure to rule on Ivanka’s conversion as they believed the halacha prescribes. Once Donald Trump became a serious contender in the presidential election and, as we all know, eventually winning the election, the Rabbinate was forced to consider what political consequences invalidating the conversion of the daughter of the future president of the United States may arise from such a decision. Is it possible that the Rabbinate’s decision to change their ruling, regarding Ivanka’s conversion, is indicative of our contemporary halachic authorities learning from our ancient ancestors?
Posing this explanation does not imply that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is above the corruption that many religious figures are embroiled in today, especially in light of the recent scandal surrounding a former Chief Rabbi of Israel. But in hopes of trying to assume the best of people before knowing otherwise, it may behoove us as members of this Jewish nation to consider that this change of heart may be indicative of the Rabbinate attempting to protect us from the potential political consequences of being a Torah-abiding Jew on the international stage.