Avoiding a Conversion Crisis

“Our community needs a lot of healing.”  Those were the powerful words of one congregant when we first arrived in Edmonton thirteen years ago. Sadly, the people had lost faith and respect for rabbis having been through over thirty rabbis in less than a century!   Each one that passed through would question the halachic status of the shul, the kashrut of the kitchen, the conversions of his predecessors, the way bat mitzvahs were performed, etc, etc. The people were fed up and confused.  Why wasn’t the previous rabbi kosher enough?  Will you or won’t you accept our conversion? Do we have to go through another one with you? He was Orthodox after all!  We felt the pain of these people. It wasn’t their fault.  How were they supposed to know which rabbi was acceptable and which one wasn’t?

In Parshat Vayeshev we have the most incredible sibling rivalry story ever. “Yosef would bring evil reports about them (his brothers) to their father. . . His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak to him peaceably.”  How could these holy tzadikim have such animosity toward each other especially as they were siblings?  Sibling rivalry – shouldn’t that be an oxymoron?  How could Yosef speak lashon hara about them? How could they sell him into slavery?

The Midrash explains that the evil report that Yosef told was that he saw his brothers eat flesh from a living animal, which is one of the noahide prohibitions.  The matter of contention, however, concerned what constitutes a living animal.  Our Sages explain that the brothers reasoned that once the animal was slaughtered, it was good to go, as the Torah states the law for Bnai Yisrael (Jews).  Yosef maintained that as noahides, they had to wait until the nerves of the dead animal ceased quivering to eat it.  In other words, their machlokes (dispute) was over their status before the Giving of the Torah.  Were they considered Bnai Yisrael or Bnai Noach?

Okay, so they had a debate over halacha.   Big deal.  Couldn’t they just agree to disagree?  Couldn’t they just respect one another’s opinions?Why did Yosef have to go tattletale on them?  Why were they so upset that they were willing to kill their own flesh and blood?

Judaism encourages healthy discourse.  The Talmud is filled with disagreements and varied opinions. Halachic disputation is healthy.  But there is one area where it becomes lethal and that is the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’  The sons of Yaakov were all great tzadikim.  They all loved each other and respected one another.  Only when the issue of their status arose did the animosity begin.   When their status was questioned, suddenly the stakes became way higher.

We have seen a lot of heated discussion of late in the international Orthodox community.  Debate is healthy and nobody should impose their views on anyone else.   If one person finds a rabbi or community they like, nobody should have the right to tell them that their rabbi or philosophy isn’t kosher enough.  It’s their choice and no one else’s business.  Indeed, the conflict today often concerns matters that are not clear or not even mentioned in our tradition.  That’s sibling rivalry and sometimes we must agree to disagree.

Nevertheless, that’s true as long as we’re merely contending over the finer points of halacha and tradition.  There is one area of Jewish life that we should never fight about.  And that’s status issues.  Where conversions are involved, we have to tread very carefully.  It’s no longer about our own opinions, needs or wants; we have to think about the rights of these holy souls that have come to take shelter under the wings of the Shechina, and the status and acceptance of their future children and grandchildren.

Coming to Edmonton, my husband recognized the nuances of acceptance into Orthodoxy.  He wanted to ensure that those who would convert under his watch were never going to be questioned again about their halachic status.  And so he made a decision not to perform any “in-house” conversions.  For the last thirteen years, all our conversions have gone through the universally accepted Chicago Rabbinical Council. Because Jewish status should not be a matter for debate.

It is wonderful that we have so many different ways to live by the Torah. Many people and organizations are doing fantastic work and have only the best of intentions regarding the spreading of Torah and Hashem’s light.  Clearly, the best approach to maximizing the number of adherents to traditional Judaism is an ongoing discussion.  But, first things first, we must always strive to protect the unborn convert.  If splitting our community in half will lead to future distress around status issues, we must think twice.

Each side may accuse the other of being the cause for the division; that’s not the point.  The point is, what are the consequences for the innocent bystanders — those who sincerely believe they are joining the ranks of Orthodoxy, only to have their status questioned years later?  That’s not fair.  That’s not what Hashem wants. And that’s why many in the leadership of the RCA have been very cautious in their response — the stakes are just way too high.

Ultimately, Hashem loves achdus (unity). Let us stand hand in hand with our brothers and sisters, even when we have different opinions on how to practice our Judaism.  However when it comes to who is a Jew what is our status, then the sibling rivalry stakes are just too high to disagree over.  I hope and pray that we can find a solution and the courage to live in unity once again very soon.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Hamsptead Garden Suburb Synagogue in London, UK and in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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