Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Danger of Decentralization

One of the neat things about halacha is the way that it's set up to handle changing circumstances.  One of the not-so-neat things is that the great poskim of our nation often don't handle changing circumstances well and as a result the implementation of halacha suffers.
One such area of Jewish law is geirus, conversion.  Now on the surface it seems pretty cut and dried.  There are three elements to the process:
a) Acceptance of the authority of the mitzvos before a qualified Beis Din
b) Circumcison (for males only, please!)
c) Immersion in a mikveh
However, halacha is never that simple.  The decision to accept the potential convert into the process of conversion is up to the beis din and there are no ironclad rules there.  There is no obligation, for example, to accept just any old candidate who shows up and expresses an interest.  Certainly if a secondary gain or underlying agenda is detected the beis din is free to reject the candidate.  As horrifying and exclusionary as that sounds to some we must remember that no Gentile has an obligation to convert to Judaism.  Turning them away doesn't cause them any loss. 
(Frankly the way we're behaving these days it's probably doing them a favour)
Another important factor, tied into the whole agenda issue, is that of the status of Jews in the world.  The halacha seems to strongly imply that when we're doing well we're not to accept converts.  For example Chazal tell us that during the reigns of David haMelech, a"h, and Shlomo haMelech, a"h, conversions were not allowed.  Chazal were concerned that people would want to convert because of the benefits of Jewish citizenship, not out of a pure and altruistic love of God.
The establishment of the State of Israel, along with the integration and achieved equality of Jews in Western countries has raised this issue once again.  There are once again perceived benefits to being Jewish, especially in Israel where many people seem to confuse Israeli and Jewish citizenship.  Add to that in the West the rising rate of intermarriage, chalilah, and therefore the number of Gentile spouses seeking conversion to imcrease family harmony. Finally throw in the non-observant so-called streams of Judaism and their illegitimate conversion processes and suddenly all sorts of complexities raise their ugly heads.
That's why I think the new Israeli law meant to decentralize conversions will wind up causing more problems than it solves.
Now it's not every day (or month, or year) that I find myself agreeing with Chareidi political positions.  In this case, however, they are correct to insist that the central Rabbanut maintains control of the process.
Yes, there are problems with how the Rabbanut does conversions.  It has been co-opted by the Chareidi leadership and has imposed neo-Chareidi standards for conversion, presenting them as the authentic mesorah the same way they do in every other area of Jewish life.  Conversion candidates are often harassed or made to feel unwelcome.  The demands placed on them go beyond what halacha actually expects and the idea that they can be stripped of their Jewish status without so much as a by-your-leave if they fall afoul of even the most minor Chareidi chumrah is against authentic halacha.
But what't the alternative?  Decentralizing the conversion process sounds nice and it allowed other Orthodox  rabbonim, especially the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox ones, into the game.  What's more, for the most part those conversions will likely follow the Rabbanut's standards.  And yes, that's what the Chareidim are principally objecting to: a break in their monopoly. 
On the other hand the Chareidi sector is the largest and most influential of those in the observant world.  Pushing through a process their leadership objects to would lead to consequences such as automatic rejection of all non-Chareidi conversions.  We already have enough trouble explaining to Reformative converts why they aren't really Jewish and in those cases we have solid halachic ground upon which to stand.  How do we explain to an Orthodox candidate that a huge chunk of the Torah observant world rejects him despite his unconditional commitment to Torah and mitzvos?
The answer is to grow the non-Chareidi component of the Orthodox community through outreach and inreach until it becomes the most dominant sector in the Torah world.  This won't happen overnight and not without tremendous changes in the outlook of the non-Chareidi Torah leadership but it is the only way to end the bullying without simultaneously defranchising many committed Jews.  Until then the process of conversion must, for the sake of the converts and their need to be accepted by all observant Jews, remain centralized.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Who Writes What Matters?

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink tends to lean left, sometimes far left, when it comes to Orthodoxy.  His latest piece on the concept of the modern Midrash is a strong example of this.  While it's a well-written piece and certainly addresses a need among some it also has a gaping hole in its centre.
The Midrash has always occupied a difficult place in our literature.  On one hand it's not Talmud.  There are almost no legal statements in the Midrash and on the rare occasion that they appear we are under no obligation to pasken by them.  They are almost all tales, fables, moral lessons and elucidations of verses in our holy Scriptures.  Some are practical, some are interpretive and some are simply bizarre.
However it is important to remember that all are the produce of Chazal.  They are not simply whimsical storeis written by folks with a passing knowledge in Tanach to kill a few hours on a dreary afternoon.  They continue deeper meanings that are available to those who study them properly.
This is where Rabbi Fink's piece goes wrong.  His calling the movie Noah a modern midrash, for example, is ridiculous.  Noah is not a midrash. It is a Hollywood blockbuster loosely based on the original story.  Unlike the real Midrash it is not meant to teach any moral lesson.  It does not hesitate to alter the original story, eliminating or introducing new characters where the writers felt like it.  Like The Ten Commandments it may be a breathtaking piece of film making but it is not an accurate representation of events as they were.
Therefore his next conclusion that we need to be writing modern midrashim also needs to be taken with a large grain of kosher salt.  As noted above, the midrashim were written by Chazal, men who had the entire Torah, Written and Oral, at their mental fingertips.  They were also the inheritors of centuries of tradition.  Is there anyone alive today who is even close to that level?
Ironically I could answer that anyone who might be would also never dare consider writing a new midrash.  Once they have achieved that level of knowledge they are well aware of the complexity of the original and how silly it would be to try and reproduce that with any authority.
Perhaps it's the egalitarian age that we live in that has gotten to Rabbi Fink.  Years ago I read an interview with the author of a piece of fiction called The Red Tent.  It is an account of the story of Dinah and what happened to her at the hands of the wicked Shechem.  Naturally it was all made up by the author.  The title of the book is one such invention.  In her mind she recoiled from the idea that menstruating women were seen as somehow unclean during the time of our Avos and created the "red tent" that such a woman would be banished to.  In typical liberal fashion the interviewer and interviewee proceeded to criticize our Avos for doing such things even though those things were all the fabrication of the author!  At the end the interviewer wrote that she thought that this book was the same thing as Midrash since it was a person taking a sparse story from the Torah and fleshing it out.
Kind of like having the personal support worker from the nursing home performing an emergency appendectomy in the local hospital because, well the surgeon works in health care and he works in health care so why can't he also operate?
We must remember that real life is not so egalitarian.  If modern LWMO's want to invent stories to fulfill their need to have the Bible reflect their views then let them but don't call it Midrash.  That's simply not honest.