Friday, June 13, 2008

Naomi Ragen - A Modest Proposal [for the conversion crisis]

What follows are comments which I assume were sent by Naomi Ragen. I personally view them as a gross misunderstanding of the issue - but I do acknowledge that there are many who agree with her views. In the interest of civil dialogue with a sincere person who has a significant impact on society I am publishing her comments - even though I personally find them offensive. Improvement in the present situation does require greater mutual understanding than exists at present. Please note that since this is a moderated forum, I will reject all comments which I feel do not promote dialogue.


A Modest Proposal

By Naomi Ragen

What began as a routine divorce between a Danish-born convert and her Israeli husband now threatens to tear apart the country, opening deep wounds and revealing the ugly face of the haredi judges who rule Israel's Rabbinical Court system.

This all began during an uncontested divorce in Ashdod. Rabbi Avraham Attia, a member of the Ashdod Rabbinical Court, asked the woman a question or two about her religious observance (which was none of his business, by the way). Apparently, he didn't like her answer, or maybe he didn't like the way she was dressed. In any case, on February 22, 2007- ignoring the reason she had come to court in the first place- he ruled that her conversion was invalid! Since she was not Jewish, she was not really married to her husband and therefore did not need a divorce.

By overturning this woman's conversion, which had taken place in the special conversion court set up in 1995 to help convert many Russian soldiers and other immigrants who wanted to be Jewish, but found the Rabbinical Courts unwelcoming, Attia, and his haredi counterparts, were calling into question the validity of thousands of conversions that have taken place there, and insulting its head, Rabbi Haim Druckman, the spiritual leader of religious Zionism in Israel.

On April 22, 2007, the couple appealed the lower court decision to the Higher Rabbinical Court, arguing that the Ashdod court had exceeded its authority and violated religious law, disqualifying Druckman's court without giving him a chance to defend himself.

The Higher Court ignored these issues. Instead, it chose to deal only with the question of whether the woman was observant. Granting the divorce, the court also ruled that the Jewishness of the woman and her children was in doubt and needed to be re-examined, and that in the meantime the family should be added to the list of people who are forbidden to marry. Outrageously, they ruled that all Druckman's conversion decisions since 1999 should be canceled, and that marriage registrars not register a convert who does not look observant from his or her external appearance.

This unbelievable decision was not only a slap in the face to religious Zionism, but openly violated the severe Torah prohibition of oppressing the convert and causing them pain, i.e. Shemot 23:9 - "Do not oppress a convert; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Ruth (not her real name) is on my mailing list. She is a convert. This decision has broken her heart. She writes: "At what point will my children and I no longer have to worry that someone will unilaterally and arbitrarily remove the cloak of Torah and Jewish identity out of our self-definition? How many years - 30, 50, 100 - never?

Does this mean that if I ever speak a drop of lashon hara, or some of my hair peeks out from under my tichel, or my elbows become uncovered, or I wear my sandals without socks - that I must reckon with someone's claims that this is sufficient evidence to disclaim my Jewish soul? If the Rabbis today reject numerous sincere converts and needlessly oppress them, causing them untold pain, is this not a much more terrible sin than a convert who may not keep all her hair covered? We do not care to be involved in internal conflicts and back biting. We call upon all G-d fearing Jews to speak with one voice in our defense. We ask all Jews to not become embroiled and ensnared in this evil which will split the Jewish nation if not reined in now. We ask that you stand up for us and call our leaders to account."

Susan Weiss, an attorney for the Center for Justice for Women, who represents the Danish convert, has taken this case to Israel's Supreme Court. Her petition is aimed at Avraham Attia, Dayanim Avraham Sherman, Hagai Eiserer and Avraham Scheinfeld of the Higher Rabbinical Court. According to Weiss, the case highlights many of the faults of the rabbinical courts. "They have no concept of due process or fairness, and they display no sensitivity to those who come before them," she told Dan Izenburg of the Jerusalem Post.

I have a modest proposal. Since all the dayanim involved here have openly violated an oft stated Torah prohibition against"oppressing the convert," and have spoken slanderously against a fellow Rabbi (another strict prohibition), they can hardly be called G-d fearing or religious. In light of their behavior, I think we should retroactively take away their rabbinical ordination, and nullify all the decisions in which they've been involved. They should certainly be thrown out of their posts as judges.



  1. As I've asked on several blogs "do the rabbinic leaders of the charedi world in general view the “national religious” (/MO) approach as an acceptable approach in serving the master of the universe?"

    If the answer is no, then the rest is commentary.

    Joel Rich

  2. Mrs. Raglen your basic problem is that you define what the Torah means by upsetting a ger apparently totally unaware that it only applies to someone who is in fact a ger - not someone who thinks that they are a ger.

    The beis din determined that she was not in fact a ger. If you took the trouble to speak to a talmid chachom or at least reading through the relevant material which has been published on this blog - you will discover that such authorities as Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Riskin, Achiezer, Rav Shlomo Goren etc etc hold that without the acceptance of mitzvos there is no conversion. If there is no conversion than the Torah prohibition doesn't apply.

    It is very problematic for a person to assert that what he/she thinks is right - is obviously G-d's will.

    Doesn't Jewish scholarship count for anything?

    If you have any rabbinic authorities who agree with your evaluation - please cite them.

    Perhaps you can consult with Prof. Tamar Ross or some other scholar to provide you with an acceptable basis for your intuition.

  3. R' Joel Rich wrote,
    As I've asked on several blogs "do the rabbinic leaders of the charedi world in general view the “national religious” (/MO) approach as an acceptable approach in serving the master of the universe?"
    1) Perhaps you would like to define what national religous/MO means and how it differs from other forms of Judaism.
    2) Concerning realitiy - the chareidi world is simply not interested what the MO world has to say qua MO world. If they want to talk scholarship then fine. However all the comments I have seen coming from the MO/RZ world have been "isn't this a shame", "you can't do something like this" I find it embarrasing that the MO/RZ world is approaching these problems like a recent baal teshuva.Where are the halachic arguments?

  4. I think R' Joel is trying to make a salient point. (And if not, I'm hereby making it.)

    If some part of the chareidi world doesn't consider DL a valid path for serving G-d, then they would have to conclude their geirim aren't geirim. Regardless of any other issues.

    And I believe you're mistaken. The RCA straightforwardly says there is no way to revoke a pro-forma correct conversion short of examining the particular person and determining that at the moment of conversion they didn't seriously want to follow the Torah. (Including learning more as they go.) Blanket pronouncements about a court are basis-less.



    "I had come from America for religious reasons. Lech Lecha Me Artizecha. I wanted to live in Jerusalem, to dwell in G-d's house all the days of my life.

    And yet, I began to feel more and more out of place. What was I doing in the park with my wig and jeans skirts and little babies working on writing term papers on the love poetry of John Donne, the poetic imagination in Coleridge? The male element in the women of D.H.Lawrence? When all the women around me were busy gossiping over what brand of kosher margarine was more kosher? When they wore longer skirts, and stockings with seams and sleeves to their wrists? Slowly it began to dawn on me that I was uncomfortable among my own kind, religious Jews. That I didn't fit in among them anymore than I had fit in among the Italians in Canarsie or the Catholics in Far Rockaway.

    This was a tremendous, traumatic and heartbreaking shock to me. Because I wanted desperately to keep all the mitzvos, to rise higher and higher, to be part of a society that would be as close to G-d as possible. And yet, the thought of dressing as they did, of spending my days as they did, of giving up my writing, my work at the University, made me ill. All the vague misgivings I had had in Boro Park now came back with new strength. I could not live the life of the women around me. I was being pushed out against my will in very subtle ways, being made to feel there was no room for me, for any kind of variety in religious life and observance. Maybe it was all subjective, just something in my head. But that's how I felt.

    I left the neighborhood. "

    Naomi Ragen does not speak on behalf of Jews or Judaism.

  6. My point is that micro-halacha exists in the context of more macro issues. Where you fall out on a micro issue often flows from the macro viewpoint. How you view someone elses micro point often flows from how you view his macro approach. How you treat someone you disagree with often flows from your view of his macro approach. The reported nature of this whole incident and reaction appears to be of a different nature than one would have expected sans "political" considerations.

    Joel Rich

  7. I think the issues need to be separated before general disagreement ruins all dialogue. To wit:

    1) Was the court right in revoking the Danish woman's conversion in the first place? If she presented as a convert, then someone must have converted her. He wasn't contacted to explain himself. I think that is what is troubling about how this started. What's more, she was presenting for a divorce. Is the court halachically obliged to delve into her background for such matters?

    2) The manner in which this was carried out is also a source of controversy. Koheles tells us the words of the wise are best heard when said gently. Agree with what they said or not, I think most people would accept that the rabbonim who nullified the conversions in this case handled the situation in the worst way possible. Again, wihtout concluding whether they were right or wrong, their approach humiliated and frightened thousands of people that were then given no chance to defend themselves.

    3) Daat Torah is right that the answers "You just can't do that!" and "Isn't this a shame!" are not acceptable in a halachic debate. If one wishes to argue with Rav Shirman and his court, one needs to use the same halacha they used to reach their decision.
    The problem in this case is that we haven't heard any attempt by Rav Shirman or anyone else to find out what Rav Druckman was doing and why he was doing it. We do know he was relying on several poskim including Rav Ovadiah Yosef to run his program and that he is Yirei Shomayim yet he has been reduced to a mute strawman in this debate.

    Having said that, I have a question about acceptance of mitzvos during conversion. What is the status of a ger who accepts that there are mitzvos, they are authorititative but he simply does not wish to abide by them?
    i.e. He knows that the best way for a Jew to practice is al pi halachah but doesn't feel it's for him.

  8. The furor and fallout continue, as reported in the Jerusalem Post:

    Ombudsman recommends firing rabbinic judge in Druckman saga

    Jerusalem Post
    Jun 12, 2008 22:21

    In another salvo in the ongoing battle surrounding state-sponsored conversions, Tova Strasberg-Cohen, a former Supreme Court judge and ombudsman of the judiciary, called on the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges to consider removing Rabbi Avraham Sherman from his post as judge on the High Rabbinical Court for badmouthing the head of the National Conversion Authority Rabbi Haim Druckman.

    Strasberg-Cohen's letter was addressed to Druckman and was a response to a complaint filed by Druckman against Sherman.

    "In light of the serious faults in Rabbi Sherman's conduct, I find it appropriate to recommend that the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges consider firing Sherman," the letter said.

    "Sherman's behavior is not in accordance with the legal system's ethical standards nor is it in line with that system's fundamental principles.

    "It seems to me that Rabbi Sherman's perception of the essence of his role and obligations is flawed. My impression is that Sherman has not internalized the problematic nature of his conduct and the way he ran the case against Druckman."

    Strasberg-Cohen's letter comes after Sherman issued a 50-page document - half halachic decision, half diatribe - against Druckman and the Conversion Authority.

    The document, in which Sherman discredits Druckman as a rabbinical judge, was copied and distributed during a conference for rabbinical judges several months ago.

    Druckman was never given a chance to respond to the charges leveled against him, which included forgery, purposely transgressing Halacha and placing a stumbling block before the wider public.

    The upshot of Sherman's document was that the validity of all the conversions performed by Druckman and other religious Zionist judges was questioned.

    Doubt was cast on the Jewishness of literally thousands of converts and Druckman's good name was besmirched.

    Strasberg-Cohen's letter includes a response from Sherman.

    According to Strasberg-Cohen, Sherman said that the ombudsman did not have the power to judge the case since it involved halachic issues that "involved the very soul of the Jewish people".

    Sherman also said that his accusations against Druckman were based on classified documents that belonged to the rabbinical courts and could not be shared with others.

    In an official response released by the Rabbinical Courts in the name of Sherman, it was stated that the high rabbinical court judge had conducted himself in accordance with the Halacha, the law and ethical standards.

    "Rabbi Sherman is sorry for the pain caused as a result of the publishing of the halachic opinion," read the press release.

    "However, rabbinical judges are obligated to abide by the laws of the Torah as written and expounded upon by the great rabbis of each generation.

    "According to Torah law it is forbidden for a judge to be partial out of deference to social standing or rank, especially in a ruling that deals with maintaining the purity of the Jewish people."

    Strasberg-Cohen's intervention is the second time this year that the secular legal system has sided with the religious Zionist rabbinical establishment against the haredim.

    The first incident came earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled that local rabbis had to allow the sale of Jewish farmers' produce grown under heter mechira, a halachic solution that permits the temporary sale of Jewish-owned land to gentiles, to permit planting and harvesting during the shmita (sabbatical) year.

  9. Shalom,

    You might be interested in reading what I wrote about the conversion crisis: Here.


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