The TALI Education Fund (TALI = Hebrew acronym for Enriched Jewish Studies) is marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem with its 7th annual music festival with the participation of 1,500 pupils from 35 TALI schools from all over Israel.
In May 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman and two other judges of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate ruled that all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Chaim Drukman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999 are retroactively annulled and that Rabbi Drukman and his fellow judges are disqualified judges.
On May 30th, Jonathan Rosenblum defended that decision in the Jerusalem Post, as if it affected only one convert in Ashdod and as if “Rabbi Sherman was stating the overwhelming consensus of halachic opinion”. We shall demonstrate below that that ruling and that article have presented this complex issue in a totally one-sided and inaccurate fashion.
Thousands of conversions questioned / Ynet
High Rabbinical Court calls into question all conversions performed by Rabbi Chaim Drukman since 1999
This decision has severe national implications for the State of Israel. Approximately 300,000 Russian immigrants who have made aliyah under the Law of Return since 1990 are not halachically Jewish. Through great effort, the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies set up after the Ne’eman Commission in 1998 and the National Conversion Authority have converted many thousands of Russian immigrants who studied for 1-3 years in very serious courses. Rabbi Sherman’s ruling retroactively annuls all these conversions.
Furthermore, this ruling will deter all future conversions. If a conversion can be annulled many years after it is performed, it means that all conversions are conditional – so why bother converting at all?
This ruling is a desecration of God’s name, which makes a mockery of thousands of converts and hundreds of teachers and rabbis who have worked so hard to convert them.
This episode shows once again that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which was founded by Religious Zionists, is now a haredi institution opposed to all lenient approaches within Jewish law.
Finally, the haredi position has already led to an absurd situation: he who is strict regarding conversion is lenient regarding intermarriage. In the past, this was a Diaspora phenomenon, but now, with the mass aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, if we do not convert the Russian immigrants, they will marry our children and grandchildren!
Rabbi Sherman’s ruling is based primarily on one major premise: A convert must accept all of the mitzvot before converting and observe all the mitzvot after converting. If not, he is not Jewish and his conversion can be retroactively annulled. Furthermore, judges who performed conversions without this requirement, are ipso facto disqualified from serving as judges.
He relies on Rabbis Feinstein, Grodzinsky, Sternbuch, Auerbach, Kuk, Schmelkes, Yosef, Kanievsky, Shach and Elyashiv. Almost all are Haredi rabbis who are opposed to modernity, Zionism and the State of Israel.
Their strict approach to Kabbalat (accepting) Mitzvot stems from two sources:
Rabbi Yitzhak Schmelkes penned a revolutionary responsum in 1876: “A person who converts and accepts the yoke of the mitzvot but does not intend in his heart to observe them – God desires the heart, and he is not a convert”. This approach has no precedent in 2,000 years of halakhic discussions about conversion. Indeed, Rabbi Schmelkes was aware that his ruling contradicts the well-known halachic principal that “devarim shebalev einam devarim” (things of the heart are not things).
The second source for the haredi position is a passage in Bekhorot 30b: “Our Sages taught: …if an idol worshipper came to accept (lekabel) the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him. R. Yossi b”r Yehudah says: even if the exception be one of the minutiae of the Scribes (i.e. the Sages)”. The major medieval codes of Jewish law such as Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh ignored this passage. It was revived by 19th-20th century rabbis who wanted to reject most converts.
‘Entire house of cards rests on just one card’ Thus, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein repeatedly states in his response that a convert must accept all of the mitzvot: “… and without accepting mitzvot, even one detail, behold it is written in Bekhorot 30 that we do not accept him…”
The normative position, however, is found in another passage in the Talmud – Yevamot 47a-b. If a person comes to convert, you ask him if he knows that the Jewish people is “persecuted and oppressed. If he replies ‘I know and yet am unworthy’ he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments… And… he is informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment… He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. Kibel (if he accepted/consented), he is circumcised forthwith… (Afterwards, when he is immersed) two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects…”
This baraita, from the second century or earlier, was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh.
The key phrase is “kibel” – if he accepted/consented. This obviously does not refer to acceptance of all the mitzvot because he has only been instructed in some of the minor and some of the major mitzvot! So what does it mean?
Rabbi Ouziel (1880-1953), first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, explained as follows: “It is clear from (Yevamot 47a-b) that we do not demand of him to observe the mitzvot and it is also not necessary that the Bet Din know that he will observe them, for if not, no converts will be accepted in Israel, for who will guarantee that this gentile will be loyal to all the mitzvot in the Torah! Rather, they instruct him in some of the mitzvot so that if he wants he should go away and so that he cannot say later ‘if I had known I would not have converted’. And this is before the fact, but after the fact – if they did not instruct him, it is not indispensable… (It) is permissible and a mitzvah to accept converts even though we know that they will not observe all the mitzvot because in the end they will observe them…”
Other prominent Orthodox rabbis who have taken lenient approaches towards kabbalat mitzvot include Chief Rabbi Unterman and Rabbis Kluger, Mashash, Moshe Hacohen, Berkowitz and Angel.
Thus the entire “house of cards” built by Rabbi Sherman rests on just one card: that all poskim agree that all converts must accept all mitzvot. Indeed, this is the position of most Ashkenazic Haredi rabbis since the year 1876. But it is not normative Jewish law. Normative Jewish law for 2,000 years has followed Yevamot that a convert accepts the halakhic system and its rewards and punishments, not all of the mitzvot which he has yet to learn.
To say that a rabbi who rules differently is unfit to judge is the equivalent to saying that a person who waits 3 hours instead of 6 hours between meat and milk does not keep kosher. Different halachic rulings are based on different sources and they are equally legitimate.
I hope and pray that the Supreme Court of Israel will overturn this mistaken and destructive ruling.
I hope and pray that the State of Israel will start to appoint modern Orthodox and other qualified rabbis as dayanim. If not, the Chief Rabbinate will have to be abolished because it will have cut itself off from most of the Jewish people.
Finally, I hope and pray that the State of Israel will make every effort to welcome converts for “a convert is more beloved by God than the multitudes who stood at Mount Sinai” and “a convert who comes to convert, one reaches out a hand in order to bring him under the wings of Heaven”.
The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies sponsored a special conference on Jewish Education in Israel and the Diaspora Tuesday.
The conference featured a special panel on Prof. Walter Ackerman’s recently published book “Jewish Education – For What? and Other Essays”, which includes a collection of articles dealing with Jewish education in Israel and the Diaspora.
Among the researchers who took part in the conference were Dr. Brenda Bacon from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and Prof. Hanan Alexander of the University of Haifa.
Dr. Bacon, one of the book’s editors, explained its importance: “The largest centers of Jewish populations today are in Israel and the US even though these are two very different populations dealing with different social issues, they share educational challenges.
“The work done in the field of Jewish education in both countries is significant and provides a model for research in Jewish education in other Jewish communities as well.”
Dr. Ari Ackerman, of the Schechter Institute’s Jewish Education Center and co-editor of the book, added that Ackerman’s work has laid the foundation for academic research in the field of education, which is a relatively new field in academia.
“Prof. Ackerman is familiar with the inner workings of the Jewish education system… He pioneered research on Jewish education, and considered the ideal Jewish school graduate in America to be proficient and well-versed in Jewish sources.”
Upon coming to Israel, Prof. Ackerman headed the School of Education at Ben Gurion University and built the Jewish education track at the Schechter institute for Jewish Studies.
The book was published jointly by the Schechter Institute, the Kelman Center for Jewish Education at Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and the Center for Jewish Education at the University of Haifa.
Figures huddled over desks furiously writing and rewriting scripts, others excitedly preparing to go on air, making sure microphones are in place and the sound level is just right… none of the above would seem out of place in any radio station across the globe. There is one striking difference, however – most of the above radio personnel are aged between 11 and 12.
The media venture in question is the TALI schools’ program that airs one Wednesday per month, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on 106 FM. The radio project was initiated by Nava Tal, the southern regional director of the TALI Education Fund responsible for network schools between Tel Aviv and Eilat, and is now into its first – and thus far highly successful – year.
TALI (the Hebrew acronym for Enriched Jewish Studies) is a nationwide network incorporating over 70 state schools and pre-school facilities that aims to provide a pluralistic Jewish education for secular Israelis. Tal says the radio program, which involves around 20 fifth-grade pupils, is an extension of the network’s ethos, and is a means to disseminate a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to Judaism.
The seed for the project was sown, in fact, by default. “I got the idea about 10 years ago, when I was principal of a school in Armon Hanatziv,” Tal explains. “We had weekly sessions between kids from the school and kids from an Arab school in the nearby village of Jebl Mukaber. The idea was to generate dialogue between the children and to enlighten each other about our cultural and religious baggage.”
However, the exchange of information proved to be a little one sided. “We had serious communication problems,” Tal continues. “The Arab children came from a conservative rural background and the Jewish kids couldn’t answer the Arabs’ questions about their own, Jewish, religion. I then realized we had to do something about reinforcing the kids’ Jewish roots.”
Tal started working with the TALI network and soon realized there was fertile ground for turning her cultural enrichment vision into reality. “I thought about how to take the Jewish topics taught at TALI schools – like the parshat hashavua and religious holidays – and make them more contemporary and relevant to the kids’ lives.” But it wasn’t just about making religious themes more amenable. Tal believed that if the kids were really to get to grips with Jewish topics they would have to “get their hands dirty.”
“I wanted the children to do the work themselves. The media allow kids to take subjects they study and present them to listeners, while aiming for the common denominator between us all. That is an important [principle] of TALI, and of the radio show. We want to bridge gaps, and connect with things that bring us together rather than divide us. There are enough divisions in Israeli society, it is time we bridged some.”
Judging by the action going down at the Kagan Center – in the old part of the Katamonim quarter – before the last broadcast of the TALI radio show, Tal has found some willing junior partners in her quest. “I love doing the show,” says Nir Ben-Dror, 11, from the TALI school in Gilo A. “I’ve been doing it for about six months. It’s a lot of fun and I think it’s a good way of bringing people together.” Ben-Dror is certainly a streetwise 11-year-old. “I know there are all sorts of arguments between religious and secular Jews. We’re traditional, I think that’s the best middle ground. It brings haredi and less observant Jews together. It’s not extreme.”
“And we don’t necessarily look at things in a religious way,” proffers 11-year-old Alona Rabin from the Frankel TALI school in French Hill. “It’s like we did something on [Israeli astronaut] Ilan Ramon. We talked about his space voyage, but we also mentioned that he took religious artifacts with him on the space ship, and made kiddush. Rabin (“I’m not his relative,” she quickly pre-empted an oft-asked question, when she gave her name) agrees with Ben-Dror’s golden mean observation. “You have to look for the things we share, and not go to the extremes. That only brings arguments.”
Thus far, the junior radio presenters have put on shows about a wide range of topics, from religious holidays to adults’ hobbies, with added musical entertainment – some of it somewhat surprising for children of such tender years. “We’ve had a lot of Israeli music – contemporary and older – but I also put a couple of Beatles numbers in one of the shows,” says Ben-Dror. “Actually, I wanted to play four Beatles songs, but we ran out of time.”
The kids write their own scripts, find all the interviewees themselves and surf the Internet for material. They get in situ guidance from media professional Naama Bar-Zvi, who is duly impressed with what she has seen and heard so far. “They are a great bunch of kids, and they are always enthusiastic about coming here and doing the work,” she says. “I don’t have to push them all. I just give them a gentle nudge in the right direction once in a while.”
There’s been plenty of positive feedback over the eight or nine months since the radio show began. “We get all sorts of children and adults writing to us to our Web site,” says Shoham Shenhav, 11, from Mevaseret Zion. “They tell us what they liked or didn’t like, and make suggestions for new items. I think we are getting something across to other children, and to adults.”
The radio show is enthusiastically supported by parents, too. “They pay NIS 750 a year for their kids to take part in the show,” says Tal. “One parent told me she thought it was the best [activity] her child had ever participated in. It also shows the parents are committed.” The parent’s financial input is crucial. “We don’t get any support from the Education Ministry,” Tal adds. “I didn’t really expect [any]. The government has a long list of priorities and education doesn’t always feature at the top.”
Nonetheless, she feels the show has a bright future. “The response until now has been wonderful. There is obviously a real need for something like this, and for the messages the kids are getting across. We purposely took fifth-graders, and they will stay on next year and help the next group of fifth-graders. I think the show is going to be around for a while.”