An Interview with Rabbi Hershel Schachter
BY: Jonathan Ziring
You are on the Rabbinical Council of America’s board on gerut (conversion). Can you briefly describe what the RCA’s policies are? Under what circumstances was the RCA’s policy on gerut formulated? Did they relate to circumstances in Israel?
I was not involved in the formulation of the policy, which was done by the Gerus Policies and Standards committee (GPS).[i] I was brought in as a compromise between different groups on the committee. They would have preferred a pulpit rabbi. I’m not generally involved in gerus. Once or twice a year, there’s a girl from Stern or a boy from Yeshiva who realizes he or she isn’t halachically Jewish so I go along and help them be megayyer (convert), but generally I’m not involved in gerus. Normally, the people involved in gerus are the rabbanim in the communities, not the rebbes in the yeshivah. But I agreed to join the committee when asked, and that’s why I’m involved. So now I do more than two a year.
I’m not familiar with any of the policies in Erets Yisrael. What are the standards here for the RCA? One of the policies that they always bring up is that you can’t convert a non-Jew if there is a deadline that he made up: for example, if he’s getting married on a certain date and has to have been converted by that date. We can’t feel rushed. I think this policy makes very good sense. Making a deadline is absolutely not right, because if you’re working with a deadline, then you’re rushing the process.
I’d like to say something about how the overall structure of conversion should work in Israel. They should have a centralized beis din in every location to take care of the gerim. I feel this is a good idea. Some rabbanim are opposed; they think the old system is better, though I can’t imagine why that would be the case. Some rabbis have been attacking the beis din in public from the pulpit. They say, “In Erets Yisrael it’s a disaster and in Britain it’s a disaster.” If it’s a disaster, it’s probably because the rabbanim are inefficient, are not doing their homework, and the whole process takes forever, which is not right. But centralization should make the system better, not worse. I don’t see how the two issues are connected with each other.
What is the RCA’s policy on necessitating kabbalat ha-mitsvot (the acceptance of the commandments) on the part of the potential convert? How specific must the beit din be in their clarification of these matters? How do you understand the opinion of Rambam (Issurei Bi’ah, chapter 14) on this issue?
The Rambam quotes the Gemara that modi’in lo miktsas mitsvos kallos u-miktsas mitsvos chamuros (we inform him of some light and some more severe mitsvos).[ii] R. Marc Angel printed an essay about 30 years ago in Tradition where he writes that the Rambam’s opinion is that kabbalas ol mitsvos (accepting the yoke of mitsvos) isn’t me’akkev.[iii] One of the rebbes in yeshivah showed it to R. Soloveitchik and he got furious. He said, “It’s ridiculous. Of course kabbalas ol mitsvos is me’akkev.” R. Moshe Feinstein quoted in the name of his father and R. Chayyim Ozer quoted in the name of all the classical posekim that when the Rambam says that the kabbalas ol mitsvos is not me’akkev, that’s talking about the dramatic kabbalas ol mitsvos – when the ger is in the water up to his neck moments before he is about to convert. The drama is not me’akkev,but if a person is not mekabbel ol mitsvos, of course it’s me’akkev. The person isn’t Jewish.
What do you believe about the opinion of R. Nachum Eisenstein, quoted in R. Elyashiv’s name, that any dayyan (judge) who believes the world is more than 5771 years old is a dayyan pasul (disqualified judge) and that his conversions are invalid?
It’s an extreme position, and in this case, he had to retract it the next day. It is not a position I would take seriously.
What is your opinion about R. Sherman’s pesak, which characterized R. Druckman as a kofer (heretic) for following a shittat mi’ut (minority opinion) that minimizes the requirements of kabbalat ol mitsvot and therefore cancelled all of his conversions?
He didn’t say he’s a kofer. He said that there is a Mishnah that says, “He-Chashud al davar, lo danno ve-lo me’iddo”[iv] – if someone is not observant in a certain area, he’s pasul le-edus (disqualified for testimony) in that area and can’t be a dayyan (judge) in that area. He said that we know that R. Druckman is mekabbel gerim even though they’re not up to par. Therefore, even if he carries out a gerus that is up to par, it’s a din in the Mishnah that he-chashud al davar – he’s not kasher to serve as a dayyan on the case.
Do you agree with R. Sherman’s application of that halakhah vis-à-vis R. Druckman?
I happen to be very friendly with R. Druckman, but I don’t understand why he got involved in gerus. I understand the government appointed him, but why did he accept? It’s not his field. It’s like them asking me to be in charge of spaceships; it’s not my field! He’s not in the area of pesak Halakhah. He’s a wonderful rabbi but he’s not really involved in the area of pesak Halakhah. I think it’s take a shande (actually outrageous) if it’s true that he was mekabbel gerim without kabbalas ol mitsvos. That’s scandalous. R. [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik, R. Moshe Feinstein, and R. Chayyim Ozer all read the Rambam the same way.
Is there more room for pushing to convert people who have a Jewish father, despite the fact that this does not count for Jewish identity in the formal and halakhic sense?
R. Marc Angel quotes something like that in the name of R. Uzziel, but I personally find it very difficult. I find that R. Uzziel’s teshuvos differ significantly from standard classical teshuvos, and many of the things he says I don’t understand.
What is your opinion about the retroactive cancellation of conversion (bittul gerut), such as was done in Israel after a woman practiced as a Jew for 15 years? Is retroactive cancellation of conversions halakhically problematic?
What do you mean “mevattel” (cancel)? You can’t be mevattel gerus. They just said that the beis din was pasul – we do that all the time. If a Conservative beis din did the conversion, we are “mevattel” it. Why were they mevattel her gerus? They just investigated all of R. Druckman’s conversions because of this case and then they were mevattel them. We know this R. Sherman [who was responsible for canceling the conversion in the case above]. He was here in Yeshiva for, I think, 2 or 3 months. He was giving shi’urim in the Kollel a little bit. He is a brother-in-law of R. Kook from Rehovot and he’s very sweet. This is not him. This doesn’t fit with his personality. Someone else must have wound him up and written that teshuvah; it’s a very poorly written essay and so repetitive – it must be 25 pages long! Terrible, terrible. That’s the way they always write things there? Someone else wrote that, he didn’t write that. Shechinah medabberes mi-toch gerono (lit. the Heavenly presence is speaking through his mouth). It’s clear he didn’t write that.
What do you believe Israel’s Law of Return should be based on? Should it be based on halakhic Jewishness, having some degree of Jewish blood, feeling connected o the Jewish nation or some combination of these options?
There is only one conception of Jewishness. Erets Yisrael doesn’t belong to the non-Jews. Erets Yisrael belongs to the Jewish people and the Jewish people are those who are Jewish. R. Soloveitchik said gerus is a halachic concept and there is no reason to introduce a halachic principle like this into the law.? Gerus is a halachah – if what is happening in battei din today doesn’t correspond to Halachah, then there’s no such concept of gerus, period.
To what extent is it important to have a uniform notion of conversion standards, and to what extent is there room for varying standards, if at all? In terms of process, motivation, etc.?
We should try to have everything be uniform. Really, all the eruvin (enclosures around communities permitting carrying on Shabbat) should be uniform also. Let’s say a family lives in one community with an eruv and then they go for a sheva berachos or a bar mitzvah to another community with its own eruv, the two eruvin are probably not the same and maybe their rabbi wouldn’t approve of the eruv over in the other community. So it’s not really right – there should be standards for eruvin. Years ago, the president of the RCA said they should have funeral standards. Why shouldn’t you have eruvin standards? Eruvin standards are more important than funeral standards. Most of the ceremonies that take place at funerals are just minhagim (customs). The presidents of the RCA, one after the other, said they didn’t want an eruvin committee because the Rav was opposed to eruvin. What does it help that the Rav was opposed to eruvin? Every other city has an eruv, so you should have standards for that! But they still don’t have eruv standards and that’s not right.
Similarly, in our case of conversion, let’s say a boy falls in love with a girl and she’s converted by a local rabbi – his rabbi might not accept that conversion. So there should really be standards for these weighty halachic issues.
For many years, there were many rabbanim who would be megayyer women and the beis din would stand outside the mikveh, mi-ta’am tseni’us (for reasons of modesty). So many tsaddikim did that, while many others hold it’s not acceptable. R. Moshe Feinstein has a teshuvah to Dayyan Grosnas in London in which he said, “I agree, it’s a sefeika de-dina (legally unclear case), so you should repeat the gerus beli berachah (without a blessing).”[v] So that’s a problem. Many rabbis in America are megayyer women and they don’t have the beis din present in the room. Now I think most have changed over. There were some who had the tradition to follow those tsaddikim and ge’onim who said that the beis din may not be in the room when a woman converts, but when they realized that R. Moshe says not to follow that opinion, they changed their policy and began to insist that the beis din stand inside the room, all the while ensuring that it is done in a tsniusdike (modest) fashion. So it’s very important to have uniform standards.
What does the institution of conversion in the Torah tell us about the Torah’s notion of Jewishness/Jewish chosenness?
Here and there one may find a din that a ger has a slightly lower level of kedushah regarding certain mitsvos, but by the next generation, where horaso ve-leidaso (his conception and birth) are bi-kedushah (while his mother is a Jew), he will be a full-fledged Jew. Whoever is Jewish is Jewish and has kedushas Yisrael (the holiness of a Jew).
Rabbi Hershel Schachter is a Rosh Yeshivah in MYP/RIETS, occupies YU’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud, and is the Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel.
[i] Editor’s note: For articles related to the GPS and the RCA policies on conversion, see: http://www.judaismconversion.org/Articles_About_GPS.html.
[ii] Yevamot 47b.
[iii] Marc D. Angel, “Another Halakhic Approach to Conversions,” Tradition 12:3-4 (Winter 1972): 107-113.
[iv] Mishnah, Bekhorot 5:4.
[v] Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:127.