In 2007, the State of Israel Beit Din (rabbinic court) of Ashdod nullified a conversion that had occurred many years earlier, claiming that the convert, from the time of the conversion, was only partially observant of Mitzvot (what is commonly referred to in Israel as “traditional”) and not fully committed to Mitzvah observance. The woman appealed to the Rabbinic Court of Appeals, in which two great Dayyanim (rabbinic judges), Rav Shlomo Dichovsky and Rav Avraham Sherman, disagreed as to whether to uphold or reject the lower Beit Din’s ruling. Next week, we shall review this debate, which has drawn much attention.
This week, however, we shall clarify that there does exist a concept of Bittul Geirut in Halachah. We shall present a ruling of a Religious-Zionist State of Israel Beit Din that, although known for its fairly lenient approach to conversion, nonetheless nullified a conversion in the following situation (this ruling is recorded in Techumin 23:186-202): A woman and her three–year-old child applied for conversion. Upon receiving enthusiastic endorsements of the woman’s complete Mitzvah observance and Torah education of her daughter, the Beit Din accepted their credentials and converted the mother and her daughter.
However, the Israeli government’s Ministry of Interior discovered that the woman, both before and after the conversion, maintained (for a number of years) an ongoing relationship, including physical relations, with a Nochri gentleman. Upon this revelation (which, of course, the Beit Din that approved the conversion was unaware of) the Ministry of Interior submitted a request to the rabbinic court to nullify the conversion. This nullification would not only have potential religious consequences but would also cause the expulsion of the woman and her daughter from Israel, since they received automatic Israeli citizenship on the basis of their status as Jews. We should clarify, though, that the gentleman, a foreign worker in Israel, had attempted to enter a conversion program but was rejected due to his lack of Israeli citizenship. He could not convert in the country where he was a citizen (Turkey) because there was no conversion study program in that country. We should also note that the linkage between conversion and Israeli citizenship, for better or for worse, makes conversion in Israel much more complex and controversial than outside of Eretz Yisrael.
The potential basis for nullifying the Geirut was the woman’s apparent flawed Kabbalat Mitzvot (commitment to observe Torah) and the fact that the Beit Din’s approval of her conversion had been based on her apparently deceptive presentation of herself as fully observant of Torah law.
The Minority Opinion
One rabbinic judge on the panel of the rabbinic court (which consists of three rabbis), Rav David Bass, ruled that although he certainly would not have approved the conversion had he known of her relationship with this individual, the conversion should not be nullified BeDiEved (after the fact) on the basis of the discovery. He combines five twentieth-century rulings as precedent for his approach. Some of the rulings we shall cite are discussed in greater length in an essay discussing Geirut archived at www.koltorah.org.
He begins by citing Rav Uzziel’s approach (Teshuvot Mishpitei Uzziel 2: Yoreh Deah 58 and Piskei Uzziel number 65) that Kabbalat Miztvot, a commitment to observe Mitzvot, is not an indispensable component of the conversion process. Rav Bass notes that the consensus opinion rejects this approach, but he argues that it should be considered as an adjunct to a lenient ruling not to nullify the conversion.
Next, he cites a ruling of Rav David Zvi Hoffman (Teshuvot Melamed Leho’il 3:8) accepting a woman as a convert even though she was married civilly to a Kohein and intended to remain married to him after the conversion (a Kohein is forbidden to marry a convert). Rav Hoffman rules that a Beit Din is forbidden to accept a candidate for conversion only if he/she explicitly rejects a Mitzvah. However, as long as such an explicit statement is not made, the Beit Din may perform the conversion, even if it is obvious that he/she will violate one of the commandments.
The third precedent is Rav Moshe Feinstein’s argument (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:106) that a convert who is willing to accept Mitzvot but is not willing to accept proper standards of modest dress is not necessarily rejecting a Mitzvah if she is willing to follow the (less than ideal) standards observed by the observant women she sees in her community. In such a situation, she does not internalize the standards espoused by the rabbis, since it is not observed by the observant women she sees. Rather, she perceives that the rabbis are trying to impose stringency which Halachah does not require her to observe. Rav Moshe advances the argument that this attitude does not constitute a rejection of a Mitzvah.
Rav Bass argues that since the woman in question sees many Jewish women in her neighborhood who live with non-Jewish partners, she does not perceive living with a non-Jewish man as truly forbidden according to Jewish law. Rav Bass surmises that the woman might be thinking that just as she converted, her partner will convert as well.
The fourth precedent he cites is Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:108) confirming the validity of a conversion even though the woman had in mind at the time of conversion that she would have to go to work on the last days of Pesach. The woman had been warned that she would lose her job if she would fail to appear for work on those days. The woman submitted to the pressure and went to work; years later, she asked Rav Feinstein if this invalidated her conversion.
Among Rav Moshe’s reasons to uphold the conversion’s validity is that Halachah does not require a convert to be committed to observe Mitzvot in extremely stressful situations. For example, Rav Moshe argues that we can accept a candidate for conversion even if he/she is not committed to surrender his/her life in situations where the Halachah demands such sacrifice. Similarly, Rav Moshe advances the argument that Halachah does not demand from the convert that he/she be willing to forego his/her means of livelihood in order to observe Halachah.
Rav Bass argues that for the woman in question, the requirement to abandon her Nochri partner was as difficult as demanding that she be willing to forego her employment. A lack of such intense dedication to Mitzvah observance does not invalidate her conversion.
The fifth precedent is a ruling from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Teshuvot Da’at Kohein number 153) who was asked about a case in Egypt in which a convert was improperly withholding a Get from his wife. The local rabbis wished to invalidate the conversion on the basis of his failure to observe the Mitzvot, thereby permitting the wife to remarry without a Get. Rav Kook rejected this approach, arguing,
“As long as there was a proper articulation of acceptance of Mitzvot, one can say that we disregard any thoughts the person had when making the declaration. Even if Eliyahu HaNavi will come and testify that the convert did not intend to observe the Mitzvot, one’s thoughts are a totally irrelevant consideration” (“Devarim SheBeLeiv Einam Devarim,” Kiddushin 49b).
Similarly, Rav Bass argues that the fact that the woman in question intended to continue to live with her Nochri partner does not invalidate her acceptance of the Torah.
The Majority Opinion
Rav Yisrael Rosen, in articulating the majority opinion of the Beit Din, ruled that the conversion is invalid. Interestingly, Rav Rosen does not consider Rav Uzziel’s ruling to be worthy even as an adjunct consideration to a lenient ruling. Moreover, Rav Rosen argues that the fact that this woman continued to live with a non-Jew impinges on the very essence of conversion, abandoning one’s place in the Nochri world and joining the Jewish people.
Rav Rosen views as absurd Rav Bass’s comparison of a woman who was not committed to modest dress beyond that which her otherwise observant neighbors practiced. One cannot compare relatively minor laxity in one area of Halachah to blatant violation of one of the most basic aspects of Jewish life.
In defense of Rav Bass, one might argue that despite the astounding contradiction, there are a few people who conduct most of their lives as observant Jews and yet live with a Nochri partner. Nonetheless, Rav Rosen argues that there must be a limit to the degree of flexibility a Beit Din can exercise. He writes, “This case is virtually the simplest scenario that requires a Beit Din to nullify a conversion. It is difficult for me to imagine a more extreme situation.”
Moreover, the woman blatantly lied to the Beit Din when it inquired as to her personal relationships. Her deception impinges on the validity of the conversion, since the presence and consent of Beit Din is a requirement for Geirut (Yevamot 46b and Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 268:3). Had the Beit Din known of this relationship, it would never have administered the conversion.
The subject of Bittul Geirut is incredibly sensitive. Indeed, in 1972, when Rav Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, invalidated the conversion of the first husband of a woman who remarried without the benefit of a Get in order to spare the children from her second marriage from being classified as Mamzeirim, he set off a major uproar, with many Rabbanim expressing severe dissent, including Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, who resigned from the Rabbinic Court of Appeals as a result. Nonetheless, as we see from our case, there are at least some egregious situations that undoubtedly call for invalidating a conversion. Next week, we will discuss the great debate of 2008 between Rav Dichovsky and Rav Sherman regarding the controversial ruling of the Ashdod Beit Din invalidating a woman’s conversion of many years before.