Friday, February 24, 2012

Nullifying Conversions vs. Questioning Conversions

If you're going to convert, you need to understand a key distinction. There's a lot of talk since 2006 about nullifying conversions.

While a few nullifications have occurred, the general problem is questioned conversions. 

Nullified conversion: the conversion is void. It was invalid at the time the conversion was performed. The person was never halachically a Jew. Any children born of a woman since her "conversion" are not Jews (and grandchildren and so on down the line, if applicable). You may still argue that the conversion was valid, and some communities might even still accept it. Worse, you could be told your conversion is invalid/nullified by a rabbi who doesn't have the authority to rule it invalid. (The problem is that many people won't think about whether the rabbi had the authority, they'll be so shocked and angry.) Sure, a rabbi can choose not to accept your conversion in his community, but most rabbis can't rule your conversion invalid for other rabbis/communities.

Questioned conversion: This can happen for many reasons. Most simply, there is doubt whether the conversion was valid or not. The most common is when there is a converted mother or grandmother, and all the converting rabbis are dead and unknown. If today's rabbis don't know anything about the converting rabbis, they may say, "Well, we don't know if it was a valid conversion or not." (Continued frumkeit in the family can support that it was. If the convert and family went off the derech, you may be in trouble.) This is quite common, and is even a serious problem in the frum-from-birth community. 

When a conversion seems questionable, rabbis often will decline to make a ruling on it (for many reasons). It's easier (lazier? better halachically? better for the person?) to throw the person in the mikvah for a geirus l'chumrah. I say it may be better for the person because a newer, "better" conversion can remove any doubt about the person's status and gives the person new paperwork to prove his or her Jewishness. It can remove any future headaches. On the other hand, you had better hope you weren't a "born Jewish" woman trying to marry a kohen when this issue rears its ugly head (or already married to one!). If you have a geirut l'chumrah, it is almost guaranteed that you cannot marry the kohen. (It's extremely rare, but it's possible to have a geirus l'chumrah that is very explicitly emphasizing the "l'chumrah" part. If you have to get a geirus l'chumrah l'chumrah before marrying a kohen, it will be presented to you as optional and then you will never, ever speak of it again. Your sons would remain kohanim in this case, as I understand.)


Why does this distinction matter? Generally, it matters because the situation is often better than you fear. Almost all these cases are questioned conversions. There's a protocol for that, though it may cost money, time, and maybe even some of your sanity. Best case scenario, it can be "fixed" within the hour. Worst case scenario, you go through a conversion from scratch like everyone else. Most people fall in the middle. No one is saying, "Nope, you're not a Jew," even if you might want to run out for McDonald's upon hearing the news.

If, chas v'shalom, this should happen to you, feel free to ask the rabbi whether he is making a ruling on the issue and what the options are to rectify the situation. Assuming you want to "remain" Jewish, of course.

7 comments:

  1. A Questioned conversion can leave you in a pretty miserable place, particularly if you live in an area that does not have a Rav familiar with conversion issues.

    I happen to know a man who was raised Jewish from birth, his mother having undergone a conversion. He went to Orthodox day school, had a bar mitzvah, and then, as many Jews do...he fell away from observance. He kept kosher, but drifted away from any community. Years later, he wants to come back and begins to become religious...only to be told...

    "You're not a Jew."

    Yep...that bluntly. He's somewhere in the conversion process now and in some ways, I think his process is even more complicated than other converts because there is always a question of what he should or should not be doing since there is a question of whether he is or is not a Jew. There is also the idea that his entire identity has been erased. Will he even get to be called to the Torah by his father's name anymore?

    I'm inspired by the fact that, if anything, this has strengthened his resolve to make it through the process and be a Jew. I know many who probably would have made that trip to McDonald's instead. It's tough to work so hard to be a part of a community that you feel has cast you out...for something that happened before your birth, let alone forgive and still love that community for all that it is, but he does.

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  2. FYI--
    For guys the geirus l'chumrah will require not just mikveh but a bris.

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  3. I just don't get this questioning of conversions. It seems to me it does more harm than good. So, you don't know the Rabbi z"l who did the conversion of this person's grandmother? Then just trust it was done right, and move on. In absence of evidence that there was something done incorrectly, why make these people suffer?

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  4. Hi there, I was wondering if you knew of any well-written Reform Judaism conversion/convert blogs?

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    1. There are several listed on the blogroll page. The only one that usually comes to my mind is Black, Gay, and Jewish, but she's an exceptional person and writer. It helps that I had the pleasure of meeting her in person, which helps keep her fresh in my mind. Carless in Chicago is another reform convert blog, though I am not a fan of its author's manners. Poke around on the blogroll page and see what you find! She's not reform, but I also highly suggest Crystal Decadenz. She compares and contrasts conservative and orthodox a lot and has a very keen insight into both (as well as the knowledge to back up those thoughts!). Fink or Swim happens to be orthodox, but he covers interesting issues in a very tikkun olam way, so you may enjoy him as well. (He's also an excellent person I had the pleasure of meeting in real life!) Redefining Rebbetzin was very good when I used to read it, and those are two conservative women, if I remember correctly. If you find any you think I should know about and add to my blogroll, please let me know!

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  5. "Assuming you want to "remain" Jewish"
    I'm one of those converts whose status was questioned one too many times and leaving for this reason. The kicker is that I'm likely Jewish but could not prove it to a beit din, so I had to convert. A head of a well known and highly regarded kashrus organization handled my conversion (Not OU but up there as very trusted). My conversion process was very long and drawn out to meet this beit din's expectations. Yet regardless, I found that my status except by the sponsoring rav and one other shul, was always received as questionable because the rav was from outside NYC. The shul next door to me, where I attended regularly, kept "losing" my application. Many other organizations said "they didn't know if they could trust the conversion," and wouldn't bother researching further. Again these folks had no problem holding by this rav's organization's hescher for food, but I am questionable because I had converted out of town (but within driving distance of NYC) before moving to New York years ago.

    Perhaps if this was just a quickie procedure, I would be game. However, I had been shomer mitzvot for quite some time before mikvah and since until recently :( After the last rav that questioned me a couple months back, I said 'enough' and no more of this. Emontionally I could not handle another long drawn out conversion like process. I still feel I my status would be questioned no matter how many times I repeat the process until 120. It would just be wasted money and energy, and it wouldn't help my shidduch prospects. For folks that want to say, I'm obligated to mitzvot anyways, I can't be both obligated and not accepted as Jewish. Jews are obligated to do mitzvot, others aren't (beyond being a Noahide).

    I will still be Jewishly affliated though. I had been Reform prior to Orthodoxy and I'm in the process of returning there, where my status is not an issue.

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  6. "Assuming you want to remain Jewish ..." - If the person is really Jewish, they can't decide to change their status. Whenever a rabbi insists on a gerut l'chumrah and the consequence is to drive the person away from Judaism, all the aveirot the OTD Jew commits as a result are partially the responsibility of the rabbi. If more rabbis realised that, perhaps they wouldn't regard a gerut l'chumra as the 'easy, lazy, better halachically, new, "better"' course quite so automatically.

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