Min haMuvhar

Thoughts on the Teachings of Martin Buber

       Martin Buber (1878-1965), born in Vienna, was one of the great Jewish philosophers of his time. In 1938, with the rise of Nazism, Buber relocated to Jerusalem where he became a brilliant Israeli voice for a wiser and more understanding humanity.

     In his famous book, I and Thou, Buber pointed out that human relationships, at their best, involve mutual knowledge and respect, treating self and others as valuable human beings. An I-Thou relationship is based on understanding, sympathy, love. Its goal is to experience the “other” as a meaningful and valuable person. In contrast, an I-It relationship treats the “other” as an object to be manipulated, controlled, or exploited. If I-Thou relationships are based on mutuality, I-It relationships are based on the desire to gain functional benefit from the other.

     Buber wrote: “When a culture is no longer centered in a living and continually renewed relational process, it freezes into the It-world, which is broken only intermittently by the eruptive, glowing deeds of solitary spirits” (I and Thou, p. 103). As we dehumanize others, we also engage in the process of dehumanizing ourselves. We make our peace with living in an It-world, using others as things, and in turn being used by them for their purposes.

     The line between I-Thou and I-It relationships is not always clear. Sometimes, people appear to be our friends, solicitous of our well-being; yet, their real goal is to manipulate us into buying their product, accepting their viewpoint, controlling us in various ways. Their goal isn’t mutual friendship and understanding; rather, they want to exert power and control, and they feign friendship as a tactic to achieve their goals.

     Dehumanization is poisonous to proper human interactions and relationships. It is not only destructive to the victim, but equally or even more destructive to the one who does the dehumanizing. The dehumanizer becomes blinded by egotism and power-grabbing at any cost. Such a person may appear “successful” based on superficial standards but is really an immense failure as a human being.

     I-It relationships are based on functionality. Once the function no longer yields results, the relationship breaks. I-Thou relationships are based on human understanding, loyalty and love. These relationships are the great joy of life. Buber is fully cognizant of the fact that human beings live with I-Thou and I-It realities. “No human being is pure person, and none is pure ego; none is entirely actual, none entirely lacking in actuality. Each lives in a twofold I. But some men are so person-oriented that one may call them persons, while others are so ego-oriented that one may call them egos. Between these and those true history takes place” (Ibid., p. 114).

     Buber speaks of another relationship beyond I-Thou and I-It: the I-Eternal Thou.  Human beings not only stand in relationship to each other, but to God. “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek. Of course, God is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I” (Ibid., p. 127).

     Buber views the relationship with God as a human yearning, an imperfect search for ultimate Perfection. Faith is a process; it fluctuates; it is not something that, once attained, can be safely deposited in the back of one’s mind. “Woe unto the possessed who fancy that they possess God!” (Ibid., p. 155). Elsewhere, Buber elaborates on this point: “All religious expression is only an intimation of its attainment….The meaning is found through the engagement of one’s own person; it only reveals itself as one takes part in its revelation” (The Way of Response, p. 64).

     Buber was attracted to the spiritual lessons of the Hassidic masters who refused to draw a line of separation between the sacred and the profane. Religion at its best encompasses all of life and cannot be confined to a temple or set of rituals. “What is of greatest importance in Hasidism, today as then, is the powerful tendency, preserved in personal as well as in communal existence, to overcome the fundamental separation between the sacred and the profane” (Hasidism and Modern Man, p. 28).  The goal of religion is to make us better, deeper human beings, to be cognizant of the presence of God at all times. “Man cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human; he can approach Him through becoming human. To become human is what he, this individual man, has been created for. This, so it seems to me, is the eternal core of Hasidic life and of Hasidic teaching” (Ibid., pp. 42-43).

     Buber finds inspiration in the Jewish religious tradition. The biblical heroes “do not dare confine God to a circumscribed space of division of life, to ‘religion.’ They have not the insolence to draw boundaries around God’s commandments and say to Him: ‘up to this point, You are sovereign, but beyond these bounds begins the sovereignty of science or society or the state’” (The Way of Response, p. 68). Israel’s genius was not simply in teaching that there is one God, “but that this God can be addressed by man in reality, that man can say Thou to Him, that he can stand face to face with Him….Only Israel has understood, or rather actually lives, life as being addressed and answering, addressing and receiving answer….It taught, it showed, that the real God is the God who can be addressed because He is the God who addresses” (Ibid., p. 179).

     A central goal of religion is to place a human being in relationship with the Eternal Thou. Yet, Buber notes with disappointment: “The historical religions have the tendency to become ends in themselves and, as it were, to put themselves in God’s place, and, in fact, there is nothing that is so apt to obscure the face of God as a religion” (A Believing Humanism, p. 115). The “establishment” has become so engaged in perpetuating its institutional existence that it has lost its central focus on God. “Real faith…begins when the dictionary is put down, when you are done with it” (The Way of Response, p. 61). The call of faith must be a call for immediacy. When faith is reduced to a set of formulae and rituals, it moves further from face to face relationship with God.

     People are greatly in need of a liberating religious message. We yearn for relationship with our fellow human beings; we reach out for a spiritual direction to the Eternal Thou. Our dialogues are too often superficial, inauthentic. It is not easy to be a strong, whole and self-confident I; it is not easy to relate to others as genuine Thous; it is a challenge to reach out to the Eternal Thou. Yet, without these proper relationships, neither we nor our society can flourish properly.

     Buber’s writings had a powerful impact on many thousands of readers, including the Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961), who served as the second Secretary General of the United Nations, from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. These two remarkable men met at the United Nations not long after Buber had given a guest lecture at Princeton University in 1958. Hammarskjold had written to tell Buber “how strongly I have responded to what you write about our age of distrust.”

     Buber described his meeting with the Secretary General of the U.N. where both men shared a deep concern about the future of humanity. Will the nations of the world actually unite in mutual respect and understanding? Or will they sink into a quagmire of antagonisms, political infighting…and ultimately, the possible destruction of humanity through catastrophic wars?

     Buber noted: “We were both pained in the same way by the pseudo-speaking of representatives of states and groups of states who, permeated by a fundamental reciprocal mistrust, talked past one another out the windows. We both hoped, we both believed that….faithful representatives of the people, faithful to their mission, would enter into a genuine dialogue, a genuine dealing with one another out of which would emerge in all clarity the fact that the common interests of the peoples were stronger still than those which kept them in opposition to one another” (A Believing Humanism, pp. 57-59).

     It was this dream that linked Buber and Hammarskjold—a dream that diplomats would focus on the needs of humanity as a whole, and not simply hew to their own self-serving agendas. Indeed, this was the founding dream of the United Nations: to be an organization that would bring together the nations of the world to work in common cause for the greater good of humanity.

     In January 1959, Hammarskjold visited Buber in Jerusalem. Again, their conversation focused on the failure of world diplomacy to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation. There were some steps forward, to be sure; but by and large, the harmony of the nations had not come to pass. “Pseudo-speaking” and “fundamental reciprocal mistrust” continued unabated. The representatives continued to “talk past one another out the windows.”

     Hammarskjold believed that Buber’s teachings on the importance of dialogue needed as wide a following as possible. After Hammarskjold was killed in a plane accident, Buber was informed that the Secretary General of the U. N. was working on a Swedish translation of I and Thou on the plane. His last thoughts were about dialogue, mutual understanding, sympathetic interrelationships among human beings.

     Hammarskjold died in 1961. Buber died in 1965. Did their dreams for the United Nations and for humanity also die with them? Has the United Nations become a beacon of hope for genuine human dialogue? Do the diplomats work harmoniously for the good of humanity? It would appear that instead of being a bastion of human idealism, the United Nations has become a political battleground where the fires of hatred and bigotry burn brightly.

     We justly lament the viciously unfair treatment of Israel at the U.N. We justly deplore the anti-Americanism that festers within the United Nations.  But these ugly manifestations of anti-Israel and anti-American venom are symptoms of the real problem: the United Nations has become a central agency for hatred, political maneuvering, and international discord. It has not lived up to the ideals of its founders; it has betrayed the dreams of Buber and Hammarskjold; it has become a symbol of so much that is wrong in our world.

Celebrating our Institute's 16th Anniversary

A while ago, I received a note from a friend with the following quotation: “Friendship isn’t about whom you have known the longest….It’s about who came and never left your side.”

Among the basic ingredients of true friendship are: loyalty, trust, mutual commitment, shared ideals. Friends are very special to us because we know that they are there for us, just as we are here for them.

When we have the safe haven of a true friend and genuine friendship, we have something precious beyond words. Friends make life worthwhile because they embody the powers of goodness, trustworthiness and love.

Friendship is about those special people who are part of our lives and who have never left our side. Friendship is about people who believe in us and in whose goodness we believe. Friendship is about people who really care about us, just as we really care about them. Friendship is about loyalty and trust, commitment and sharing.

There is a category of friendship that ties us together with people we may hardly know or whom we have never even met. This kind of friend—also true and loyal—is someone with whom we share ideas, ideals and aspirations. The friendship is not based on face to face interactions, but on the interactions of our minds, our hearts and souls. It is spiritual friendship of kindred minds and souls.

We have various communities of such friends: people with whom we share a religious vision; and/or a vision for society; and/or a humanitarian cause; and/or a commitment to art, literature, science etc. Although we may not know these friends personally, we know we can count on them --just as they can count on us-- in our shared commitments to ideas and ideals in which we believe. These are people who have come into our lives and never left our sides. They are with us, as we are with them.

We are marking the 16th anniversary of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, founded in October 2007. During these amazing years, the Institute has grown into an important force on behalf of an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodox Judaism. Our website jewishideas.org has been attracting many thousands of visits per month; our journal, Conversations, is read by thousands of readers worldwide; our University Network has included hundreds of students, with programs on many American campuses. Our National Scholar’s online learning link and our Zoom classes have brought Torah wisdom to a large audience, as has our youtube channel youtube.com/jewishideasorg. Our "Sephardic Initiative" is focusing on teacher training, publications, online resources. The Institute has been here as a resource for the many people seeking guidance in Jewish law, tradition, worldview.

The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals began as an idea, as a framework for reshaping the thinking within the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. It has been a strong, steady voice for diversity, creativity, dynamism. It has been a strong, steady voice against authoritarianism, obscurantism, extremism and sectarianism.

The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals has made great strides of progress in the past sixteen years, and we hope it will continue to grow dramatically in the years ahead.

How did we get to this point? How did our Institute community manage to undertake so many projects and raise millions of dollars to fund our work?

The real answer is encapsulated in one word: friendship.

True and trusted personal friends have never left our side. They have stood with us in our successes and in our setbacks. They have rejoiced at our victories and offered consolation and encouragement at our failures.

Along with these true and trusted personal friends, we have been fortunate to have won the spiritual friendship of thousands of like-minded people throughout the world. We have a large and growing circle of friends who believe in the ideas and ideals of our Institute; who invest generously in our work; who are partners in the Institute’s efforts. Through our shared religious vision, all of us are making a stand for a better, more intelligent, more diverse, more compassionate Orthodox Judaism…a better Judaism for all Jews and for society as a whole.

As we celebrate our 16th anniversary milestone, I express my deep and abiding gratitude to the friends who have stood with us faithfully. I thank personal friends for being there for us, as I hope we have been here for them. I thank our large community of spiritual friends—Institute members and supporters—who have joined us shoulder to shoulder in our important work.

I thank Board members of the Institute for their friendship, leadership and support: Isaac Ainetchi, Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Daniel Cohen, Andre Guenoun, Nugzari Jakobishvili and Gilles Sion. We remember with love and respect our late Board member Stephen Neuwirth, of blessed memory. I thank Alan Shamoon and the Apple Bank for Savings for making office space available to our Institute.

I thank the Institute’s talented staff for their remarkable work: Rabbi Hayyim Angel, National Scholar; Andre Guenoun, Business Manager; Ronda Angel Arking, Managing Editor; Laurynn Lowe, Website Manager; and David Olivestone, Production Manager of Conversations.

I thank the Almighty Who has sustained us and enabled us to reach this milestone.

Light and Shadows: Thoughts for Hanukkah



The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records a famous debate between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel as to how to light the Hanukkah lights.  Bet Shammai rules that we should light 8 lights the first night, and then subtract one light each ensuing night. After all, the original miracle of the oil in the Temple would have entailed the oil diminishing a bit each day.

Bet Hillel rules that we should light one light the first night, and then increase the number of lights night after night. (This is the accepted practice.) A reason is suggested: in matters of holiness, we increase rather than decrease. The miracle of Hanukkah is more beautifully observed with the increasing of lights; it would be anti-climactic to diminish the lights with each passing night.

Increasing lights is an appealing concept, both aesthetically and spiritually. But the increase of light might also be extended to refer to the increase in knowledge. The more we study, the more we are enlightened. When we cast light on a problem, we clarify the issues. We avoid falling into error. The more light we enjoy, the less we succumb to shadows and illusions.

Aesop wisely noted: Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. It is all too easy to make mistaken judgments by chasing shadows rather than realities.

Professor Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli Nobel Prize winner in Economics, has coined the phrase “illusion of validity.” He points out that we tend to think that our own opinions and intuitions are correct. We tend to overlook hard data that contradict our worldview and to dismiss arguments that don’t coincide with our own conception of things. We operate under the illusion that our ideas, insights, intuitions are valid; we don’t let facts or opposing views get in our way.

The illusion of validity leads to innumerable errors, to wrong judgments, to unnecessary confrontations. If we could be more open and honest, self-reflective, willing to entertain new ideas and to correct erroneous assumptions—we would find ourselves in a better, happier and more humane world.

In her powerful book, “The March of Folly,” Barbara Tuchman studied the destructive behavior of leaders from antiquity to the Vietnam War. She notes: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.” She points out: “Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others—only to lose it over themselves.”

But why should people with political power succumb to policies that are wrong-headed and dangerous? Tuchman suggests that the lust for power is one ingredient in this folly. Another ingredient is an unwillingness to admit that one has made a misjudgment. Leaders keep pursuing bad policies and bad wars because they do not want to admit to the public that they’ve been wrong. So more people are hurt, and more generations are lost—all because the leaders won’t brook dissent, won’t consider other and better options, won’t yield any of their power, won’t admit that they might be wrong. These leaders are able to march into folly because the public at large allows them to get away with it. Until a vocal and fearless opposition arises, the “leaders” trample on the heads of the public. They are more concerned with their own power politics, than for the needs and wellbeing of their constituents.

The march of folly is not restricted to political power. It is evident in all types of organizational life. The leader or leaders make a decision; the decision is flawed; it causes dissension; it is based on the wrong factors. Yet, when confronted with their mistake, they will not back down. They have invested their own egos in their decision and will not admit that they were wrong. Damage—sometimes irreparable damage—ensues, causing the organization or institution to diminish or to become unfaithful to its original mission. The leader/s march deeper and deeper into folly; they refuse to see the light.

Bet Hillel taught the importance of increasing light. Shedding more light leads to clearer thinking. It enables people to see errors, to cast off shadows and cling to truth.

It takes great wisdom and courage to avoid having the illusion of validity. It takes great wisdom and courage to evaluate and re-evaluate decisions, to shed honest light on the situation, to be flexible enough to change direction when the light of reason so demands.

The lights of Hanukkah remind us of the importance of increasing the light of holiness and knowledge. As we learn to increase light, we learn to seek reality and truth---and to avoid grasping at shadows and illusions.



S. Y. Agnon: Thoughts on a Great Israeli Writer

On December 10, 1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the great Israeli Hebrew writer, delivered a speech at the Nobel banquet on the occasion of his having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Quoting from the Bible, the Jewish Prayer book and rabbinic tradition, Agnon was as clear as possible that he was a Jew, a faithful Jew steeped in Judaism. He pointed out the dilemma of the Jewish People living centuries in Exile, and now struggling to find their way back to their ancient homeland in Israel.  “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem, and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.” As he concluded his remarks, he said: “If I am proud of anything, it is that I have been granted the privilege of living in the land which God promised our forefathers to give us.”

Agnon (1887-1970) was born in Buczacz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Buchach, Ukraine. His original family name was Czaczkes. In 1908 he emigrated to Jaffa in the land of Israel. In 1913 he moved to Germany where he married Esther Marx; they had two children. The businessman and publisher, Salman Schocken, became Agnon’s literary patron and freed him from financial worries. In 1924, a fire broke out in Agnon’s home, destroying his manuscripts and library. Shortly thereafter he and his family moved to Jerusalem where he continued his career as a prolific Hebrew writer.

Agnon’s work is laced with biblical and Talmudic passages. His stories and novels did not always have powerful or complicated plots; rather, it was his style of writing that engages the reader. He is calm, wise, gentle. He tells his stories as though he is talking to you in his living room over a cup of tea, without pretensions or pomposity. The reader comes to see Agnon as an older, wiser friend…someone whose memories and thoughts have weight.

In his book, A City in its Fullness, he offers a nostalgic account of the town in which he was born and raised. His stories were about “former days, when the town stood in peace.” Agnon comments: “I was able to tell the things calmly and not in sorrow, and one would not have known from my voice what had happened to my town—that all the Jews in it had been killed. The Holy One, blessed be He, has been gracious to Israel: even when we remember the greatness and glory of bygone days, our soul does not leave us out of sorrow and longing. Thus a man like me can talk about the past, and his soul doesn’t pass out of him as he speaks” (p. 10).

There is irony in his words. He notes that all the Jews of the town were murdered, but then refers to the graciousness of the Holy One, blessed be He! How was the Almighty “gracious to Israel?” He lets them recount the past, including the tragedies, without dying of sorrow! Is Agnon speaking piously, in profound resignation to the will of God? Or is he mocking the notion of God’s being “gracious to Israel?”  Agnon was indeed a religious man; but he was not at peace with God’s treatment of the Jews.

 In spite of their sufferings in Buczacz, the Jews loved their birthplace. But after World War I, life became increasingly unbearable. Poverty was rampant. The government made constant decrees to the detriment of the Jews. “The old took comfort in the fact that they would soon die and not much longer have to endure their afflictions; they would be buried in the city where their ancestors were buried. The young looked toward the four corners of the earth for a place where they would be allowed to live. And the fewest of these few prepared to emigrate to the Land of Israel in order to work its land and to establish for themselves and their descendants a haven where they could be free of the yoke of Exile, which has been Israel’s burden since the day it left its land. Meanwhile, each saw himself living in the land of his birth as but a guest for the night” (pp. 560-61). This was the eternal Jewish dilemma—to be living in places of Exile for generations but always feeling as strangers. Agnon saw the return to the Jewish homeland in Israel as the key to Jews finally feeling really at home in the world.

In his book, A Guest for the Night, he describes having returned to his old town in Europe, that was now in terrible straits after the first World War. “I went to the Beit Midrash and stood before the locked door. Many thoughts passed through my mind in a short time, and this is one of them: the Beit Midrash still exists, but I am standing outside, because I have lost the key and cannot get in” (p. 83). He found a locksmith to make a new key for the Beit Midrash. He hired someone to keep the fire burning in the fireplace so that the place was warm. Slowly, men began to gather again in the Beit Midrash, if only to stay warm on cold winter days. The Jews had been living in this town for generations; the Beit Midrash was coming back to life.

And yet, this was still the Exile. The authorities had the power to oppress the Jews, even to expel them. “I was born in this town and spent most of my youth here—but an official, who was not born here and has done nothing here but enjoy the best the town can give, may come along and tell me: Go, you belong to another country and you have no permission to stay with us. I thought of my forefathers, whose bones are interred in the town’s graveyard….I thought of my other relatives who had bestowed many benefits on the townsfolk—and now the authorities, who inherited all these benefits, could come and expel me from the town” (p. 110).

When he ultimately returned to the land of Israel, he had inadvertently also brought a key to the Beit Midrash with him. He put the key in a box and locked it; he made a necklace and wore it around his neck. He recalled the Midrash that in messianic days, the synagogues and study halls of the diaspora will be miraculously transported to the holy land of Israel. But when will the messiah bring this redemption?  The key “is made of iron and brass, and it can wait, but I, who am flesh and blood, find it hard to endure” (pp. 508-9).

Agnon wonders about the sense of security felt by some Jews living outside the holy land. He tells the story of Mr. Lublin who lived in Leipzig and became a German citizen. Mr. Lublin wasn’t particularly observant religiously, and worked hard in his store to make a living and be a good citizen. Mr. Lublin believed that “Germany sees that all of us, all Germany’s Jewish citizens, sacrifice our children and our wealth for its war against the enemy, and is it possible that after all this they will still deprive us of our rights? Isn’t this so? Why are you looking at me like that?” (In Mr. Lublin’s Store, p.189). Why? Because the narrator (Agnon) thought Mr. Lublin was naïve to trust that the Germans would actually treat Jews fairly, as loyal citizens. No matter how many sacrifices Jews made on behalf of Germany, they were still always going to be victims, always strangers, always mistrusted. Exile was exile. Period.

Agnon has a particular nostalgia for authentic prayer. In his story “Hemdat the Cantor,” he describes how Hemdat ascended the prayer desk on the night of Yom Kippur. “And when he came to the pulpit he gripped it with his two hands, and cried out “’Oi!’ As if it were all-devouring fire. A sudden awe fell upon the entire congregation and all rose and stood and trembled….Hemdat raised his head, his eyes closed and compressed, groping in the air, his eyeglasses swimming in tears….He covered his face with his tallit down to his heart, and he began to give voice, every time in a melody sweeter than the last. Then I understood what Father meant when he said, He who has heard the Kol Nidrei of Hemdat, knows what Kol Nidrei is” (p. 58). The people were uplifted by Hemdat’s prayers. “For Hemdat prayed in awe and fear and feeling and with a broken heart, for Israel the holy nation, who sought to return to Him with a whole heart” (p. 59).

In reminiscing about his hometown of Buczacz, he tells of a man who recited the Musaf and gave him “a real taste of prayer.” The prayer leader had a pleasant voice, but “it wasn’t a voice we heard; it was prayer” (p. 100). The heartfelt longing and yearning of sincere prayer was what inspired Agnon. He was not impressed with external shows of praying, but with actual reaching out to God. In his book, To This Day, he quotes a woman: “’An intellectual’”, she said, ‘is someone who can recite Psalms without tears.’ I couldn’t have put it any better myself” (p. 53).

Agnon was prayerful, even as he realized that he was living in an unredeemed world, where God’s mercy was not always evident. He named one of his books To This Day “in the language of thanksgiving for the past and of prayer for the future. As it says in the Sabbath morning service: To this day have Thy mercies availed us and Thy kindness not failed us, O Lord our God. And mayst Thou never abandon us ever” (p. 175).

Agnon’s writings are sprinkled with wise insights that invite us to ponder his words. In describing a young man who rediscovered the Hebrew language and his connection with the land of Israel, Agnon writes: “he is meticulous with language and meticulous in all his actions. His hair is wild, but his thoughts are orderly. His clothes are in tatters, but his soul is intact” (Shira, p. 176). In his short story, “The Night,” he notes: “But there are guests who come no matter how tightly one’s door is shut, as they are the thoughts surrounding our actions.” And in his story “Between Two Towns” he meditates: “The good Lord created a vast world, with many people in it whom He scattered wide, giving each place its singular quality and endowing every man with singular wisdom. You leave home and meet people from another place, and your mind is expanded by what you hear.” 

And poignantly, he writes of “two Austrians who meet outside of town and one says to the other, ‘where are you going? And the other replies, ‘I’m off to the forest to be alone.’ ‘Why, I also want to be alone,’ exclaims the first. ‘Let’s go together’” (“In the Prime of Her Life”). This might serve as Agnon’s invitation to readers: I want to be alone, but I want you to come along with me so we can be alone together.  

Beyond the Victim Mentality

For many centuries and in many lands Jews have been victims. Even now, when most Jews live in democratic countries where we enjoy equal rights, we still fret about anti-Semitism. The Jewish defense organizations constantly remind us of the increase in anti-Jewish propaganda on social media, of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel demonstrations, of physical attacks against Jews.

Although for the most part we feel safe and free, the “victim mentality” still haunts us. 

The Jewish community has spent many millions of dollars to create Holocaust museums and memorials. It is praiseworthy and important to provide Holocaust education. But the down side is that we devote massive resources to emphasizing our victimhood. We like to think that the general public will feel more sympathy with us. And in many cases this may be correct.

But unless handled very well, Holocaust education can work against us. Unsympathetic people, not to mention outright anti-Semites, may view the Holocaust as an example of how Jews were slaughtered by the millions while the world did very little to stop the carnage. In a warped mindset, the Holocaust demonstrates that it’s okay to attack Jews. Even worse, the Jewish victims are blamed for having deserved to be massacred.

In the United States, Jewish spokespeople emphasize that Jews are perhaps 2% of the population but are victims of over 50% of hate crimes. The expectation is that people will be morally outraged to hear this information. Yet, neutral or unsympathetic people may draw another conclusion. If so many people are attacking Jews, it’s ok for us to do so also. Jews must deserve this treatment, otherwise why would they be singled out for so much antagonism?

We cannot ignore anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activity. We must do our best to defeat the haters.

But we need to get beyond the “victim mentality.” We need to do far more to foster a positive, confident and courageous Jewish people. We need to publicize and promote philo-Semitism. After all, vast numbers of non-Jews feel warmly about Jews, and are appreciative of the amazing contributions of Jews to education, science, medicine, law, the arts, social justice, government, literature etc. Many millions of Americans vote for and elect Jewish candidates to a wide range of offices. American Jews have exemplified the best aspects of the American dream. We are a hard-working, highly educated and socially responsible group.

While it is important to publicize anti-Jewish behaviors, it is also important—even more important—to publicize philo-Jewish behaviors.  Jewish defense organizations send out frequent press releases on anti-Semitic acts. They should be sending out (at least) an equal number of press releases highlighting philo-Semitic acts, calling attention to positive interactions between Jews and non-Jews. In order to offset bad trends, we need to encourage good trends.

When it comes to Israel, we are barraged by news about anti-Israel activity in colleges. The BDS movement receives an inordinate amount of news coverage as do politicians who voice anti-Israel animus. We need a barrage of news about all the goodwill shown by millions of people toward Israel. The general public needs to know how much good Israel does, how its technology improves all our lives, how its agricultural advances help nations in Africa and Asia, how it promotes culture, the arts etc. Instead of always seeming to be on the defensive, we ought to confidently let the world know of the incredible achievements of the tiny State of Israel and how it has managed to become a world leader in so many fields. This can be done in a sensitive and thoughtful way, without bragging and without undue self-congratulations.

Our Jewish organizations and each individual Jew can play a role in overcoming the “victim mentality." While fighting against all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, we also need to project a positive and confident self-image. Opinion leaders—Jewish and non-Jewish—can mobilize to move society in a positive and respectful direction.

The “victim mentality” reinforces our victimhood. Let’s look beyond this; let’s develop a positive, confident mentality. We can do this…and it will make a vast difference for the better.



Conversion to Judaism: Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge

The Jewish community underwent cataclysmic changes during the course of the nineteenth century. While most of world Jewry was religiously observant in 1800, a large majority were no longer devoted to halakhic tradition by 1900. Nineteenth-century Orthodox rabbinic leadership had to cope with the rise of Reform Judaism, the spread of Haskala, the breakdown of communal authority over its members, the defection of Jews from Torah and mitzvoth-and from Judaism altogether.

The dramatic erosion in religious observance led to various responses among 19th century Orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, was recognized as the most authoritative Orthodox voice who shaped traditionalist opposition to Reform Judaism and, indeed, to all those who challenged the hegemony of halakha. He believed that deviators forfeited their right to be considered as proper Jews.[1]

He wrote: "If we had the power over them, my opinion would be to separate them from us [our borders], we should not give our daughters to their sons and their daughters should not be accepted for our sons so as not to be drawn after them. Their sect should be considered like those of Zadok and Boethus, Anan, and Saul, they among themselves and we among ourselves." [2]

The Hatam Sofer argued forcefully for maintaining the sanctity of every law and tradition. He is famed for his aphorism "hadash assur min haTorah", by which he meant that the Torah forbids innovations i.e. reforms. His hashkafa (religious worldview) identified Jewishness with scrupulous observance of Torah and mitzvoth and acceptance of the halakhic way of life.

Although the Hatam Sofer's position was dominant, other Orthodox voices called for a more tolerant attitude toward those who veered away from the halakhic way of life. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), the leading figure in Berlin's Adass Jisroel Orthodox community, favored a "cooperative separatism" i.e. the Orthodox needed to maintain their distinctiveness, but also had to find ways of cooperating with the non-Orthodox. [3] In an earlier generation, Rabbi Yaacov Ettlinger (1798-1871) had sought to ameliorate the halakhic status of the non-observant Jew through the classification of "tinok shenishba"-comparing the non-observant Jew to a Jewish child who had been captured and raised by non-Jews and who therefore could not be held responsible for ignorance of Jewish laws and customs.[4] Thus, while the non-Orthodox masses certainly fell short of Jewish religious requirements, they should not be rejected out of hand; they simply did not know any better. This halakhic argument fostered a more sympathetic approach than that taken by Orthodox isolationists.

Both the hard-line and the more tolerant Orthodox rabbis were pious and learned Torah scholars. Both groups sought support for their views in the Talmud and halakhic literature. Why did they come to different conclusions? Their differences did not stem, I believe, from different interpretations of halakhic texts. Rather, their halakhic stances reflected different hashkafot (religious worldviews) and different evaluations of how to address the challenges that faced them. The Hatam Sofer viewed Torah-observant Jews as the "real" Jews, and the non-observant Jews as betrayers of Judaism who had to be de-legitimatized. For true Judaism to flourish, it was necessary for Orthodoxy to separate itself to the extent possible from the non-Orthodox. The spokesmen for a more conciliatory Orthodoxy focused on the principle that all Jews-religiously observant or not-are part of the Jewish people and need to see themselves as members of one peoplehood. Thus, ways had to be found to bridge the gaps between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox.

As Orthodoxy continued to lose ground to the non-observant Jewish population, the rejectionist position gained traction within the mitzvah-centered community. The opinion hardened that strong measures were needed to insulate Torah-true Jews from their sinful brethren, and to distinguish between those who observed the mitzvoth and those who rebelled against Torah.

As the hard-line position gained sway regarding non-Orthodox Jews, it also had a profound impact on Orthodox views relating to the acceptance of non-Jews as converts. Since Orthodox rabbis increasingly emphasized mitzvah observance as the essence of Judaism-in order to differentiate clearly between themselves and the reformers-- they came to see the conversion process as entailing a full commitment by the convert to observe all the mitzvoth. Eventually, the position arose that any conversion that took place without the convert's total mitzvah commitment-was not a valid conversion at all.

Professors Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, in their study of halakhic literature relating to conversion, suggested that the first halakhic authority to equate conversion with total commitment to observe mitzvoth was Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes-and this was not until 1876! [5] Rabbi Schmelkes wrote: "The basic principle with regard to proselytes in our times is to ensure that they truly take upon themselves to perform the central beliefs of religion, the other commandments, and the Sabbath, which is a central principle because a Sabbath desecrator is an idolater. If he undergoes conversion but does not accept upon himself to observe the Sabbath and the commandments, as mandated by religion, he is not a proselyte." He ruled: "If he undergoes conversion and accepts upon himself the yoke of the commandments, while in his heart he does not intend to perform them-it is the heart that God wants and [therefore] he has not become a proselyte."[6]

Rabbi Isaac Sassoon's research on the topic of conversion led him to the writings of Rabbi Akiva Joseph Schlesinger (d. 1922), an influential European halakhist whose views were in some ways even more extreme than those of R. Schmelkes.[7] Rabbi Schlesinger believed a proselyte should not only accept all the mitzvoth, but should adopt the appearance of [European] Orthodox Jews. "Make sure, once the checks, searches and intimidations [of the prospective converts] are done, that they take it upon themselves to be of the number of the downtrodden Jews, recognizable by their distinctive names, speech and attire; and where applicable, by tsitsith, sidelocks and beard." [8]

The views of Rabbis Schmelkes, Schlesinger and others of like mind emerged as "mainstream" Orthodox halakha up to our own day. This is true not only in the "hareidi" Orthodox world, but also in the establishment institutions of so-called modern Orthodoxy. When I was a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University (1967-70), we learned "practical halakha" from Rabbi Melech Schachter. He articulated the position of Rabbi Schmelkes as though it were absolute, uncontested halakha. In a 1965 article, Rabbi Schachter wrote: "Needless to say, conversion to Judaism without commitment to observance has no validity whatever, and the spuriously converted person remains in the eyes of halakha a non-Jew as before." [9] When, a generation after me, my son Hayyim studied for semikha at Yeshiva University (1991-1995), his teacher of "practical rabbinics" told his students not to perform a conversion unless they were willing to bet $100,000 of their own money that the convert would be totally observant of halakha. Essentially, he was echoing the view that conversion to Judaism equals 100% commitment to observe the mitzvoth. Without such commitment by the would-be proselyte, the conversion lacks halakhic validity.

The dominance of this view has come to the general public's attention in recent rulings by Orthodox rabbinic authorities in Israel. In 2006, Rabbi Shlomo Amar-Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi-announced that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora, unless those rabbis were on an "approved" list. Rabbi Amar made this unprecedented ruling because he-and the rabbis with whom he works-believed that diaspora rabbis were converting people who did not become religiously observant enough. In order to "raise standards" and to create "uniform standards", the Chief Rabbinate decided it would only recognize conversions performed in accordance with the strictest interpretation of kabbalat hamitzvoth (acceptance of the commandments), and only by batei din who pledged to follow the standards espoused by the Chief Rabbinate.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic group in the diaspora, fell into line with the Chief Rabbinate. It established a geirut committee to propound standards that would be found acceptable to Rabbi Amar; it essentially adopted the view that conversion equals 100% commitment to observe mitzvoth; it set up a system of regional batei din, which alone would have the power to certify conversions. Members of the RCA who do conversions outside of this framework will not have their conversions certified by the RCA.

Even more shocking than this blatant undermining of the diaspora's Orthodox rabbinate-and in many ways more horrifying-was the ruling of a beth din in Ashdod and upheld by the Rabbinic High Court in Israel. This ruling retroactively annulled the conversion of a woman who had converted fifteen years earlier in Israel under the auspices of an Orthodox beth din. The rabbinic judges found that this woman had not been religiously observant enough after her conversion. Thus, she and her children (born after her conversion) were deemed to be non-Jews. This in spite of the fact that she and her children have been living as Jews in Israel for these past many years, and that her conversion had been performed by Israeli Orthodox rabbis!

At a time when thousands of people are seeking conversion to Judaism, the Orthodox beth din establishment is raising increased obstacles to them. Unless converts are willing to promise sincerely to keep all the mitzvoth, they will be rejected as candidates for conversion. If they have already converted, they now must fear that a beth din might invalidate their conversions retroactively if they do not maintain the proper level of religious observance. The Jewish status of thousands of halakhic converts and their children are placed under a cloud, causing immense grief to the individuals involved and to the Jewish people as a whole.

In their zeal to "raise standards", current batei din have been applying ever more stringencies. Numerous potential converts have contacted me over the past several years, with painful stories of their dealings with Orthodox batei din. A 39 year old woman, converted as an adopted baby, was told that she was not Jewish because the Orthodox rabbi overseeing her conversion had served in a mixed-seating synagogue. Shocked that her Jewish identity was challenged, she nevertheless agreed to undergo another conversion so as to be able to marry her fiancé. She was then told that she would need to enroll in the conversion program and study for two years. When she reminded the rabbis that she had lived her entire life as a Jew, that she was 39 years old, that she wished to be married soon so as to be able to have children-the rabbis responded that "their hands were tied". Although they wanted to help her, they had to follow the current guidelines. They did not want to lose their credibility in the Orthodox beth din world.

Another woman, in her early forties, had been studying for 3 years for conversion, and had demonstrated remarkable commitment to halakha. Yet, the beth din kept postponing her conversion. Why? Because the dayyanim felt the man she wished to marry was not religious enough for their standards. To be sure, he was a traditionally observant Jew. But the beth din felt he wasn't "frum" enough-so they would not convert her. That she lost 3 years of her life and may well have lost the possibility of having a baby, did not seem to concern the beth din. They were "raising standards".

A young man who wished to convert was told by the beth din that he would have to move into the Orthodox neighborhood of town and pay $5000 to cover the cost of tutors. When he explained that he came from a poor family, and he could not afford the rents in the Orthodox neighborhood nor the $5000 fee, he was told that the beth din could not help him. He went to another beth din in that city, but was given the same terms. He then enrolled in a conversion program with a Conservative rabbi. The "raised standards" have turned this young man-and so many more like him-away from Orthodoxy altogether.

Thousands of people from the former Soviet Union live in Israel. Many have Jewish ancestry or Jewish spouses-yet they are halakhically not Jewish. These people and their children live in the Jewish State, speak Hebrew, serve in the military-yet the rabbinic establishment has not found a way to convert a large number of them. The rabbis insist that the converts become religiously observant, or at least pretend to become religiously observant for the sake of conversion. (In the latter instance, these converts could run into the problem of having their conversions invalidated at some later date by a beth din, as happened to the woman in Ashdod.) This problem festers in Israel and is the source of heated controversy. The Orthodox beth din establishment does not know how to cope with a situation involving so many thousands of people-especially since many of those wishing to convert do not intend to become fully observant of Torah and mitzvoth.

The current policies of the Orthodox rabbinic/beth din establishment are causing anguish to thousands of would-be converts and their families; are turning would-be converts away from Orthodoxy; are preventing an untold number of Jewish children from being born, due to drawn out conversion procedures for women in their 30s and early 40s; are de-legitimizing Orthodox rabbis and converts who do not subscribe to the "establishment" positions; are causing thousands of halakhic converts to fear that their and their children's halakhic status will be undermined. We must ask ourselves some serious questions:

1. Are these current policies relating to conversion absolutely required by halakha, or are there other valid views that must be considered?
2. Are current efforts to "raise standards" focusing on ritual mitzvoth, while actually "lowering standards" of mitzvoth relating to maintaining Jewish families, treating converts and potential converts with compassion, and other moral considerations?
3. If the current policies are halakhically and morally deficient, how should we be addressing the issue of conversion to Judaism?
Let us address these questions one by one:
1. Are these current policies relating to conversion absolutely required by halakha, or are there other valid views that must be considered? The answer is: these policies are not absolutely mandated by halakha, and in fact represent a "reform" of classic halakha. Other valid halakhic positions are not only available, but are preferable.

Talmudic Sources:

The primary sources for the laws of conversion are in the Talmud. The basic description of the conversion process is recorded in Yebamot 47a-b:
"Our rabbis taught: if at the present time a person desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: why do you come to be a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions? If he replies, I know and yet am unworthy [but still wish to convert], he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments....And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment....He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith....As soon as he is healed, arrangements are made for his immediate ablution [in a mikvah]. When he comes up after his ablution, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects. In the case of a woman proselyte, women make her sit in the water up to her neck they two [three] learned men stand outside and give her instruction in some of the minor commandments and some of the major ones."

The candidate for conversion is first told of the dangers confronting the Jewish people in order to ascertain whether he/she is willing to be subjected to these risks as a Jew. This harks back to biblical Ruth, whose conversion declaration began with "your people will be my people," and only afterward went on with "your God will be my God."

The Talmud requires us to inform the would-be proselyte of some of the mitzvoth-not all of them. Indeed, we are not supposed to belabor the issue of mitzvoth, so as not to scare off the person who has already expressed a desire to become a member of the Jewish people. We may neither persuade nor dissuade too much. Rather, we want the person to know that our religion makes demands on us-which entail rewards and punishments. It is up to the person to decide, based on the limited information we have presented, whether or not to become Jewish.

The Talmud makes no reference to the need for the would-be proselyte to spend years studying Torah before being accepted for conversion. It makes no demand that the candidate even know what all the mitzvoth are! On the contrary, the Talmudic conversion process is fairly straightforward. Once the candidate has expressed willingness to join the Jewish people, and once he/she has been told some of the mitzvoth-he/she is accepted forthwith, without delays.

What if the candidate for conversion has ulterior motives e.g. he/she wishes to marry a Jew? In this case, the motivating factor is not purely religious (or not religious at all). Is such a conversion valid? The Talmud discusses this issue in Yebamot 24b.
"Mishnah: If a man is suspected of [intercourse]...with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her, they need not be separated. Gemara: This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man...are not proper proselytes. These are the words of Rabbi Nehemiah, for Rabbi Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes nor dream proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted as at the present time...Surely concerning this it was stated that Rabbi Isaac bar Samuel bar Martha said in the name of Rab: The halakha is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they are all proper proselytes."

Rabbi Nehemiah argued that conversions with ulterior motives (e.g. to marry a Jew) are not valid. Only conversions motivated by pure spiritual considerations are acceptable. However, the Talmud rejects Rabbi Nehemiah's opinion. The halakha follows Rab-conversions by those who had ulterior motives are, in fact, valid. These converts are halakhically Jewish.

Rabbi Nehemiah viewed conversion primarily as an unsullied acceptance of Judaism; thus, one whose motives were suspect would not be a suitable proselyte. Rab, though, seemed to view the conversion process as a means of bringing the non-Jew into the Jewish peoplehood. Even if the decision to become Jewish did not stem from purely religious considerations, the proselyte became a full member of the Jewish people by undergoing the conversion procedure. While this Talmudic passage is discussing a de facto situation (bedi-avad), great halakhic authorities (as we shall see later) have argued that it is appropriate to accept such converts even initially, due to the unique exigencies of the modern period.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) records three instances where individuals expressed the desire to convert to Judaism, and who came both to Shammai and Hillel. Since each of the three began his inquiries with improper assumptions-one accepted to follow the written Torah but not the oral Torah, one wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, and one wanted to convert in order to become the High Priest-Shammai turned them away. Yet, Hillel accepted each of them lovingly, and through his patient and wise instruction he was able to bring them into Judaism. The Talmud relates that these three proselytes faulted Shammai's strictness, and praised the kindness and humility of Hillel for having allowed them to come "under the wings of the Divine Presence." The point of these aggadic stories is that even if candidates come with mistaken ideas and improper motives, yet they should be received kindly. By teaching them lovingly, the hope is that they will indeed come to a proper understanding of Jewish traditions and will eventually develop pure motives for conversion.

What if a convert's knowledge of Torah and mitzvoth was seriously deficient? Could such a convert be deemed to be Jewish? The Talmud (Shabbat 68a) rules that a person, who unknowingly transgresses Sabbath laws many times, is only obligated to bring one sin offering, rather than one offering for each transgression. Rab and Shemuel, the leading sages of their generation, explained that this rule refers to "a child who was captured among non-Jews and a convert who was converted among the gentiles." Since these individuals simply did not know the Shabbat laws because they had been raised or converted among non-Jews, they could not be held responsible for all their transgressions. Here we have a case of a non-Jew who became a valid proselyte-but who did not even know the laws of Shabbat! The Talmud never questions the Jewishness of such a proselyte, nor even faintly suggests that the conversion was not valid or could be retroactively annulled. As long as the proselyte underwent the technicalities of conversion (which obviously did not include a full knowledge of mitzvoth), the proselyte was a full-fledged Jew.

One Talmudic passage is frequently quoted to prove that a proselyte must accept every mitzvah, and that a rejection of even one mitzvah disqualifies him/her from being accepted as a convert. The passage is found in Bekhorot 30b.
"Our rabbis taught ...If a heathen is prepared to accept the Torah except one religious law, we must not receive him. R. Jose son of R. Judah says: even [if the exception be] one point of the special minutiae of the Scribes' enactments."

This passage seems to go against the previously-mentioned Talmudic passages, which clearly do not require the proselyte to know and commit to observe every mitzvah, let alone each point of special minutiae of the Scribes' enactments. Neither Rambam nor the Shulhan Arukh cite this passage as authoritative halakha in regard to the conversion process. Indeed, Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:8) does not believe this passage is discussing a righteous proselyte at all! Rather, it is referring to a resident alien (ger toshav).

Even if we were to apply this passage to righteous proselytes (although neither Rambam nor the Shulhan Arukh did so!), it could still be understood in light of the other Talmudic passages cited earlier. Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski explained: we are supposed to inform the would-be proselyte of the mitzvoth. As long as the candidate gives general assent to accept the mitzvoth, that is sufficient. If the would-be proselyte specifically rejects a particular mitzvah, only then should he/she not be accepted. "But in the case of one who accepts all the mitzvoth, while his intention is to transgress for his own pleasure [le-tei-avon] this is not a deficiency in the law of kabbalat ha-mitzvoth." [10] Rabbi Benzion Uziel ruled: "If a convert accepts the Torah and the rewards and punishments of the commandments but continues to behave in the way he was accustomed before conversion, he is a sinning convert, but we do not hesitate to accept him because of this." [11] In other words, what is required is a general statement from the proselyte indicating an acceptance of mitzvoth. It is not incumbent upon us to probe too deeply, nor to receive a promise that each and every mitzvah will be fulfilled without exception. As long as the candidate for conversion does not make a formal declaration rejecting a particular halakha, that is sufficient as kabbalat hamitzvoth.

Rambams' Rulings:

In describing the procedure for accepting converts, Rambam basically follows the protocol recorded in Yebamot 47a-b. However, he adds the requirement of informing the candidate of the basic principles of our faith i.e. the unity of God, the prohibition of idolatry (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:2). Rambam, like the Talmud, indicates that we inform the candidate of some of the mitzvoth and some of the rewards and punishments-but we do not overly prolong this nor give too many details "lest we cause him anxiety and thereby turn him from the good path to the bad path." We are supposed to draw him to conversion with goodwill and soft words.

Rambam does not require-or expect-that would-be converts be given thorough instruction in Torah and mitzvoth. This is reflected in Rambam's discussion of the hakhel commandment, when the people of Israel gathered in Jerusalem once in seven years to hear the king read from the Torah. Men, women and children were to attend this event-even those who could not understand the Torah reading. Rambam seems to take it for granted that proselytes were among those who would not understand the Torah reading. "As for proselytes who do not know the Torah, they must make ready their heart and give ear attentively to listen in awe and reverence and trembling joy, as on the day when the Torah was given on Sinai" (Hilkhot Hagigah, 3:6).

Rambam noted that potential converts should be examined to see if they have ulterior motives. (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 13:14-16.) In the days of King David and King Solomon, the beth din did not accept proselytes since it was assumed that non-Jews came for personal gain rather than religious reasons. Nonetheless, Rambam writes, numerous converts were made in the days of David and Solomon through "hedyotot", ad hoc batei din of non-experts that were not the official batei din of the land. Such converts were neither pushed away nor brought close until it was seen how they turned out i.e. were they really serious in their desire to be Jewish? Having said this, though, Rambam instructs us not to believe that Samson or Solomon married non-Jewish women. Rather, their "non-Jewish" wives were actually converted by the courts of "hedyotot", so that they were in fact Jewish. Yet, we know that these wives did not convert from religious motivations. We also know that they continued to worship idols after their conversions. Wouldn't this be a clear indication that their conversions were not valid? Isn't it obvious that they turned out to be idolaters rather than Jews?

The Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 13:17) rules: "A proselyte who was not examined [as to his motives] or who was not informed of the mitzvoth and their punishments, and he was circumcised and immersed in the presence of three laymen-is a proselyte. Even if it is known that he converted for some ulterior motive, once he has been circumcised and immersed he has left the status of being a non-Jew and we suspect him until his righteousness is clarified. Even if he recanted and worshipped idols, he is [considered] a Jewish apostate; if he betroths a Jewish woman according to halakha, they are betrothed; and an article he lost must be returned to him as to any other Jew. Having immersed, he is a Jew."

According to Rambam, a person who undergoes the technical procedures of conversion (circumcision and immersion for a man, immersion for a woman) in the presence of a beth din (even one made up of laymen) is a valid convert. Even if the motives for conversion were dubious, and even if the convert reverted to idolatry, the conversion remains valid. We may not want this person to marry into our family. We may suspect his/her sincerity and uprightness of character: but he/she is Jewish all the same. This explains why the wives of Samson and Solomon, idolatrous though they were, were nevertheless Jews and were married to their husbands as Jews.[12]

The Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh provided a general framework for the acceptance of converts, but did not give a detailed list of guidelines. These classic halakhic sources recognized that each conversion case is unique, and each must be evaluated by those overseeing the conversions. In the Talmud's words, ein ledayan ela ma she-einav ro-ot. Each judge must take responsibility for the cases that come before him, based on his own evaluation. Classic halakha eschewed "uniform standards" in the area of conversion, leaving it up to the individuals in charge to use their own judgment in dealing with each would-be proselyte.

The Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh 1) do not demand nor expect a candidate for conversion to learn all the mitzvoth prior to conversion; 2) do not demand nor expect a candidate for conversion to promise to observe all the mitzvoth in specific detail; 3) do not demand an extended period of study before conversion; 4) do not equate conversion with a total acceptance to observe Torah and mitzvoth, but rather see conversion as a way for a non-Jew to become a member of the Jewish people ; [13] 5) do recognize the validity of conversions even when the convert came with ulterior motives, even when the convert was ignorant of basic laws of Judaism; 6) do not allow for the retroactive annulment of a conversion, even when the convert continued to worship idols after converting to Judaism.

Since the classic halakhic sources allow so much leeway in the acceptance of converts, why have important 19th and 20th century halakhic authorities adopted stringent positions that are so antithetical to these sources? Indeed, why has the stringent view become so prevalent within Orthodoxy?

One possible answer has already been suggested. The Orthodox rabbinate has been vastly influenced by the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism and by the increasing number of Jews who have defected from the halakhic way of life. In seeing Orthodoxy as a bastion of Torah-true Judaism, Orthodox sages have insisted on policies that clearly distinguish between "us" and "them". "We" are the ones who demand scrupulous observance of halakha. "They" are the ones who have betrayed Torah tradition by undermining mitzvah observance. This attitude carries into the area of acceptance of converts. "We" only want converts who will be like us-truly dedicated to Torah and mitzvoth. "We" don't want to create more non-observant Jews in our communities.[14]

Another possible answer is that some in the Orthodox community have a mystical view of Jewishness that deems it quite difficult for a non-Jew to become Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for example, believed that the act of conversion requires the convert to join the soul of Kenesset Yisrael, a metaphysical representation of the congregation of Israel. This can be accomplished only through a total acceptance of the mitzvoth-since mitzvoth are the essence of the Jewish soul. This is not an easy transition, according to Rabbi Kook, since Jewish souls and non-Jewish souls are ontologically different. For a non-Jew to transform his soul into a Jewish soul requires a tremendous connection to Torah and mitzvoth.[15] Without belaboring the point, Rabbi Kook's line of thinking can be used to buttress feelings of Jewish "superiority" as well as latent xenophobic tendencies.

Yet, when all is said and done, the Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh and a host of great halakhic authorities do not espouse the stringent, restrictive views relating to conversion. How do proponents of the currently dominant views justify veering from the classic halakhic texts?

One approach has been to cite 19th and 20th century halakhic authorities who insist on the stringent, restrictive views relating to acceptance of converts. Since these "gedolim" have issued such rulings, we are obligated to follow them. If they veered from or reinterpreted the primary halakhic sources, they had good grounds for doing so. This approach does not attempt to see those stringent rulings in historical context, as the reaction to anti-halakhic tendencies in the Jewish community. It does not consider whether those 19th and early 20th century responses are appropriate for our current situation. Moreover, it chooses not to accept the more inclusive and compassionate views of other great modern halakhists who dissented from the stringent views in various ways [16]. Indeed, the more tolerant opinions are far more in line with classic halakhic sources than are the restrictive views espoused by various 19th and 20th century rabbis.

The stringent view insists that kabbalat hamitzvoth entails total commitment to observe all mitzvoth in every detail, and that conversions lacking such commitment are not valid. It already has been demonstrated that these views are not mandated by-and are not even compatible with-- the rulings of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh. Yet, the proponents of the restrictive view are so convinced of their position, they cannot imagine that classic halakhic sources disagree with them.

I discussed the Rambam's ruling (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 13:17) with a prominent dayyan in Israel. The Rambam states unequivocally that a proselyte who was circumcised and immersed in the presence of three laymen is a proselyte. Even if the conversion was with ulterior motives and even if the convert subsequently worshipped idols-he is still to be considered as an apostate Jew. If he betroths a Jewish woman according to halakha, the betrothal is valid i.e. he is a Jew. Rambam does not allow for retroactive annulment of the conversion. Rambam does not invalidate the conversion of a person with imperfect motives, even one who worshipped idols after the conversion.

The dayyan answered: Rambam was speaking of a proselyte who had studied Torah and mitzvoth in advance of being circumcised and immersed. That proselyte fully accepted all the mitzvoth to the last detail before immersing in the mikvah. Then, after coming out of the mikvah he had a change of heart and went to worship idols. But if this proselyte had not known the mitzvoth nor accepted sincerely to observe all the mitzvoth originally, then the conversion would not have been valid. I asked the dayyan: if Rambam meant what you say he meant, why didn't he say so? Rambam was quite careful with his use of language, and could easily have presented the scenario as you described. But he did not do so! His language manifestly indicates that he was not operating with your assumptions, but had a quite different view of conversion. The dayyan answered: the Rambam could not have meant anything other than what I explained.

This, of course, is circular reasoning. The dayyan began with the axiom that conversion equals total commitment to observe all mitzvoth. If Rambam said something in opposition to that axiom, then Rambam needs to be re-interpreted-regardless of how far-fetched the interpretation is and how untrue it is to Rambam's own language.

Other rabbis have offered similar responses based on circular reasoning. When I have pointed out that the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh do not define kabbalat hamitzvoth as a total commitment to observe all mitzvoth in detail (but rather as a general acceptance of mitzvoth), proponents of the current stringent view have retorted: The Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh did not have to spell things out, since they assumed that a convert would observe all the mitzvoth. It was so obvious to them, they didn't even have to state this. Yet, the fact is that the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh specifically described the conversion process, and stated that the would-be proselyte should be informed only of some of the major and minor mitzvoth. The Talmud discusses the case of a proselyte who did not even know the laws of Shabbat. Rambam and Shulhan Arukh did not invalidate the conversion of a proselyte who later worshipped idols. If the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh accepted the "standards" of Rabbi Schmelkes and others, they would have said so clearly. We must take their words in their context as they were intended. It is not appropriate to read one's own views into the texts.

2. Let us now turn to the second question: Are current efforts to "raise standards" focusing on ritual mitzvoth, while actually "lowering standards" of mitzvoth relating to maintaining Jewish families, treating converts and potential converts with compassion, and other moral considerations?

In the guise of "raising standards", the contemporary Orthodox world has stressed-almost exclusively-the details of Shabbat and holiday observances, kashruth, prayer, and mikvah. A candidate for conversion who is not ready to give a detailed commitment to these ritual mitzvoth has little chance of being accepted for giyyur.

Yet, aren't there other important considerations that need to be factored into the conversion process?
Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880-1953), late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, saw himself as being very stringent in applying the prohibitions against intermarriage. Therefore, he believed that rabbis must do everything in their power to prevent intermarriage situations. When a Jew and non-Jew were intending to marry each other, or already were married to each other, Rabbi Uziel urged that rabbis convert the non-Jewish partner to Judaism. He made this ruling even when it was expected that the couple would not be observant of all the mitzvoth. He ruled that performing such conversions was not only permitted, but was a mitzvah! [17] He wrote: "From all that has been stated and discussed, the ruling follows that it is permissible and a mitzvah to accept male and female converts even if it is known to us that they will not observe all the mitzvoth, because in the end they will come to fulfill them. We are commanded to make this kind of opening for them; and if they do not fulfill the mitzvoth, they will bear their own iniquities, and we are innocent."

Rabbi Uziel was deeply concerned about the fate of children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Such children, although of Jewish stock (zera yisrael), are in fact not halakhically Jewish. Children raised in such intermarriages will be lost to the Jewish people entirely. Thus, it is obligatory for rabbis to convert the non-Jewish mother in order to keep the children in the Jewish fold. Rabbi Uziel noted: "And I fear that if we push them [the children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment and they shall say to us: ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek.' (Yehezkel 34:4)."

In another responsum, Rabbi Uziel wrote: "I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance and to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers."[18]

Certainly Rabbi Uziel would have liked all Jews-born Jews and converted Jews-to live fully religious lives devoted to Torah and mitzvoth. But since we live in an imperfect world, we need to make halakhic judgments based on the realities we face. Since intermarriage is a great sin and leads to the loss of children to the Jewish people, Rabbi Uziel deemed these concerns to outweigh considerations about how religiously observant the converts would be. Surely, candidates for conversion should be taught some of the major and some of the minor mitzvoth, and should come to feel as members of the Jewish people. But if they lived as non-observant Jews, this is their sin-not ours. By preventing intermarriage situations, we can hope that these couples and their children will be part of the Jewish people, and will ultimately come closer to our Torah traditions. If, however, we turn such converts away, we allow intermarriages to persist, and we undermine the possibility of keeping children of such marriages within the Jewish people.

Other halakhic authorities have raised considerations that warrant leniencies in the area of conversion. If we fear that by not converting a non-Jewish partner, the Jewish partner to the intermarriage (or potential intermarriage) will estrange himself/herself from the Jewish community-we should convert the non-Jewish partner. If we reject them, such couples could be married by civil authorities or by non-Orthodox rabbis. If they were turning to Orthodox rabbis for the conversion, this itself is an indication that they preferred to be part of the traditionalist Jewish community. If we reject them, we may run the risk of having them live outside the Jewish community, or even of having the Jewish partner convert to the religion of the spouse.[19]

The late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi I. Y. Unterman raised yet another concern. In discussing the appropriate rabbinic attitude toward immigrants to Israel from Russia during the early 1970s-among whom were many intermarried couples-Rabbi Unterman advocated that rabbis demonstrate compassion and kindness. These immigrants should not be made to feel that the rabbis view them unfavorably. If conversions took place when the immigrants had not intended fully to live according to the mitzvoth, one should not condemn such conversions lest the public conclude that the rabbis are intransigent when it comes to dealing with conversions.[20] Rabbi Unterman was not happy about conversions of this type; but he judged it better not to raise public opposition to them.

Rabbi Zehariah HaCohen (b. 1898) was a sage born in Yemen, who immigrated to Israel and became Rabbi in Nehalal. He dealt with the issue of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel who were married to Jews, and who were not living a strictly religious lifestyle. Should such people be accepted for conversion? Among his concerns, Rabbi HaCohen worried about consequences of not converting these intermarried people. How would they become integrated properly into Jewish Israeli society? What would be the status of their children? He wrote: "We cannot demand that the proselyte observe all the 613 precepts at a time when most of those who are resettling him are themselves far from observing this number or even part of it.... How can we demand the proselyte to observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws etc? Such would be saying: do as I say, but not as I do!" Rabbi HaCohen believed that conversions should be performed for the non-Jewish spouses. The hope was that children of these marriages would learn more about Judaism in school, and that they would influence their parents to become more observant religiously.[21]

Rabbi Moshe HaCohen, born in Jerba, immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and became a dayyan in the rabbinical court in Teverya. He, too, was concerned about the many Jewish immigrants to Israel who had non-Jewish spouses. These couples and their children needed to be integrated into Israeli society as Jews. Yet, many of them resided in places where religious laws were not observed-they ate forbidden foods, desecrated the Sabbath etc. Even after conversion, there was little likelihood that these converts would be religiously observant. Should they be converted anyway? Rabbi HaCohen ruled that they indeed should be converted. He explained that kabbalat hamitzvoth "does not mean that [the convert] must commit himself to observe all the commandments. Rather, it means that he accepts all the commandments of the Torah in the sense that, if he transgresses, he will be liable for such punishment as he deserves....And if so, we do not care if at the time he accepts the mitzvoth he intends to transgress a particular commandment and accept the punishment. This is not considered a flaw in his acceptance of the commandments."[22]

We see, then, that conversion entails a broader range of considerations than simply whether the would-be convert will observe ritual law to the last detail. While we surely would like all born Jews and all converts to be fully observant of mitzvoth, conversions may be halakhically sanctioned even when our ideal hopes are not likely to be realized.

The Talmud (Baba Metsia 59b) states that one who causes anguish to a proselyte thereby transgresses 36 commandments; some say, 46 commandments. Those who cast doubt on halakhically valid conversions are thereby guilty of a multitude of sins. Those who foster the stringent views, without allowing for other perfectly valid halakhic positions, are not only causing anguish to proselytes and their families; they are also casting aspersions on all those halakhic sages who disagree with them. The rabbi in Ashdod who retroactively annulled the conversion of a woman who had been converted by an Orthodox beth din-was not just undermining the Jewish status of this woman and her children. He rejected the possibility that any legitimate rabbis could have an opinion other than his. He believed that conversion must entail absolute commitment to observe all mitzvoth-and that lacking such commitment and observance, the conversion is not valid. Thus, rabbis who relied on the far more tolerant views of the Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman etc.-all such rabbis were themselves invalidated! The dayyan of Ashdod could not have been blunter: "These ‘courts' permit 100 percent gentiles to marry into the Jewish people, and they cause many people to sin terribly. And they have turned conversions into a joke. The judges [who take the more lenient view] are nothing less than blasphemers and evil-doers. And since the judges are criminals, none of the conversions they perform should be recognized." [23] This statement-so arrogant in self-righteousness and so narrow in its religious worldview-characterizes what is worst in the contemporary Orthodox beth din establishment. In one fell swoop, it throws converts and their families into turmoil about their Jewish identities, and also undermines the credibility of any rabbis who would disagree with the restrictive views on the topic of conversion. If we are looking for religious leadership among Orthodox rabbis, we should not be looking to this dayyan in Ashdod, nor to any other rabbis who foster this halakhically and morally repugnant attitude.

Regrettably, the Orthodox beth din establishment functions with the assumptions expressed by the rabbi in Ashdod. Their "raised standards" measure the potential convert on the basis of commitment to observe ritual mitzvoth, without factoring in the broader issues that dramatically affect the lives of individuals, couples, children, the Jewish community at large, the State of Israel. They establish "standards" and then refuse to accept the conversions of those upstanding and learned Orthodox rabbis who have more tolerant, compassionate and inclusive views. This underlies the decision of Israel's Chief Rabbis not to accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis of the diaspora, except for those on a very limited approved list-approved because they accept the dictates of the Chief Rabbinate on the topic of conversion. This underlies the decision of the Rabbinical Council of America to certify only those conversions done by its own hand-picked dayyanim, and not to certify conversions performed by the vast majority of its own members-fine Orthodox rabbis.

The scandal of the current beth din establishment position is that it actually invalidates (or casts into doubt) halakhic conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis who follow the teachings of Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh and a host of halakhic authorities who adhere to those teachings. Thus, halakhic converts and their children are told that they are not Jewish, or that their Jewishness is questionable. This is an egregious example of oppressing gerim-innui ha-ger.

The beth din establishment claims that they adopt the stringent views in order to "raise standards". As has been pointed out, stringency in the areas of ritual observance leads to "lowering standards" in the areas of intermarriage prevention; it leads to a loss of children to families and to the Jewish people; it leads to weakening the Jewish fabric of Jewish communities in the diaspora and in the State of Israel; it leads potential converts to give up on Orthodoxy-or to become alienated from Judaism altogether; it increases the number of transgressions of oppressing proselytes.

Another claim is that it is necessary to maintain "uniform standards" in conversion policy. The call for "uniform standards' is a code phrase, meaning that all Orthodox rabbis should adopt the most stringent positions. Yet, halakhic literature itself does not present a uniform standard. Various legitimate and valid views are available. To restrict options to a "uniform standard" is false to halakha. Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, has pointed out that the halakha has purposely left latitude for each rabbi to deal with the particular circumstances of each potential convert. Ein ledayyan ela mah she-einav ro-ot, each judge must evaluate each situation according to his own best judgment. He needs to factor in many considerations, and may sometimes feel the need to be stringent and sometimes to be lenient. Whether and when to perform conversions "was left to each judge and leader of his generation to decide according to what his own eyes see, whether toward leniency or strictness." [24] If individual rabbis feel they need to adopt stringent opinions, that is their own decision to make. But such rabbis have no right to impose their views on all other rabbis. They have no right to call into question the halakhic Jewishness of converts who were converted by Orthodox rabbis who, in fact, are following classic halakhic guidelines.

The need of the hour is for Orthodox rabbis to deal with conversions with a "full halakhic toolbox". We need to draw on the range of halakhic options in order to address the specific circumstances of each giyyur, and to confront the larger issues facing the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Surely, we must take our responsibility seriously. We must teach prospective converts in a spirit of respect and kindness; we must do our best to bring them to an appreciation of Torah and mitzvoth; we must help them to strive to become fine members of the Jewish people. We must oppose unequivocally "shotgun" conversions that make a mockery of giyyur; rather, we must engage each convert in a serious, life-transforming process. This process is filled with challenges, with emotional highs and lows. Not every candidate for conversion will or should be accepted. While our general attitude must be inclusive, there are cases where we feel we must say no. Each case is unique; each prospective candidate presents a different set of issues; each rabbi must weigh carefully how to deal with each situation.

3. Let us now address the third question: If the current policies are halakhically and morally deficient, how should we be addressing the issue of conversion to Judaism?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Orthodox rabbis must raise their voices to oppose the current restrictive policies of the establishment Orthodox batei din. They must express outrage at the mistreatment of potential converts and the abuse of halakhic converts whose Jewish credentials are being cast into doubt. If we do not resist the current misguided policies, we thereby become accomplices.
2. The Orthodox public must insist that its day schools, yeshivoth and synagogues teach a range of valid halakhic opinions on the topic of giyyur (as well as on so many other topics!). If we are supporting institutions that foster an erroneous halakhic position on giyyur, then we are accomplices.
3. Orthodox rabbis must insist that every proselyte converted by Orthodox rabbis is a full Jew in the eyes of halakha, in the eyes of God, and in the eyes of the Jewish community. No proselyte should be black-balled, whether in Israel or the diaspora, because the current beth din establishment refuses to endorse the conversion.
4. The Orthodox public must be vigilant that its schools and other institutions accept all halakhic converts with love and compassion.
5. Orthodox rabbis must make it clear that they view candidates for conversion, as well as converts, as deserving of our respect and affection. We must have a compassionate, inclusive attitude, and must take into consideration the circumstances that brought these people to us in the first place.
6. The Orthodox public must support those rabbis who foster legitimate diversity within halakha; must support those institutions that fight for a righteous, compassionate and inclusive Orthodoxy; must have the moral courage to stand up against the injustices and cruelties perpetrated in the guise of "raising standards" and creating "uniform standards".

At a time when many thousands of people have converted to Judaism, and many thousands more wish to do so, the Orthodox rabbinate needs to project a framework for giyyur that is halakhically sound and ethically responsible. The challenges of the 19th century, that generated the restrictive views of the Hatam Sofer, R. Yitzchak Schmelkes and others, are different from the challenges our community is facing today. We live at a time when a sovereign Jewish State exists and must absorb hundreds of thousands of individuals who are not halakhically Jewish. We live at a time when intermarriage rates in the diaspora are at an astronomical level and show no signs of declining. We live at a time when thousands of people would be willing to turn to Orthodox rabbis for halakhic conversion-if only we presented a halakhic framework for giyyur that is meaningful, accessible, and respectful to the needs and concerns of the proselytes themselves. Local Orthodox rabbis, using their own knowledge of each case on a personal basis, are far better equipped to deal with the challenges of giyyur today than rabbinic bureaucracies.

The halakha provides leeway and multiple views about the nature of the conversion process. Halakhic Judaism should not be constricted to only one halakhic view, and certainly not to the most rigid and restrictive view. It must be recognized that different legitimate halakhic positions are available just as there are different legitimate hashkafic opinions. At this period of historic challenge, the Orthodox rabbinate can either rise to greatness or shrink into self-righteous isolationism. Thus far, the rabbinic/beth din establishment has chosen the latter course. It is not too late to turn things around. The honor of God, Torah and the Jewish people are at stake.

[1] See Adam Ferziger’s book, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2005, pp. 61f.

[2] quoted by Ferziger, p. 73.

[3] See Ferziger, pp. 152f.

[4] Binyan Zion ha-Hadashot, no. 23. <!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->

[5] Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, Transforming Identity, Continuum Press, London and New York, 2007, pp. 234f. See their original Hebrew edition of this book, Giyyur ve-Zehut Yehudit, Shalom Hartman Institute and Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem, 1997.

[6] Yitzchak Schmelkes, Beit Yitzchak, Y.D. 100.

[7] See Isaac Sassoon, “The Proselyte Who Comes”, in the Articles section of www.jewishideas.org.

[8] Akiva Joseph Schlesinger, Lev Ha-Ivri, Kitvei R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, Jerusalem, 1989, vol. 2, pp. 291-2.

[9] See his article in Jewish Life Magazine, May-June 1965, p. 7. See also p. 11 under the heading “commitment to total observance.”

[10] Ahiezer, vol. 3, no. 26, sec. 4.

[11] Mishpetei Uziel, vol. 2, Y.D. 58. See also R. Shelomo Zalman b. Isaac, Hemdat Shelomo, Warsaw 1876, Y.D. 29, where he indicates that kabbalat ha-mitzvoth is accomplished in a general way, by the proselyte’s entering the mikvah with the desire to become Jewish and to adopt the Jewish religion.

[12] See also Shulhan Arukh, Y.D. 268:12, where R. Yosef Karo also rules that a person who fulfilled the technical requirements of circumcision and immersion—even if the process lacked examination of motives and indication of rewards and punishments of the mitzvoth—is a valid convert. Even if he/she subsequently worshipped idols, he/she is to be considered a Jewish apostate—but a Jew nevertheless.

[13] See Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s responsum in Shanah be-Shanah, 5743, pp. 149-156, where he rejects the possibility of conversion for a non-Jew who accepted all the mitzvoth but who did not accept to be part of the Jewish people.

[14] For a discussion of the rigidity that set into halakha as a reaction to the rise of Reform, see Daniel Sperber, Darka shel Halakha, Reuven Mass Publishers, Jerusalem,2007, pp. 102ff.

[15] Orot, Jerusalem, 5745, p. 156. See the article by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, “Nationalism, Humanity and Kenesset Yisrael,” in The World of Rav Kook’s Thought” Avi Chai Foundation, New York, 1991, pp. 210f.

[16] Shmuel Shilo, “Halakhic Leniency in Modern Responsa Regarding Conversion,” Israel Law Review, vol. 22, 1988, pp. 353 ff, cites the lenient views of Rabbis Shlomo Kluger, Shlomo Yehuda of Sighet, Shalom Shvadron, David Zvi Hoffman, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, Yehiel Weinberg, Benzion Uziel, Isser Yehuda Unterman and Ovadia Yosef.

[17] See Mishpetei Uziel, E.H., Jerusalem, 5724, nos. 18, 20, 22. For a discussion of R. Uziel’s views on conversion, see my book, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Jason Aronson, Northvale, 1999, chapter 7.

[18] Mishpetei Uziel, 5698, no. 26.

[19] These concerns are raised in the following sources: R. Shlomo Kluger, Tuv Ta’am Ve’da’at, vol. 1, no. 230; R. Shalom Shvadron, Responsa Maharsham, vol. 6, Y.d. 109; R. David Zvi Hoffman, Melamed leHo-il, Y.D. 85.

[20] Rabbi Unterman discusses this issue in “The Laws of Conversion and their Practical Application,” Noam, vol. 1, 1971.

[21] Cited in Baruch Litvin, Jewish Identity, New York, 1965, p. 62.

[22] Cited by Sagi and Zohar, Transforming Identity, p. 230.

[23] As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, May 18, 2007.

[24] Asei Lekha Rav, vol. 1, no. 23.

New Publication on Rabbi Sabato Morais


Rabbi Sabato Morais—Pioneer Sephardic Rabbi of Early American Judaism, by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Mazo Publishers, 2023, 65 pages.

 Rabbi Sabato Morais (1823-1897) was one of the leading American rabbis of his time, although largely forgotten today. Born in Livorno to a prominent Italian/Sephardic family, he grew into an impressive scholar, communal leader and activist. He spent formative years serving in London before being invited to become spiritual leader of the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia where he began in 1851.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has published a monograph on the life and work of Rabbi Morais. The study is “designed for teenagers and young families” to spread the legacy of Rabbi Morais. It considers Morais’ early life, his work in London, and his long tenure in Philadelphia.

Rabbi Morais was a staunch traditionalist, but was also a community-minded rabbi who worked with and respected those with different religious viewpoints. He was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln and was an outspoken critic of slavery and other injustices in American society.

Rabbi Elkins notes that Rabbi Morais does not fit neatly into the religious denominational framework of Ashkenazic Jewry. He was Orthodox in belief and observance; he was highly cultured and open to modern scholarship; his thinking was in line with the “historical school” of Judaism—but not identical with it. In short, Rabbi Morais was representative of a different religious model: a Western Sephardic traditional rabbi.

In 1886, Rabbi Morais, together with Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes of Shearith Israel in New York, spearheaded the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary Association. The Seminary, which originally held its classes at Shearith Israel, aimed to educate youths desirous of entering the ministry to be “thoroughly grounded in Jewish knowledge and inspired by the precept and the example of their instructors with the love of the Hebrew language and a spirit of fidelity and dedication to the Jewish Law.” Morais was the founding President and also taught classes as its Professor of Bible.  After his death in November 1897, Solomon Schechter was called from England to reorganize the Seminary. He arrived in 1902. “At that point, the Jewish Theological Seminary, started by Sabato Morais, ceased to exist, and a new institution, called the Jewish Theological Seminary of America was established.” Rabbi Elkins, himself a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, notes that it is generally felt that the Conservative Movement really began with the arrival of Solomon Schechter.  Rabbi Elkins notes: “While some consider Morais to be the founder of the Conservative Movement, in thought and practice he considered himself Orthodox.”

When Rabbi Morais passed away in November 1897, his funeral was attended by thousands. “Historians note that his funeral was the first such mass funeral among Jews in America.” An Orthodox newspaper eulogized him as “without doubt…the greatest of all orthodox rabbis in the United States.” He was mourned by all factions of the Jewish community, a rare testimony to his involvement with and concern for the entire community.

Rabbi Elkins has done an important service in publishing his monograph on the life and work of Rabbi Morais. This publication offers us the opportunity of reconnecting with one of the important religious leaders of American Jewry.



Discussing Politics on Shabbat; Military Service in America; Tuition/Day Camp Expenses: Rabbi Marc Angel Replies to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it appropriate to discuss politics at the Shabbos table?

Response of Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals


Ideally, Shabbat should be sanctified by devoting ourselves to religious fulfillment. We are to avoid discussing business and other mundane matters. To engage in conversations/debates about politics would seem to be in the category of divrei hol (secular matters) that should be avoided at the Shabbat table. 

However, political discussion often is interrelated with moral issues e.g. abortion, assistance to immigrants, anti-Semitism. Since we are deeply affected by the political process, we feel a need to discuss relevant issues, to gain new insights, to learn more details about projected laws. If such conversations are carried on in good faith as a means of exploring moral implications of various policies, then these are not strictly in the category of divrei hol.

The problem with talking politics in general—as well as on Shabbat—is that people may come to the discussion with strong opinions. Instead of useful conversation, the discussion becomes acrimonious. Arguments about this candidate or that candidate can quickly deteriorate into name-calling and other unpleasantness.

It is fine to discuss moral issues that are impacted by the political process, as long as the conversation is for the sake of gaining clarity and sharing views. But if discussing politics ends up being a shouting match, then this clearly crosses the line of what is appropriate on Shabbat (or any other time!).

Torah observant Jews need to understand political issues that impact on our religious way of life. We have the right and obligation to discuss relevant issues in a responsible way to clarify our thinking and determining how we can best promote the ideas and ideals for which we stand.



Should a parent encourage a child who wants to join the U.S. Army?


It has long been observed that parents must give their children roots…and wings. We want our children to be deeply attached to our traditions, our family’s values and ideals. We also want them to grow into strong, healthy human beings who will live as responsible adults.

If a child has reached the age and maturity level where he/she wants to join the U.S. army, parents would want to know what has motivated this decision. Is it from idealism and patriotism? Is it due to peer pressure? Is it an escape from current life patterns? Has the child given full thought to how army service will impact on religious observance?

It is right and proper for parents to have candid discussions with a child who wants to join the army. It is important to listen to the child…and listen very carefully. It is important to share one’s pride, concerns, and fears. But ultimately, it is important to let the child make his/her own decision.

If after serious thought the child has decided to join the army, parents should be supportive. American military history includes many Jewish soldiers and officers who have served their country with distinction and courage. They have brought honor to their families and to their country.

Grown children have the right and responsibility to make decisions that will impact their own lives. We pray that they will be faithful to their roots and family traditions; and that they will spread their own wings in ways that will bring blessing to themselves and others.



Is it proper to send your kids to sleepaway camp if they receive tuition assistance?

It is proper to be an honest, upstanding person, who provides as best as possible for the upbringing of one’s children. 

Parents are faced with many challenges in raising their families, including the enormous financial pressures relating to yeshiva/day school tuitions and the high cost of sleepaway camp. The ideal from a practical and religious point of view is to live within one’s means. Children need to understand the possibilities—and limitations—of their parents’ financial situation.

If parents are in fact financially unable to pay full tuition so that it’s necessary to apply for financial aid, then they are not in a financial condition to afford sleepaway camp for their children. The children need to be given affordable options e.g. day camps, summer groups, summer school.  Yes, there are social pressures to send kids to sleepaway camps—but parents and kids need to overcome these pressures and do what is financially appropriate for them.

There are cases, unfortunately, where people live well beyond their means but then apply for tuition assistance and expect charity dollars to cover the difference. Aside from being a morally and financially problematic practice, this is unfair to all others who struggle to pay full fare. When it becomes “normal” to evade full payment, then the whole system suffers. People falsify their financial records in order to let others defray tuition and/or camp costs.

It would be best if tuition and camp costs were kept at reasonable levels so that most people could actually afford to pay full fare without going deep into debt. It would also be best if everyone paid what they honestly can afford, and not apply for tuition or camp assistance unless absolutely necessary. If the day school/yeshiva/camp system could rely on everyone living up to the highest religious and financial standards, life would be better for all families…and for the entire system.


The Revelation's Ongoing Messages: Thoughts for Shavuoth

Angel for Shabbat--Shavuoth
by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The Revelation at Mount Sinai was a national experience for all the people of Israel—but it also was very personal. Each Israelite heard the same words—but in different ways!

The Midrash teaches (Shemot Rabba 29:1) that God spoke “bekoho shel kol ehad ve-ehad,” according to the individual abilities of each listener. The universal message of Torah was made direct and personal. The miracle at Mount Sinai was not only the Revelation of God to the nation of Israel, but the individualized Revelation to each and every Israelite man, woman and child.

The message of this rabbinic teaching goes further. It does not merely refer to the receptivity and ability of Israelites at the moment of Revelation at Mount Sinai. It also recognizes that each individual’s koah—strength of understanding—is not stagnant. As we grow, deepen our knowledge, expand our sensitivities and open our minds and hearts—our koah evolves. In a sense, we receive the Revelation anew at each stage in life—actually, every day and every moment of life. This is the wonder and glory of Torah: it speaks to us directly and personally throughout our lives.

The foundational experience of the Revelation has an ongoing impact on how we confront life. Among the lessons is the importance of interiority, of being strong within ourselves.

The Me'am Lo'ez, the classic Ladino biblical commentary (Turkey, 18th century), notes that the original Revelation on Mount Sinai was a highly dramatic episode. Moses ascended the mountain as the people of Israel gathered below with great anticipation. The scene was marked by thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar. The voice of God was heard by all. Yet, shortly afterward, the Israelites were dancing around a golden calf! When Moses came down the mountain and witnessed this idolatrous behavior, he threw down and shattered the tablets of the law.

Later, Moses ascended the mountain again. This time, there was no public fanfare, no miraculous sounds and lights. God told Moses that he himself would have to carve out the stone on which the Ten Commandments would be inscribed. The second set of the tablets of the law--received by Moses alone and through his own hard labor--was preserved.

The first tablets of the Ten Commandments, given with so much drama, were destroyed. The second tablets, given privately and quietly, survived and became the spiritual foundation of the people of Israel.

The Me'am Lo'ez points to the moral of this story: the really important and lasting things in life are often done by individuals in privacy, through their own exertions. Things done with much publicity may not be as permanent. We ought not judge the value of a person or an event based on external glitter and fame. Rather, we ought to realize that greatness and permanent value are often found in obscurity, in seemingly small and unnoticed acts of kindness or spiritual insight.

External fame, power, and popularity do not necessarily correlate to internal worth. What is truly important is what we do through the sweat of our own brow, quietly, without seeking publicity or glory. What is valuable and lasting in us are those things which are authentic, honest and good in the eyes of God, and which bring goodness and kindness to our fellow human beings.

Another lesson of the Revelation is that the Torah provides a grand and universal religious vision. A famous Midrash teaches that the Revelation at Sinai was split into 70 languages i.e. contained a message for the 70 nations of the world (understood to refer to all humanity). The Torah is not to be understood or limited as being a narrow message intended for a small sect. The Torah is not to be limited to a reclusive people living in self-contained ghettoes; rather, it is to provide spiritual insight to all humanity. The great 19th century Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh stressed Israel’s role as the most universal of religions, a religion that provides the moral framework for civilization a whole.

The Revelation accounts in the Torah also provide guidance on how to live as full, real people, with a healthy and wholesome sense of self. The Talmud reports (Berakhot 8b) that the holy ark in the Tabernacle contained the two sets of the Tablets of the law: the broken pieces of the first set, and the complete tablets of the second set. “Luhot veshivrei luhot munahot ba-aron.”

A lesson from this is: we each have “complete” and “broken” tablets within ourselves. We have our greatest strengths and achievements; and we also have our failures and shortcomings. If we only focus on the “complete” aspects of our lives, we may tend to become arrogant and egotistical. If we focus on the “broken” aspects of our lives, we may become demoralized and crushed. To be whole and strong human beings, we need to value both sets of tablets within us. We need to draw on our strengths and learn from our failings. We need to balance self-confidence with honest awareness of our limitations and weaknesses.

On Shavuoth, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, we should direct our thoughts to that special moment in the history of Israel and to the ongoing lessons it provides to us in our own lives.

Righteousness and Self-Righteousness: Reflections on the Nature of Genuine Piety

Religion produces the very best type of people: saintly, humble, compassionate, and genuinely pious. I think we have all come across or read about such individuals, and we are inspired by their goodness and sweetness.

            But we cannot help but notice that religion also produces—or at least harbors—the very worst type of people: terrorists, bigoted zealots, and self-righteous egotists. I think we have all come across or read about such individuals, and we are repelled by their ugly and corrupt misuse of religion.

            So religion has two faces: one that is righteous and compassionate; and one that is self-righteous and hate-filled. But we may be fairly confident that all (or nearly all) religionists believe that they are serving God in the best possible way. The righteous certainly aspire to walk in God’s ways, as manifested in the thirteen Divine attributes of mercy. The zealots, though, also think they act for the glory of God. In their eyes, their extremism for the sake of God is no vice. On the contrary, it is evidence that they alone have the true faith and courage to fight for God against all enemies.

            One basic truth about human nature is that we tend to see ourselves as being basically good and upstanding. Yes, we know we commit sins—that is why we have the laws of repentance that is why we have Yom Kippur.  We know we have some character flaws and some religious shortcomings. Yet, overall, we think of ourselves as being good people. On the other hand, we can point to others who are really bad, non-religious, and even sacrilegious. We walk in God’s ways, but they don’t.

            Let us focus on us, not on them.  We want to know honestly and candidly how to evaluate our own religious levels. What are the criteria by which we can determine whether we represent the sweet, gentle and righteous face of religion, or the harsh, self-righteous face of religion? How can we improve ourselves?  Essentially, this is a study in musar, the development of Jewish ethical qualities.

We will begin by studying a short, insightful text from the Talmud (Berakhot 4a):

 “A prayer of David…Keep my soul, for I am pious (ki hasid ani)  [Psalm 86].  Levi and R. Isaac [offer interpretations]. The one says: Thus spoke David before the Holy One blessed be He: ‘Master of the universe, am I not pious (hasid)? All the kings of the East and West sleep to the third hour [of the day], but I—at midnight I rise to give thanks unto You.’”

This passage appears jarred by a presumptuous statement by King David. David asks God to guard his soul because, David asserts, “I am hasid.” The word hasid connotes genuine piety; it is religion at its best. How could David dare to present himself before God in this manner? How could he be so sure of his blameless piety?

The passage offers an interpretation. David proves that he is genuinely pious by the fact that all other kings sleep late, while he arises in the middle of the night to sing praises to the Almighty. David was a king. He could have behaved like all other kings, pampering himself, sleeping late, focusing on his own honor and glory. But David was not that way. He demonstrated that his commitment to God was his primary concern. He was hasid because he was theocentric, not egocentric. This is an essential ingredient in genuine piety.

The Talmudic passage continues:  “The other one says: Thus spoke David before the Holy One blessed be He: ‘Master of the universe, am I not hasid? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood, with the fetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman pure for her husband.’”

According to this interpretation, David proves his piety by the fact that all other kings insist on pomp and self-adulation; they like people to surround them and praise them and heed their words. But David is different. He deals with complicated halakhic questions, very technical issues that involve the laws of ritual purity and impurity. David gets his own hands dirty. He takes personal responsibility for others. As a king, David surely could have ordered his underlings to attend to such questions. He could have avoided issuing rulings and kept his own hands clean. But he did not shirk responsibility. He was hasid because he did not think it was beneath his dignity to serve his people, even in sensitive matters of ritual purity.

The Talmudic passage continues: “And what is more, in all that I do I consult my teacher, Mefiboshet, and I say to him: “my teacher Mefiboshet, is my decision right? Did I correctly convict, correctly acquit, correctly declare pure, correctly declare impure?  And I am not ashamed….”

David was a king. He had the right to issue rulings and decrees without asking anyone else for permission or approval. As a king, he might have felt embarrassed submitting his decisions for the approval of others. Yet David was not that way. He was interested in achieving a true judgment, a ruling faithful to the Torah. He was not ashamed to ask Mefiboshet to review his decisions and to correct them. What awesome qualities are displayed here by David: the quality of pursuing truth at any cost, the quality of humility in the presence of one who may know more, the quality of being able to admit error. A king did not have to subject himself to judicial review, but David did! The truth was more important to him than his own honor.

Thus, the Talmud suggests three characteristics of being hasid, three qualities necessary for those who would represent religion at its best. First, David was theocentric rather than egocentric, and did not insist on his own comfort and privilege. Second, David was not afraid to take responsibility, to get his hands dirty. He did not try to take the easy way out by letting others make the tough decisions. Third, he was not ashamed to ask for advice, and not ashamed to admit that he had erred. He did not believe in being authoritarian, although—as king—he was certainly invested with great authority.

The Talmudic passage, I believe, is telling us the criteria of genuine piety: love of God, humility, the assumption of personal responsibility and commitment to truth, willingness to learn from others. Our egos must not get in the way of our service to God. We must never feel that we have everything right; rather, we must be honest enough to admit failings. We must strive to be authoritative, without being authoritarian.

Even though we acknowledge these criteria of being hasid, it is still fairly easy and fairly common to assume that we, in fact, do fulfill these qualities. And although all of us, no doubt, do see these virtues in ourselves, we must always be wary of being complacent in our levels of religiosity. We all have room for improvement and personal spiritual growth. None of us has yet reached the level of King David!

One of the problems in religious development is embodied in a concept known in rabbinic literature as yuhara, presumptuousness. Is our behavior genuinely religious, or are we simply acting as though we are religious?  Is our motive in fulfilling Torah the pure desire to serve God, or is our motive tainted by egotistic considerations? For some people, religion is a framework for spiritual growth; for others, religion is a place to hide. It is not uncommon for people with bad character traits to try to pass themselves off as servants of the Lord. They delude themselves. What they find in religion is not humble devotion to God, but a framework for self-aggrandizement, influence over others, an outlet for aggression. They use religion to build themselves up. Our rabbis may have had such individuals in mind when they referred to the angel of Esau as being dressed in the garb of a talmid hakham, a rabbinic sage.

Yuhara is an important concept for us because it explores the line—often a fine line—between genuine and counterfeit piety. And it deals with the self-deception that may (and probably does) affect all of us.

Let us consider another Talmudic passage (Bava Kama 81b). The Talmud records that Joshua, on his entry into the land of Israel, instituted rules to govern the use of private and public property. One of the rules was that it was permitted to turn aside and walk on private sidewalks in order to avoid road-pegs on the public roads. Thus, travelers had the right to walk on private property if the public road was not easily passable; the owners of the private property had no right to stop these travelers. The Talmud tells us the following story:

“As Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] and Rabbi Hiyya were once walking on the road, they turned aside to the private sidewalks, while Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa went striding along the main road in front of them. Rabbi thereupon said to Rabbi Hiyya: Who is that man who wants to show off in front of us? Rabbi Hiyya replied: He might perhaps be Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa who is my disciple and does all his deeds out of pure piety.  When they drew near to him they saw him and Rabbi Hiyya said to him: Had you not been Yeuda be Kenosa, I would have sawed your joints with an iron saw [I,e, excommunicated you].”

In this text, Rabbi and Rabbi Hiyya were following the rule set by Joshua. They moved to the private sidewalks as was allowed. But then they noticed that Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa did not follow Joshua’s rule, but rather continued to walk on the main public road in spite of the apparent obstacles. Rabbi took offense at the behavior of Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa, annoyed by the latter’s show of public piety. If Rabbi and Rabbi Hiyya—who were both great sages—walked on the private sidewalks in compliance with Joshua’s rule, why did Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa refuse to do so? Did he think himself more pious than the others?  In fact, Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa’s offense was so great that he deserved to be excommunicated!

Rabbi Hiyya pointed out to Rabbi that Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa was his student and was genuinely a pious person. He was not trying to show off. Everything he did was for the sake of Heaven, without ulterior motives, without egocentric considerations. Hence excommunication was not warranted.

The assumption of this passage is that, while Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa was an exceptional person, everyone else (i.e. all those not as absolutely pious as Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa) would have been worthy of excommunication in that situation. But what would be their sin? They simply chose to walk on the public road rather than to turn off to the private sidewalk. Is that a transgression worthy of excommunication?

Here we come to the issue of yuhara. The law allows one to walk on the private sidewalks. Two great sages, indeed, were doing just that. Now comes another person who declines to take advantage of Joshua’s ruling. He does not want to follow that “leniency.” Yes, he knows that other pious and righteous people follow Joshua’s rule; but he wants to take the “stringent” view by staying on the public road.

We must ask: What is this person thinking? What are his inner psychological motives?  We are told that Rabbi Yehuda ben Kenosa had pure motives, but implied is that almost everyone else lacks such pure motives. For almost everyone else, such behavior is presumptuous and worthy of excommunication. Why? Because the person is guilty of false piety! He takes upon himself an unnecessary stringency, as though to show that he is more conscientious than everyone else. In so doing, he insults everyone else—including Joshua, who instituted the rule. Moreover, he shows disdain to those sages who rely on Joshua’s rule, by presenting himself as being more scrupulous in his religious observance than they are. While the person does not openly say those things, his behavior implies a certain arrogance and presumptuousness. In subtle ways, the person sees himself as better, more pious than others. This attitude, though, is a sure sign of counterfeit religion. It reflects contentment with oneself and a desire to show off one’s piety, rather than a humble, self-effacing religiosity. This is the danger of yuhara. On the surface it appears “religious,” but in essence it reflects egotism.

Let me offer another illustration. It is customary in most Sephardic congregations for congregants to remain seated when the Ten Commandments are read as part of the morning’s Torah reading. The logic of this custom is that the entire Torah is holy; to stand up for this particular section would imply that the rest of the Torah is of lesser status. On the other hand, the usual custom among Ashkenazim is for the congregation to rise for the reading of the Ten Commandments. This custom calls for the symbolic re-enactment of the original revelation at Mt. Sinai, when the people of Israel were standing. Both customs are perfectly legitimate and deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

During the eighteenth century, a question came to Rabbi Eliyahu Israel. Rabbi Israel, who was raised in the community of the Island of Rhodes—his father Rabbi Moshe Israel was its Chief Rabbi—served as rabbi in Alexandria, Egypt. The question involved several young men who decided to stand up for the reading of the Ten Commandments, even though the congregation’s custom was to remain seated. These young men obviously felt they were demonstrating respect to the Torah. Rabbi Israel, though, ruled that these individuals were guilty of haughtiness and disrespect for the congregation. They were worthy of excommunication, and should desist from these shows of false piety. (See Kol Eliyahu, Livorno, 5552, no. 5).

If we could ask these young men if they had intended to demonstrate false piety, if they had meant to show disrespect to the congregation—they would surely reply in the negative. They would say that they were simply trying to perform a pious deed, honoring the Ten Commandments by rising to their feet. But Rabbi Israel, drawing on the concept of yuhara, cut through their rationalizations. In disregarding the community’s custom they were saying (through their action) that they showed more respect to the Ten Commandments than did everyone else in the synagogue, that they knew better and were more religiously observant than the rabbis and were more religiously observant than the rabbis and sages of all the communities that remained seated for the reading of the Decalogue. Their motives, thus, were not essentially for the sake of Heaven. They were driven, rather, by some inner need to display their piety. This is not genuine religion; this is counterfeit religion.

Rabbi Eliezer Papo, in his classic book of moral guidance Pele Yo’ets, identifies three guidelines relating to yuhara:

  • If one is performing a mitzvah, even one that most people ignore, it is not considered presumptuousness on his part. After all, he is following the law and need not be ashamed of this.
  • But if most authorities permit an activity and some forbid it, one should not follow the stricter view in public, unless he is well known for genuine piety. (Very few, if any, should so consider themselves!) One may, though, observe the stringency in private.
  • If one wishes to adopt a practice that the law does not require, then he should do so privately. This is especially true of one who is not stringent in all his observances; people will ridicule his hypocritical behavior, and this will lead to desecration of God’s name.

          Rabbi Papo reminds us: God knows a person’s heart. If one acts piously in secret, God will judge him favorably. Even a person known to be pious should not perform acts of excessive piety that the leaders of the generation do not do. One should not behave in such a way as to call attention to his piety in contrast to that of other pious and learned individuals.

            Here is the nub of the matter: God knows our inner thoughts, our real intentions. We may fool others, we may even fool ourselves, but we certainly cannot fool God. We are supposed to conduct ourselves with this idea constantly in mind. Our goal must be to achieve the highest level of purity in our service of God, to make all our deeds for the sake of Heaven. We need to be absolutely honest with ourselves, constantly cutting through our own rationalizations and egocentric concerns. We should strive to be genuinely in the category of hasid and always keep in mind that religious life entails a constant striving for further spiritual growth. If we think we are hasidim, if we think we do everything for the sake of Heaven—we can be fairly certain that we are spiritually deficient! We are very likely guilty of yuhara.

            The following question is discussed in halakhic literature (see Sedei Hemed 3:28): May a person perform an act of excessive piety when he is alone in his own home, when no one else can possibly see him? The general opinion is that such behavior is permissible, since no one else witnesses it. Howe can it be in the category of showing off if no one sees it? Yet, there is an opinion that even in such a case a person is guilty of yuhara. How can this be? Evidently such activity is likely to fill the person with feelings of self-righteousness—even if no one else knows about his actions. Even if a person’s behavior does not involve showing off to others, it may still involve showing off to oneself! This, too, is presumptuousness and arrogance. It feeds a feeling of self-importance and self-righteousness. This frame of mind reflects egocentrism, self-satisfaction, and a sense of ultra-piety; thus, it is not reflective of religion at its best.

            Our discussion of the qualities that made King David hasid, and out discussion of the concept of yuhara, should help each of us focus more clearly on our missions as religious personalities. There is a fine line between genuine righteousness and self-righteousness. Our judgment is easily clouded by self-delusion, rationalizations, and feelings of contentment with ourselves. Our constant task is to guide our actions for the sake of Heaven, not for our own sakes. Ultimately, we are not answerable for our lives to other people, not even to ourselves; we are answerable to the Almighty.