Since parshas Pinchas discusses many of the relationships of Hashem and His people, I’ll share with you the following true story:
Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word
There was a knock on the door to my shul office. I knew Bill, an active member of one of the large Conservative temples in the city. Bill and his wife were respected members of the non-observant Jewish community; involved Jews, they kept a kosher home, made kiddush and ate Shabbos meals, although they certainly were not Shabbos compliant.
The matter that brought Bill to my office this morning was obviously disconcerting. Usually a very relaxed and jovial fellow, Bill was today uncharacteristically agitated.
“Rabbi,” he hesitantly began, “I have a matter I want to discuss with you that I want absolutely no one to know about.” I assured Bill that I always assume matters I am told are confidential unless specified otherwise.
Reassured that his big secret would remain as confidential as he wanted, Bill blurted out his issue. Bill had been raised as a reform Jew; furthermore, he was unaware of any ancestors of his who had been shomrei mitzvah. He had gradually been finding his way towards more observant Judaism, and had married a woman who kept a kosher home and a semblance of a traditional, although certainly not fully observant, Shabbos.
“Rabbi,” he now got to his point, “I do not think I am Jewish according to halacha! I am fairly certain that my mother’s mother was not born Jewish. Since the family was never observant, how could she have had a proper halachic conversion? And, if she was not Jewish, neither am I.” With this confession accomplished, Bill breathed a sigh of relief.
After relaxing from the trauma of his introduction, Bill continued with his request. He wanted me to help him proceed with the path of becoming a proper Jew according to halacha, and he meant a 100%, correct halachic conversion. He made it quite clear that he was not pressuring anyone to convert him quickly; that would defeat his purpose. He was asking me to direct and guide him as to how to convert to Judaism in a way that I would be comfortable. He was quite frank that I should not proceed with steps for conversion until I felt he was ready.
I marveled at Bill’s honesty. Unfortunately, many people who are aware of this type of information choose to ignore it, pretending to be Jewish, although they realize deep inside that they are not. Bill realized, intellectually, the truth of Torah, and was eager to observe many mitzvos, such as brachos and tefillah. However, he was not ready to observe a fully Torah-observant life. He was in the spiritual throes of someone in the process of becoming observant: intellectually convinced of the truth of Torah, able and eager to observe some mitzvos, but not ready for others. This is the typical and healthy route for someone moving towards greater observance of halacha.
At the same time, Bill wanted his status to be kept an absolute secret. He did not mind people knowing that he was studying with the Orthodox rabbi in town, but he did not want ANYONE to know that his Jewishness was in question, and that he was thinking about pursuing an Orthodox conversion.
In the interim, since conversion to Yiddishkeit requires accepting all mitzvos, Bill was clearly not a candidate for geirus kehalacha. This led us to many interesting shaylos.
Since Bill was not Jewish, what Torah and halacha could he study? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59a) prohibits a gentile from studying Torah, one opinion contending that since the Torah belongs to the Jewish people, a gentile studying it is “stealing” Jewish property. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one is permitted to teach Torah to Jews while a non-Jew is listening (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:132). Thus, I would not violate any halacha if Bill attended a class I was delivering. However, although Rav Moshe permits giving the class under those circumstances, if the gentile involved asks a shaylah, he should be told not to attend, since he is still “stealing” Torah that he should not be studying.
HALACHOS THAT APPLY TO A GENTILE
A gentile may study Torah in order to observe the mitzvos in which he is obligated, and he may study the basics of Jewish belief (Meiri, Sanhedrin ad loc.). This includes a rather extensive list of mitzvos, and according to many opinions even requires him to know all the laws of Choshen Mishpat, the entire body of halachic civil law, so that he can observe these mitzvos correctly. This is because many poskim contend that a gentile’s requirement to keep halachic civil law (dinim) requires him to keep the laws as the Torah instructed them (Shu’t Rama #10; Tumim 110:3; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #91). However, other authorities contend that non-Jews are not required to observe Choshen Mishpat, but instead to create their own legal rules and procedures (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3; Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:1; see Shu’t Maharam Schick, Orach Chayim #142; Shu’t Maharsham 4:86; Shu’t Avnei Nezer, Choshen Mishpat #55, all of whom contend that this is a dispute between amora’im in the Gemara). According to the latter opinion, one may not teach a gentile halachic civil law.
STUDYING FOR CONVERSION
The poskim dispute whether one may teach a non-Jew Torah if he is planning to convert. Meiri (Sanhedrin 58b) and Maharsha (Shabbos 31a s.v. amar lei mikra) rule that one may, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu’t #41) forbids it.
Was Bill really studying for conversion at this point? Although he strongly desired to be Jewish, he was not prepared to observe all the mitzvos. Since one cannot select which mitzvos one wants to observe, Bill was not really a candidate for conversion. Thus, teaching him Torah might be a problem, even according to the lenient opinions noted above.
Yet, Bill was very eager to study the laws of tefillah and brachos, both areas of halacha he was already observing to the best of his knowledge. Could I teach him these laws?
There is a basis to permit teaching him these halachos: One may teach a non-Jew the laws of offering korbanos if he intends to bring them, even though he has no requirement to observe this mitzvah. Nevertheless, once he decides to observe it, he should fulfill it correctly, and a Jew may instruct him how to proceed (Zevachim 116b; Rambam, Maasei HaKorbanos 19:16). Since a non-Jew may pray and recite brachos it follows that he may learn the laws of these mitzvos, to know how to observe them correctly (Meiri, Sanhedrin 58b).
COMING TO SHUL
At this point, Bill presented the following question:
“I once heard that Jews may not daven with a non-Jew in attendance. Would this present a problem?”
The authorities rule that someone outside a shul who can hear the prayers recited there may answer Amen and the other appropriate responses to their brachos and thus fulfill his responsibilities (Tur Orach Chayim 55). However, some authorities contend that one may not respond or fulfill the mitzvah if something ill-smelling or an idol is between the shul and the person listening (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 55, quoting Mahari Abohav). The idea is that the sanctity of the bracha becomes interrupted by something that prevents one from reciting prayer or learning Torah, and one may not recite a prayer near an idol or something with an unpleasant odor. The original sources imply that not only an idol, but also an idol worshipper, prevents the prayer from spreading beyond this point (Elyah Rabbah 55:18; cf. Magen Avraham 55:15, who is lenient).
However, it seems that only an idol worshipper is a problem, not a G-d-fearing person who is not Jewish. An idol worshipper ignores G-d’s presence, and thus, the prayer to G-d is blocked; a G-d-fearing gentile is made in the image of G-d, and certainly does not block a prayer to Him from passing through (Shu’t Nimla Tal).
And so, life continued. Bill slowly increased his commitment to Judaism, yet was unable to make the commitments necessary to consider true geirus. In the meantime, I studied with him. It was a good lesson to me in working on my own middos; I tend to be impatient and like to have projects completed quickly. Here, I needed to resign myself to the fact that Bill might never become sufficiently committed for proper geirus, and certainly needed to proceed at his own pace, without any encouragement. For his own part, Bill seemed satisfied with his direction and had no timetable.
THE FAMILY HISTORY
One day Bill called, asking to see me as soon as possible.
We met, and he told me the following story:
He had decided to press his mother for the details of the Jewishness of her family history. His mother told him what she knew about the background, which was not a lot, but then shared with him an interesting tidbit: “You know, the rabbi who performed my sister’s wedding was Orthodox, and I know that she never had an Orthodox conversion.”
By now, Bill knew enough not to rely on his mother’s description of a rabbi as Orthodox; and his mother’s older sister, Susan, was long deceased, thus making it difficult to verify the story. However, Bill’s uncle, Susan’s husband, was alive and well and living in town. Bill decided to have a chat with Uncle, who was an eccentric sort of fellow, a bit of a recluse and also a notorious packrat. Bill’s idea proved to be wise, as we will see.
Uncle told Bill that indeed, he and his late wife had been married by an Orthodox Rabbi, a Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik*, an old Eastern European rabbi who had been the rabbi in the shul where Uncle’s parents had davened. “If it’s important to you, I’ll see if I can find some verification.” Bill wasn’t sure what information Uncle would locate, but decided to press his uncle for details anyway. Uncle promised to sift through his memorabilia that he stored in his massive basement and see what he could find.
A few days later, presented Bill with two very interesting pieces of memorabilia. The first was a copy of his late wife’s kesubah, a withered, sixty-five-year-old document that appeared to have been perfectly valid. The kesubah was indeed signed in Hebrew by Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik, who, apparently, had signed on the document with another witness of his own choosing to guarantee that the ceremony was 100% kosher. The rav had served as one of the witnesses, not an uncommon procedure when performing a wedding in a community of nonobservant people. He and the other witness had affixed their signatures, complete with family name and position.
Uncle produced another interesting tidbit; a fifty-year-old newspaper obituary of Rabbi Tabachnik. From the obit and the accompanying photo, it was apparent that we were discussing a bearded rav who had studied in the citadels of Torah in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he had clearly remained committed to Torah and mitzvos throughout his illustrious rabbinic career, notwithstanding the challenges of the profession in America in that era.
Bill was uncertain whether any of this information had any ramifications to his own status, but eagerly presented me with the data.
I carefully examined the data. Although newspaper obituaries are not primary sources for halachic decisions, this one corroborated the information of the kesubah. Rabbi Tabachnik had apparently been a knowledgeable rav who followed halacha meticulously, as one would expect from someone with his education. The importance of this fact was a significant and surprising bit of information that the kesubah supplied: The kesubah referred to the bride, Susan (Bill’s aunt), as a besulah, a designation which is halachically inappropriate to use, unless she had been Jewish at birth. However, this information conflicted with the original assumptions Bill had presented me. According to Bill’s information, Susan’s mother was a non-Jewish woman who had married a Reform Jew who, presumably, would not have had any reason to ask her to convert to Judaism according to the Torah. Thus, their children would not have been Jewish, according to halacha. If Susan had become Jewish at some point, the kesubah would say that she was a geyores, a convert to Judaism. The pieces of the puzzle did not fit together!
There was one obvious answer. Maybe Rav Tabachnik, esteemed scholar that he was, was unaware of Susan’s family background. Perhaps Susan was not halachically Jewish, or had converted to Judaism, and the rav was unaware of this.
There was another possibility: Bill’s information was completely wrong and his mother’s mother was in fact Jewish, either born Jewish or converted according to halacha, sometime before her daughters were born. Thus, the kesubah was perfectly accurate, and Bill was, indeed, Jewish! I stored this information but was uncertain what to do, based on the new evidence.
Shortly thereafter, I saw a well-known posek and eagerly discussed with him the details that I had. After hearing me out, the esteemed posek turned to me and said, “Rav Tabachnik would have known if this woman was not born Jewish. If he wrote in the kesubah that she was born Jewish, then she was born Jewish. End of discussion.”
If Susan, Bill’s mother’s older sister, was born Jewish, then Bill’s mother was also definitely born Jewish, and Bill was born Jewish, although we did not know any other details. To make sure I understood the ramifications of the psak I had just heard, I repeated:
“Does that mean, that Bill is 100 percent Jewish?”
The rav replied, “Absolutely.”
Suddenly I realized the power of a single written word. Somehow, Rabbi Tabachnik knew that Bill’s grandmother was Jewish, and he had conveyed this message to us through the carefully written kesubah.
Suddenly, Bill came out of hiding! He could now proudly count himself as a member of a minyan, and was obligated to keep all the mitzvos of a Jew – and to learn all parts of the Torah!
*all names in this article have been changed*