Sunday, June 21, 2009

Syrians and Converts
How useful are misinterpretations! From the comments section of this post on a Times article several years ago [my emph];

Oct. 15, 2007
Letters to the Editor, Magazine
The New York Times
620 Eighth Ave. New York, NY 10018
To the Editor,

Jakie Kassin is the son and grandson of rabbis and a dynamic do-gooder, but he is neither a rabbi nor a scholar of Judaic studies. The statements attributed to him in “The SY Empire” (Zev Chafets, Oct. 14, 2007) are a gross distortion of Judaism as well as of the 1935 Edict promulgated in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. That Edict was enacted to discourage community members from intermarrying with non-Jews. It acknowledged the reality of the time that conversions were being employed insincerely and superficially. Accordingly, conversion for marriage to a member of the community was automatically rejected.

However, it is important in this regard to clarify the policy of the community rabbinate and particularly that of the long-time former chief rabbi of the community, Jacob S. Kassin (the originator of the Edict), and his son, the present chief rabbi, Saul J. Kassin. I quote from an official formulation of the Sephardic Rabbinical Council of several years ago that reflects their position: “1. A conversion not associated with marriage that was performed by a recognized Orthodox court – such as for adoption of infants or in the case of an individual sincerely choosing to be Jewish – IS accepted in our community. 2. If an individual not born to a member of our community had converted to Judaism under the aegis of an Orthodox court, and was observant of Jewish Law, married a Jew/Jewess who was not and had not been a member of our community, their children are permitted to marry into our community. Based on these standards a goodly number of converts have been accepted into the community. Genetic characteristics play no role whatsoever.

No rabbi considers sincere and proper conversions “fictitious and valueless.” (The comma in the English translation cited in the article that gives that impression was the result of a mistranslation by a layman, a matter I made clear to Mr. Chafets when we spoke.)
In addition, the quote claiming that even other Jews are disqualified from marrying into the community “if someone in their line was married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi” is a totally false portrayal of community rabbinical policy. Many Ashkenazim whose parents were married by such rabbis have married into our community.

Moshe Shamah

Rabbi, Sephardic Synagogue
511 Ave. RBrooklyn, NY 11223

Posted by: Rabbi Moshe Shamah October 17, 2007 at 02:57 PM

The "fact" remains that no laymen or rabbi I have EVER met, Ashki or Sephardi - has ever displayed any knowledge of these distortations as anything but "fact". For them the "ban" would seem to be clear and unambiguous. If these distortions are so obvious and serious as to be called distortions and corrected, by a rabbi of the Syrian Community, via source material from the originator of the edict itself - how is it possible that no one seems aware of them as distortions? An earlier example from R. Shamah I recall was available on his website - I since have not been able to find it there, but even earlier in 1994 he had posted in to a widely-read Jewish listserv [my emph];

Perusing previous m-j postings I noticed there was discussion on the Brooklyn Syrian community's decree not to accept converts. It appears there was a misunderstanding which should be clarified.

The decree focuses on those who convert for the purpose of marrying a Jew or Jewess. A non-Jew who is clearly motivated by marriage but who sincerely and properly converts, should normally be accepted halakhically. However, the Syrian rabbis realized they were being fooled by insincere candidates, etc. and established the 1935 decree not to accept those who were converting in conjunction with a prospective or past marriage. The decree was not addressed to those who converted just for the love of Judaism.

This was vividly brought home to me about 25 years ago by Rabbi Jacob S.Kassin, HKBH send him speedy recovery, the long-time chief rabbi of the Brooklyn Syrian community and one of the 1935 takana signatories. A [SY]community member who was also a member of an Ashkenazi yeshiva married a righteous convert. The marriage was performed by a leading Ashkenazi rosh hayeshiva. The Shabbat morning after the wedding he davened in our [SY] shul. The mesader aliyot (gabbay) rushed to Shaare Zion where Rabbi Kassin davened and asked him what to do. Rabbi Kassin said he's familiar with the case and it doesn't fall into the takana as the bride is a righteous convert who previously converted independently of marriage considerations and we should give the gentleman an aliya. Although the mesader was reliable I wanted to confirm this and several days later personally asked Rabbi Kassin. He got a bit excited and declared, "The takana is not for this woman - she's a REFUGEE who came to Judaism."

I acknowledge and celebrate that Syrian Jews have a virtually-non-existant intermarriage rate - with Non-Jews - but I know plenty who are very intermarried with Ashkis and some so accultrated that their mezzuzot are angled, they cut their challah, eat Ashki food on Shabbat, sing "Shir HaMaalot" in birkhat ha Mazon...but that's a different, and often personal matter.

What has helped them maintain this low intermarriage rate IS NOT THE TAKANAH - it is a carefully perpetuated and stringently-"held"-to misunderstanding of the circumstances the ban applied to - thus a "strict obedience" to a misunderstanding of halacha, an error spoken over and repeated and believed sincerely by them; those who perceive the ban in accord with this error may very well be at heart in violation of the spirit of the very halacha behind the ban - and it would seem saved only from trouble by the fact that they say the same Amidah that all observant Jews do (which features a clear recognition of righteous converts), and that they recognize that the takanah applies only to their kehilla. I think there is evidence of this even being known by the rabbis of the community; The marriage in the example above was not performed in the setting of the Chattans community...perhaps due to the socially-useful false perception of the takanah; best not to publicize exceptions, no matter how clear and legitimate and sanctioned by God and halacha. I'm not saying, GOD FORBID that the rabbis of the SY community are doing anything halachically or morally wrong - just deeply political. I question more the pretentions of the many people in the community who so sincerely and "piously" follow what has been detailed above as a violation of halacha. Rest assured, Gerei Tzedek have thusly been alienated in such communities, in violation of an obligation declared some 36 times in Torah - against alienating a Ger.


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