CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE
Conversion Beit Din via Videoconference
When conversions take place in small towns, it is often difficult for the local rabbi to secure the participation of two colleagues in order to make up the beit din (court). Would it be acceptable to convene a beit din by way of videoconference, with two colleagues participating electronically to oversee the conversion ceremony (giyur)? (Rabbi Louis Rieser, Boynton Beach, FL)
The current edition (1988) of the Rabbi’s Manual of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) states our policy as follows: “A rabbinical beit din is desirable for giyur. Where it is not available, the rabbi should choose two informed synagogue members as witnesses.” In its 2001 position paper on conversion, the Conference elaborated upon this position: “A beit din of three rabbis represents the most appropriate framework for formalizing giyur. In addition, the use of a beit din can also contribute to a sense of legitimacy as perceived by the prospective ger/giyoret, and it can give the rabbi who has been working with the candidate the opportunity to see the candidate through another set of eyes… The final authority to approve or reject the candidacy of any given individual for giyur rests with the beit din.” The Conference therefore prefers a rabbinical beit din for giyur, although it accepts as valid a beit din that includes two “informed” non-rabbis when the presiding rabbi cannot secure the participation of colleagues.
Our sh’elah poses a suggestion that did not exist as a practical option for those who formulated these statements: does a rabbinical beit din convened by electronic means meet the Conference’s stated preference? Our t’shuvah, accordingly, will have to consider some ancient provisions of Jewish law in light of the way we live today, in a world that has been fundamentally altered by the Internet, electronic media, and digital technology.
1 The Beit Din as a Requirement for Giyur. Conversion to Judaism is traditionally accompanied by a set of formal rites. These acts – circumcision (or hatafat dam b’rit) for males and immersion (t’vilah) for males and females – are linked in our people’s historical memory to the covenant of Sinai: “just as your ancestors entered the covenant through these rituals, so does the ger enter the covenant through them.” By requiring the Jew-by-choice reenact the ritual process by which our ancestors formed a religious community, the conversion process expresses the conviction that like all born Jews the ger/giyoret was present at Sinai and therefore shares fully equal status as a member of the people of Israel.
The ceremony of giyur takes place under the supervision of a beit din. The Talmudic sages learn this requirement by way of midrash: because the Torah mentions the Hebrew root sh-p-t, “to judge,” in connection with the word ger (“resident alien,” a term the Rabbis translate as “proselyte”), we conclude that a conversion must take place before a beit din. The function of the beit din, as described by Rashi, is “to attend the proselyte (nizkakin lo), immerse him, and inform him of some of the lighter and weightier mitzvot.” Although the authorities dispute the extent of the court’s supervision – must every one of the conversion rites take place in the presence of the beit din? – the consensus is that the judges must at the minimum be present for kabalat hamitzvot, the moment at which the prospective Jew-by-choice accepts upon him- or herself the obligations of Jewish life, in order to determine his or her readiness for this dramatic transition. As our CCAR policy puts it (see above): “The final authority to approve or reject the candidacy of any given individual for giyur rests with the beit din.”
2. The Composition of the Beit Din. Must this beit din be composed of three rabbis? As we note in a previous responsum, a non-rabbi may in principle serve as a judge on a beit din. A judge requires no specialized legal training because, as the Talmud explains, in a gathering of three persons “it is impossible that there should not be one who knows something of the law” (B. Sanhedrin 3a). This raises the obvious question: what happens when this presumption does not apply, when none of the three members of the court is at all knowledgeable of the law? The question is even more pointed when the court is a beit din for conversion, which our sources suggest must consist of “three scholars (talmidei chakhamim).” Moreover, there is an opinion that holds that conversion is one of those matters that can be adjudicated only by judges who possess s’mikhah, the “ordination” that began with Moses and Joshua and that was practiced until the end of the Talmudic period (more on this below). It would seem, therefore, that giyur is a special case; the complexity and sensitivity that attend to conversion may require a beit din of higher-than-average Torah learning and education. Our responsum thus stresses the importance of rabbinical supervision for giyur, and this conviction is reflected in our Conference’s stated preference that “a rabbinical beit din” be present at conversion.
True, the CCAR does not regard this preference as an absolute requirement. And this leniency, too, is rooted in the halakhic tradition, which asks how it is permissible to accept converts “in our time,” when our rabbis do not possess the s’mikhah practiced during the Talmudic period. The answer is that the ordained sages of ancient times have commissioned us to act in their stead and to accept conversions, “so as not to bar the door to gerim.” Our Conference’s policy is a simple extension of this logic. Precisely because we do not wish to hinder the entry of Jews-by-choice into the covenant, we have declared that, in cases where it is not feasible to secure a beit din of three rabbis, a conversion may be supervised by one rabbi and two informed non-rabbis. With all that, however, we continue to hold that, when possible, it is desirable to convene a rabbinical beit din to oversee the formal process of giyur.
3, Convening a Beit Din by Electronic Means. Must all the members of the beit din be physically present at the conversion? Our sources seem to say so. For example, the text offering the most detailed description of the giyur procedure (B. Y’vamot 47a-b) depicts the judges as “standing over” the ger (omdim al gabav). And then there is the statement of Rabbi Yehudah: “one who converts in the presence of a beit din (b’veit din) is a valid proselyte; one who converts privately (beino l’vein atzmo) is not a valid proselyte (B. Y’vamot 47a).” Yet we believe that these texts are meant to be understood not in their literal sense but in accordance with their purpose, which is to ensure that conversion be a public rather than a private process, supervised by the community’s legal institutions. The judges “stand over” the ger because they exert direct authority over the giyur. Rabbi Yehudah’s real concern is that the conversion take place “under the auspices” of the beit din, that is, in its legal presence, rather than “privately,” that is, outside the community’s supervision. Consider as well Rashi’s description of the beit din’s function, also cited above: “to attend the proselyte, immerse him, and inform him of some of the lighter and weightier mitzvot.” None of these supervisory actions necessitates that the judges be physically present; every one of them can be accomplished by a court that attends the ger/giyoret through videoconference. Such a court, in other words, meets – and does not contradict – the requirement that conversion take place “in the presence of a beit din.” The Talmudic authorities and Rashi, to be sure, could only imagine these acts being performed in a direct, “hands-on” manner. Were they alive today, in a world where digital technology has dramatically expanded the ways in which we encounter and communicate with each other, we think they would agree with our reading of the tradition: a court convened via videoconference is a valid beit din for the purpose of supervising giyur.
4. Conflicting Considerations. On the other hand, a “virtual” beit din of this sort can involve its own set of problems. Some of these fall into the category of technical difficulties: equipment malfunctions, weak signals, and other mishaps that can sever the connection between the offsite rabbis and the conversion ceremony. Others are more subjective in nature. One member of this Committee is concerned that the use of video and computer technology to constitute a beit din will serve to reduce the seriousness of the conversion ceremony in the eyes of the ger/giyoret, the community, and the rabbis themselves. It is also possible that the electronic importation of a beit din will negate the intimacy of the conversion moment, threatening the sense of community that we wish to impress upon this new Jew-by-choice at the moment she or he becomes one of us. We acknowledge these problems, and those communities that decide to convene batei din by way of videoconference should be prepared to address them.
One way to do so is to increase the size of the beit din: that is, the local rabbi would see to it that at least two “informed” laypersons participate in the court at the mikveh, along with the two rabbis who appear via video. This procedure fulfills the spirit of the ruling by Maimonides, repeated in the Shulchan Arukh, that “even though a beit din of three is sufficient, it is praiseworthy to increase the number of judges.” Having three judges physically present at the ceremony would emphasize the immediate, communal nature of the conversion process. It would also ensure that a valid beit din has been constituted even if technical difficulties prevent the offsite rabbis from participating in the session.
Conclusion. It is permissible for the local rabbi, who officiates as rosh beit din at the conversion ceremony, to include two colleagues by way of videoconference to complete the composition of the court. Such a beit din would meet the CCAR’s stated preference that “a beit din of three rabbis represents the most appropriate framework for formalizing giyur.”
At the same time, we do not think that the Conference’s policy mandates that we adopt this procedure, even when videoconference is the only means by which a rabbinical beit din can be assembled. We say this in view of both the technical difficulties and the potential aesthetic and spiritual objections that we have indicated. The local rabbi may continue to follow the stated policy by including “two informed synagogue members” along with him or her on the beit din. Alternately, the rabbi may choose to adopt the approach we describe in section 4 of this t’shuvah, combining the local beit din with two colleagues who participate by videoconference.
1. Ma`aglei Tzedek: A Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR Press, 1988), p. 232.
2. The word “witnesses” is inexact; the members of a beit din perform the role of judges rather than witnesses.
3. Divrei Giyur: Guidelines for Rabbis Working with Prospective Gerim, Adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, June, 2001, par. 8a, http://www.ccarnet.org/rabbis-communities/professional-resources/guidelines-for-rabbis-working-with-prospective-gerim (accessed December 8, 2013).
4. See B. Y’vamot 46b; Yad, Isurei Bi’ah 13:1-6; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 268: 1-2.
5. The taking of a symbolic drop of blood from a male convert who was previously circumcised. This is the subject of a machloket in B. Shabbat 135a and among the subsequent authorities; see Tosafot, Y’vamot 46b, s.v. d’rabbi yose. The practice is therefore to follow the stringent option on both sides: to take the drop of blood in the event that hatafat dam b’rit is indeed required but not to recite a blessing over the act in the event that hatafat dam b’rit is not required (and the recitation of an unnecessary blessing would be a b’rakhah l’vatalah) . See Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 268:1.
6. B. K’ritot 9a, in a midrash on Numbers 15:15 (“There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger (ger)… You and the ger shall be alike before Adonai”): just as your ancestors entered the covenant (of Sinai) through circumcision, immersion, and the bringing of a sacrifice, so must the ger enter that covenant through circumcision, immersion, and the bringing of a sacrifice.” The requirement of a sacrifice leads the Talmud, in the K’ritot passage, to ask the obvious question: how are we able to admit proselytes today, after the destruction of the Temple? The answer is found in Numbers 15:14, “And when, throughout the ages, a ger has taken up residence with you…,” which is understood as an authorization to accept proselytes “throughout the ages,” even when the Temple is not standing. The formal requirement for the bringing of a sacrifice is delayed until such time as the Temple is rebuilt; see Yad, Isurei Bi`ah 13:5.
7. B. Shevuot 39a: all future generations of Israelites, including those who shall one day convert to Judaism, were present at the giving of the Torah. See also B. Shabbat 146a.
8. The sages are the tana R. Yehudah (B. Y’vamot 47a) and the amora R. Yochanan (B. Y’vamot 46b and B. Kiddushin 62a-b). While R. Yehudah explicitly bases his statement upon Deuteronomy 1:16, there is a dispute as to the verse R. Yochanan has in mind; Rashi (Y’vamot 47b, s.v. mishpat k’tiv beh and Kiddushin 62b, s.v. mishpat k’tiv beh) believes it to be Numbers 15:15, while Tosafot (Y’vamot 47b, s.v. mishpat k’tiv beh) holds that R. Yochanan, like R. Yehudah, learns the rule from Deuteronomy 1:16.
9. That this is the accepted halakhah is stated in B. Y’vamot 46b (sh’ma minah ger tzarikh sh’loshah). See also Halakhot G’dolot, ch. 8, Hilkhot Milah; Yad, Isurei Bi`ah 13:6; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 268:3.
10. Kiddushin 62b, s.v. tzarikh sh’loshah.
11. The machloket is indicated by R. Yosef Karo in Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 268:3, a point on which he expands in his Beit Yosef to Tur Yoreh De`ah 268. The position designated in the text as “the consensus” (and the one cited favorably by Karo) is that of Tosafot Y’vamot 45b, s.v. mi and Kiddushin 62b, s.v. ger.
12. See R. Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef to Tur Yoreh De`ah 268: the decision to accept or to reject a prospective Jew-by-choice is left in all cases to the discretion of the court (hakol l’fi r`ut einei beit din). Karo bases this conclusion on the analysis of Tosafot, Y’vamot 24b, s.v. lo bimei david. See also Siftei Kohen, Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 268, no. 23.
13. “Who is a Rabbi?”, Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (New York: CCAR, 2010), no. 5759.3, vol. 1, pp. 319-321, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5759-3, especially section 1.
14. B. Y’vamot 47b, where Rabbi Yochanan emends the baraita text that originally specified “two talmidei chakhamim.” The emendation brings the total to three – i.e., the classic numerical composition of a beit din – and is accepted by all later authorities. The point here is that both the original version of the baraita and the “corrected” version of R. Yochanan require that those supervising the conversion be scholars.
15. Tosafot Y’vamot 46b-47a, s.v. mishpat k’tiv beih, and Tosafot Gitin 88b, s.v. b’milta. The reasoning is as follows: the linking of the word sh-p-t (“mishpat”) to the ger (see note 7) suggests that conversion requires a court that possesses all the authority of the Biblical shoftim. On the nature of ancient s’mikhah and its relationship to the ordination we practice today, see the responsum “Who is a Rabbi?”, (note 13, above), section 2.
16. See the Tosafot citations in the preceding note. Since we continue to accept converts into the community even in the absence of ordained judges, our current judges must operate under a special grant of authority from the shoftim of old, who were concerned that we not “bar the door to gerim.” The phrase “so as not to bar the door to gerim” (shelo tin`ol delet bifnei gerim) appears in the Midrash in an agadic context; see B’reshit Rabah, ed. Theodor-Albeck ch. 46 and Midrash Sekhel Tov to Genesis ch. 17. Tosafot, in a chidush that does not appear in earlier sources, translates this idea into a principle of halakhah.
17. See note 10, above.
18. One possible difficulty to this conclusion is the phrase “to immerse him (l’hatbilo).” This transitive verb, expressed in the Hebrew hif`il, might suggest that the members of the beit din physically submerge the ger in the water, which obviously cannot be done by judges who appear via video. This difficulty, though, is only apparent; the halakhah makes no requirement that the judges physically submerge the proselyte. Indeed, the texts use l’hatbilo (or the participle matbilin) interchangeably with the word taval, an intransitive verb (kal) indicating that it is the ger who immerses himself – under the supervision of the beit din.
19. On a related topic, see Michael Wigoda, “Ha’arakhat ma’atzar b’videokonferens,” http://www.justice.gov.il/MOJHeb/MishpatIvri/HavotDaat (accessed February 6, 2013), an opinion submitted to the Knesset’s committee on constitutional law in 2005. Wigoda, who heads the Jewish law section of the Israel Ministry of Justice, argues that while halakhah normally require that court testimony take place in the presence of the parties involved, there are circumstances under which the purpose of this rule – i.e., to see that justice is done – would override this formal requirement and permit witnesses to testify via video and not in the physical presence of the defendant or of one of the parties to the action. The traditional law governing the beit din, in other words, makes room for the use of videoconference in order to achieve the law’s underlying purpose.
20. Yad, Sanhedrin 2:13; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 3:4. The source of this preference, say the commenators, is the practice of Rav Huna (B. Sanhedrin 7b).