Monday, January 23, 2017

The Miracle that is Ivanka Trump

Virtually every Rabbi started their sermon this past Shabbos with a similar theme, I am quite sure.  The juxtaposition of the inauguration of President Trump with the verse from Parshat Shmos “And a new King arose” was too providential to ignore.   No matter what one thinks, in this very divided country, about the new President, it is certainly an exciting time to be living, with great promise of change in the air.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, of course, there is particular excitement, given that, for the first time, Orthodox Jews have such proximity to the most powerful human on the planet (at least for the next few years).   The long list includes Jason Greenblatt, special representative for international negotiations, David Friedman, Ambassador to Israel, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is clearly Trump’s most trusted advisor and right-hand man.   The President has made it abundantly clear that he is very pro-Israel and intends to try to undo much of the damage that the Obama administration has been complicit in; Nikki Haley, his choice for UN Ambassador, could not have given a more pro-Israel speech at her confirmation. (It increasingly astonishes me how willfully blind the Jewish left is in accusing Trump of being anti-Semitic, of all things.)   Surely this is yet another manifestation of the "Isaac Covenant" times that I have been writing about lately (Please see here for more on this important topic).

She brings honor and respect to Torah and our way of life in a way unparalleled perhaps since Queen Esther

But, of course, the Orthodox Jew who is closest to him – and who we are most blessed to have as one of us – is his amazing daughter, Yael (Ivanka) Trump.  Extraordinarily well-spoken, intelligent, beautiful and successful, she is a walking Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d - the highest mitzvah a Jew can do) as she brings honor and respect to Torah and our way of life in a way unparalleled perhaps since Queen Esther.

Having written those words, I know that while hopefully most readers will agree with them, there are those who will feel that I have gone too far.   “Kiddush Hashem?” they will exclaim.  “Many of her clothing choices do not conform to Halachic standards of Tzniyus that we expect in our communities.” “She doesn’t cover her hair as a married woman should”.   “She does not seem to be as careful about physical contact (negiah) with members of the opposite gender as we generally consider acceptable.”  And this week, a new charge.   She and Jared sought and got a “Hetter” (Rabbinic Ruling) allowing them to be driven in a car on Shabbos (Sabbath) to attend the inauguration festivities, including photo sessions and even going into a church.     Most unfortunately, some even went as far as to question the validity of her conversion, given these deviations from the standards that they are accustomed to.

This attitude is most unfortunate, and (potentially) extremely harmful.   It shows an ignorance of some basic Hilchos Geirus (Laws of Conversion) and – as is all too often the case among us – belies a lack of tolerance for those with other viewpoints and standards than our own.   

This short article is not the place to go into this complex area of Halacha, but even a cursory look at Yoreh Deah 268 will show that – at the most basic level – what is required for a proper conversion is a deep desire to become a part of the Jewish People, to seek to share in their destiny with all of its difficulties, coupled with a complete acceptance of the obligatory nature of Halacha (Jewish Law) as presented to the potential candidate by the converting Rabbi and Bet Din, who themselves must be properly qualified to be Dayanim.

In the case of Ivanka, the Halachic community that she was introduced to by her potential husband (a graduate of the co-ed Modern Orthodox Frisch school) was the Modern Orthodox community of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.   The shul that she attended and wherein she received her training in Judaism and Halacha was Kehillath Jeshurun, led by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.   In that community, as opposed to many communities that I have been privileged to be part of, standards of tznius, negiah and hair covering are quite liberal; what is considered perfectly acceptable – and in fact modest and dignified  there, would be considered wholly unacceptable in most other Orthodox communities.   Those are the standards that she was presented with, and it is on the basis of a completely sincere acceptance of those standards that the Bet Din converted her.

My aim in this essay is not to discuss the propriety of the standards of that community; that is between them, their spiritual leaders, and the Almighty.[1] 

Rather, I seek to make a simple point.  When Ivanka undertook a commitment to follow Halacha upon completing her conversion, I have full confidence (more below) that she fully accepted on herself to follow all of the Halacha as presented to her by the teachers that she had.   Given this, and the fact that she has, in fact, lived by those commitments, she is 100% fully Jewish.  As such, she must be accepted with love by us as a Ger Tzedek (Righteous Convert), who we are commanded on twenty-six separate occasions in the Torah to love and cherish – and to whom we are absolutely forbidden to cause pain – by questioning her integrity and Halachic validity.

Why am I so convinced that this was a proper Geirus?  What about the questions raised above? Is it not well known that the Bais Din Harabbani HaGadol (BHG -The supreme Israeli Rabbinical Court) recently questioned Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions?  My conviction is based on one important reason:  The conversion was done by the Manhattan Beth Din for Conversions under the GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) system.  Permit me to explain.

While it is true that Rabbi Lookstein has had a long and distinguished career –  not only as the Rabbi at KJ, but of also being the Head of the Ramaz school and a professor of Rabbinics at Yeshiva University, and is considered a Rabbi’s Rabbi – he has nevertheless taken certain public positions that were viewed as quite controversial over the years.  As I have no desire, nor am I in any position, to judge him, I will not go into any detail here.  

Nevertheless, one controversial position of his is important in understanding this issue.   Namely, his public opposition to the call of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) to have all of its member Rabbonim perform their conversion through the auspices of the GPS system.

The GPS system is, in my view, the single greatest achievement of the RCA.   While all know of the infamous “Who is a Jew” question regarding Conservative and Reform conversions, it is less well known that there are serious problems within the “Orthodox” Rabbinate, where for a variety of unfortunate reasons, some Rabbis “convert” people who do not have a sincere Kabbalat (acceptance of) Mitzvot, thereby causing enormous problems.  From the RCA website

GPS was established to aid potential converts to Judaism, while at the same time diminishing thorny questions of personal status. For years, conversion had been performed in ad hoc fashion by local rabbis, but without detailed mutually agreed upon standards and procedures. While the vast majority of conversions were handled appropriately, some were not. As a result, in recent years even those who had fulfilled the halachic requirements were finding their conversions unfairly questioned and scrutinized - not just in Israel but in many Orthodox communities to which they or their children had moved.”  
To solve this problem, GPS set up a system of regional Courts with policies and standards that allow converts to be confident that their conversion will be recognized, and prevents Rabbis from being put under pressure to bend standards in order convert people for ulterior motives.

For his own reasons (although Rabbi Lookstein was originally involved in the GPS formation) he is unhappy with what he sees as its rigidity and has joined with some other RCA Rabbis in opposing it.  From what I am able to gather, this was perhaps the main reason that the BHG did not want to accept his private, non-GPS conversions.  

Be that as it may, when it came to the very high profile conversion of Ivanka Trump, Rabbi Lookstein wisely chose to guide her conversion through the GPS system and the conversion was officiated by the Bet Din of America.

And that is good enough for me, as it should be for everyone in the Jewish community.

And that is why I think that all the “frum police” who are engaging in commenting and yenta-ing, whether on online forums such as Facebook and Twitter or at the shul Kiddush, need to stop.   They have no right to question or criticize her level of observance, or the choices that Jared and Ivanka have made, any more than any of us
  who are so imperfect in our treatment of others, and lashon hara, and limmud hatorah, and tefilla   have a right to criticize anyone else.   

For those interested, there certainly is halachic precedent, brought in the Bet Yosef YD 178:2 (and the Taz and Prisha and Darkei Teshuvah ad. loc.) for one who is קרוב למלכות (in a position of close proximity to the ruler), where they can avert trouble from the Jewish people – that certain Rabbinic prohibitions, e.g. being driven on Shabbos in a car, may be set aside if need be to maintain their position with the ruler.  I do not know if this was the basis of the hetter they obtained, but one should be דן לכף זכות (assume the positive)  that they asked the Shayla (Halachic Query) of a legitimate Rov who gave them this answer.   

Certainly, the famous maxim  אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ (Do not Judge another until you stand in their place - Avot 2:4) ought to apply.  None of us can know what sorts of intense pressures from the media, family, and everyone around them they are living with every day, and what sorts of compromises they are constantly being pressured to make.  And they have come through in a way that is making  שם שמים מתאהב , making Hashem and Torah look beautiful to the world while living under that incredible spotlight.

One might wish that instead of getting a “Hetter” to attend the inaugural ball on Friday night and be driven home (ostensibly because of the pikuah nefesh situation caused by many who were expressing their fear of how Trump will destroy America by destroying what they could of a great American city) they would have stayed home and perhaps have the President drop by for a l’chaim.  One certainly wishes that the spiritual and Torah aspirations of Jared and Ivanka will grow over time, leading them to take on more of the traditional ways of Halacha.   I do not know what the future will bring, nor any more details about where “they are holding” right now.   I take them at their word that their commitment to Halacha as they understand it is strong and deep.

One thing, however, I can predict with great certainty.  None of the snarky comments and questions about the legitimacy of her conversion or the level of their observance will draw them closer to observance; they are far more likely to drive them in the other direction.

Let us celebrate wonderful this gift that Hashem has given us in having such attractive and prominent models of serious Jews in our time.   My readers know that although I had many misgivings about Donald Trump as President, I think that if he can hold his negative side in check he is capable of being a great force for the good.  It is well known that the person who can influence him best in this direction, is “our” Yael.   

May she have the strength and courage to help her father stand up for all that is good in the very strange times in which we live, and may we come to properly appreciate Hashem’s putting her neshama in this very special place as she works for the betterment of the USA and Am Yisrael.

[1] I also will not discuss in this essay the difference between the “Very Modern Orthodox” community and “Open Orthodoxy”, which I consider to be beyond the pale, in that their deviations extend beyond mere levels of observance to fundamental matters of faith.  I have discussed related matters elsewhere .


David Husband said...

As always most excellent ....most thorough.

Thank you dear Rabbi Skobac.

Dovid Chaim said...

Great post. Thank you.

Yossi Bitton said...

Rabbi Oppenheimer,

I have enjoyed every single word of your article. חזק וברוך תהיה


Anonymous said...

A miracle? It is unbelievable how you can honor a person who claims to be an Orthodox Jew but does not behave as one. If any other Orthodox Convert dressed, ate, and went to the ball as she did you would shame them in front of their peers. As a daughter of a convert that came from a poor family, your Rabbi's and Torah fearing Jews treated my family like second hand citizens when we could not follow all your rules. Shame on you for writing this article and shame on those who have elevated this family into something they are not. You pick and choose when it is convenient. Look at real, honest hard working Jews that have survived the unthinkable and raised their children to be honest people. Shame on you for this article.

Anonymous said...

"In the Orthodox Jewish community, of course, there is particular excitement, given that, for the first time, Orthodox Jews have such proximity to the most powerful human on the planet.."
That may be a bit of an overstatement. Jack Lew was Obama's Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary.

YLO said...
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YLO said...

Thank you, Dovid Chaim and Yossi. David, I am also an admirer of Rabbi Skobac.

As for Anonymous, I am truly sorry that your family suffered and were not treated properly. If it was I personally who mistreated you, please let me know so I can try to make amends.

However, I make no apologies for writing this article. I assume that you agree with my premise (of the impropriety of questioning a convert's observance), you just feel that Ivanka is getting more of a pass because she is wealthy. That was certainly not my intent. And while some things may go easier for her in life because of her wealth and fame, the spotlight and public criticism are not easy issues to have to deal with...and she has dealt with them with dignity.

As for Jack Lew, you are right, although I think this is a whole other level, especially with Ivanka

Paul Mendlowitz said...
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Bruce said...

Ahmeyn. Nicely stated Rav.

Barbara Ament said...

My objection to both Ivanka and her husband claiming to be Orthodox Jews is their lack of outcry at their father's anti-Semitic remarks and his apparent embracing of the KKK and Hitler. Why didn't they stand up as Jews then and tell him publically that he was wrong? Even a Reform Jew would do that! As far as I'm concerned, I do not see them acting like Orthodox Jews, regardless of who mentored them. I am Conservative, but I guarantee you that my daily living is more Orthodox than what I see of them. They do not appear to be very observant to me. I think it is very hypocritical for them to claim to be observant as they seem to feel that the rules of Judaism do not apply to them! Ivanka does not display the modesty of an Orthodox Jew by any stretch of the imagination! I think she went through the motions of conversion so she could get married, but I do not think she takes it seriouslyAT ALL. And David is no example for her. I think dollar signs and power are more important to him that his religious practices!

Lisa Geller said...

There is one facet of the issues raised in the article that was overlooked, and I think bears mentioning. While we are not in a position to judge the halachic validity of the heter that allowed the Kushners to ride on shabbos, such a heter has an unintended consequence... "collateral damage", if you will. For those of us struggling to combine shomer shabbos life with employment in the secular world, the publicity around this heter could prove to be very damaging, since secular employers will only see the surface. This past year, I got permission to miss part of a business conference due to Rosh Hashana. The conference started early in the morning on the day after Rosh Hashana, but due to flight schedules, I was unable to fly the prior evening without violating the chag. I got permission to fly in the morning, missing the first set of meetings, because I firmly asserted that I could not, under any circumstances, travel the prior night when the chag had not yet ended. I anticipate that next year, should similar circumstances occur, I will be asked by my boss, "Well, can't you just get permission from your Rabbi, like Ivanka Trump did? Just explain it's really important". When Rabbeim grant heters in such a public forum, I believe similar to secular court judges who overturn past precedent with new case law, the Rabbeim have the responsibility to weigh how their rulings will impact not only the direct beneficiaries, but also the rest of klal yisroel who will be judged by the secular world accordingly.

YLO said...

Thank you for writing, Barbara. Unfortunately, I must disagree with you strongly. Your comment, and comments like it, are why I wrote the article.

I challenge you to produce even ONE piece of evidence to show that Donald Trump is guilty of your horrific charge "embracing of the KKK and Hitler".

The notion that because some extremist wackos voted for him means that he agrees with their terrible positions is absurd. Are you willing to make the same charge about Hillary, who was supported by Radical Islamic Fundamentalist killers, BSD activists, and many intolerant bigots? In a two party, big tent system, there will be crazy loon outliers on both sides.

As to the observance level of Jared and Ivanka, what do you know about it that you are so comfortable dismissing their sincerity? Do you know anything of how they observe Shabbos, Kashrus, taharas Hamishpacha, tefillin and so much else? Where do you come off saying that they think "the rules don't apply them"? What happened to judging people favorably?

As for her sartorial choices, I addressed that in the article. As far as I know, any truly immodest pictures of her that are out there are from her pre-conversion model days. My wife and daughters would not dress like her, but as I argued, in the community she is part of, that is considered acceptable for better or worse.

Let us be grateful for her, and stop the nasty and mean sniping.

Anonymous said...

I was taught that you can not Hallachi ally convert for the sake of marriage. The biggest question is if God forbid one day they were to divorce would she continue to live the same life? She may continue to raise her children Jewish but what will she do? Is she going to continue to eat kosher? Go to the mikveh would husband number two? Keep the Sabbath and all the holidays the same way? Because the way I know the story she first found the guy then converted, not loved Judaism and then looked for a Jewish guy.

YLO said...

Thank you for writing, Lisa. You are quite right that this is an important concern -- several colleagues of mine have raised this issue of the "hetter" having negative consequences for others.

This problem of the unintended consequences of leniencies on others is one that is very troublesome to Rabbis. As a Rav, one has to think not only of the person in front of them, for whom the leniency might be warranted, but also of the precedent that it sets, in that a completely other person, for whom the leninecy is not warranted, will now pressure their Rav , saying "Rabbi X allowed ABC, so you are just being over-zealous". Or the situation you described, where it will put others in a difficult spot.

Perhaps I need to write another essay about that!

Nevertheless, I think that in this case, most people will be able to distinguish work-related emergency from this historic once in a lifetime event, (altough admittedly they probably could have minimized their participation more than they did).

Lisa Geller said...

Rabbi, thank you for your reply. One other thought, tangential to my comment above. When one is granted a heter, or even has a reduced obligation as a result of straight halacha (such as when an israeli is visiting the USA but still is only obligated to keep one day of yom tov, or when a person can eat on Yom Kippur for medical reasons), that person is obligated to practice discretion when doing things that, when viewed by others, could be construted as breaking yom tov. This discretion prevents the mistaken assumption by others that the person is publicly desecrating Yom Tov or Shabbos, prevents others from mistakenly generalizing a leniency only meant for one specific situation, etc. So how was it, that in this situation, such discretion was not obligatory? If it were, far fewer tongues would have been wagging, and the "collateral damage" such as I described in my original comment would be significantly reduced.

garybriankaplan said...

Good for you!!!

Amber said...

Leave Ivanka alone.Be embracing towards her. She is a fine young lady and it's sad that some of these "frumas" are so judgmental. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

YLO said...
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YLO said...

Thanks for writing {Anonymous}.

You are correct that in earlier times, the Halachic bias was never to allow a conversion where it was clear that a primary reason for the conversion was the intent to marry.

That is not true in most communities anymore; common practice for better (and probably) worse has become to allow such conversions, provided that the Bet Din is confident -- after a lengthy and intensive vetting process -- that the conversion candidate has a genuine desire to convert, independent of the Jewish person that they are interested in marrying. Obviously this is difficult, as they must "get into the person's head" and be confident that this desire is genuine, and some people are adept at pulling the wool over the Rabbis' eyes.
In my experience, having been involved with several conversions, this is the primary reason that this is a slooooooowww process; it is crucial to get to know the person over a long time to see what they are really about.
Once the conversion is done, however, it is done. it is wrong to speculate "If she would divorce..." G-d forbid. She is entitled to a presumption of integrity and genuine sincerity, and it is wrong for you or any other Nosy Nellie Yenta to speculate "what if". Leave her alone, be grateful that she is one of us, and lovingly accept her and welcome her.

Eric Leibman said...

She publicly eats in treyf restaurants and feeds her kids in them, too. Then she publicly brags about it. Goes to non Jewish events on Shabbat. Rides around in cars on Shabbat for the entire country to see. Publicly enters churches. Dresses inappropriately and doesn't cover her hair. On and on and on. And you gush praise for her like an open fire hydrant in Bed Sty on the hottest day of the year. Good grief. What's done is done. She is where she is. And she'll surely help where Israel is concerned. But she is far from any reason for turning cartwheels and setting off fireworks in the Jewish community. In so visible a public role she is setting a terrible example for our kids and, as someone else pointed out, giving ammunition to every employer who doesn't want to make any concessions to their Jewish employees' religious observance. Don't want to go to the boss's catholic wedding? Ivanka goes to church. Don't want to eat treyf at the boss's house? Ivanka does it. Don't want to be seen in a treyf restaurant? What are you talking about? Ivanka gushes in the tabloids about HER favorite treyf eateries, and let's herself be photographed taking her kids in to them. And on and on and on. Excepting The issue of Israel, Ivanka's new position in the public eye is, if not quite a disasaster, not far removed from it, either.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Judaism is what if and your tone is disturbing.

YLO said...

Eric, I am very surprised at your comment.

You start off with an claim that I have not seen anywhere about non-kosher restaurants, which is Lashon Hara (Gossip) if true and Motzi Shem Ra (Slander and Defamation) if not true, and then comment on her dress and hair, which I spoke about in the article. All of that was unnecessary and very wrong.

I never “gushed praise” for her, nor did I see that she is any kind of paragon of saintliness, modesty, or spirituality. Clearly, she and her husband do not adhere to the highest standards of observance. I argued only that her way of dressing is not out of line with the Orthodox community she is part of, much as those standards leave much to be desired.
The main point of my essay was that it is a blessing to have perhaps the most influential advisors to the President as Orthodox Jews, and instead of – like your comment – sniping at them and looking down your nose from your peak of religious perfection, rather accept that this is a gift to us, and like the Queen Esther story, the day may well come when it will be important to have her in the position she is in.
Furthermore, the fact that such famous, successful and admired celebrities choose to identify as Orthodox – even if their observance level is less than we would wish – is a tremendous boon to Orthodoxy and Torah in the eyes of many people out there, if not yours.

Raphael Freeman said...

Excellent article, thank you.