Did you hear?

Previously in the High Rabbinic Court: WTF file, we talked of revoking conversions. Today’s story is about Deaf conversions.

Many years ago a deaf woman appeared before the Conversions Court and declared her desire to become a Jew so she could marry her Jewish love. The court ruled in the majority that there was no point in converting her, since the Halacha exempts the deaf from performing mitzvahs; and since the conversion would be rendered insignificant, there was no way to perform it.
The court’s reasoning was that since the Halacha says that “one who is deaf, one who is young and one who is a simpleton shall be exempt form ordinance,” the woman in deemed incapable of observing mitzvahs, thus incapable of accepting the burden of ordinance, which is the cornerstone of conversion.

I’m saddened that they’ve taken such a position. Especially when their logic does not hold: “one who is young” is “exempt,” but children are converted all the time (when adopted, when their parents convert, etc). Exempt does not mean forbidden. They also could have looked at this from the point of view of her potential husband (and future children) – by allowing her to convert, he could have Jewish offspring. Without her conversion, most communities will not consider her children to be Jewish.
Are people who are Deaf from birth lesser Jews? Of course not. Until a century ago (and, sadly, even more recently), it was believed that “deaf = dumb.” We know now that it’s not the case – individuals just have a more difficult time learning in a hearing/aural/oral environment when they’re Deaf (big surprise, eh?). There are schools for the Deaf, universities, different sign languages around the world. In the Jewish world, there’s an international Orthodox yeshiva for Deaf students; Chabbad regularly hosts events for Deaf Jews; Our Way offers resources for religious Deaf Jews to participate more fully in their home religious communities (and is funded by NCSY and/or OU, I think); and more. There are even Orthodox Deaf rabbis. Why would they be ordained if they were forbidden, err exempt from mitzvot?
With our updated understanding of the intelligence of Deaf people, shouldn’t this exemption be reexamined? Shouldn’t this woman have been allowed to convert?

18 thoughts on “Did you hear?

  1. It’s simple. there are two standards; one for born jews and a whole different one for converts.
    Isn’t this just another example of this?

  2. Its not that “our understanding” of the deaf has changed. It is that the deaf community has changed: the development of sign languages, the effort to attempt to educate deaf people and even cochlear implants for people who used to be “deaf” are changing the reality of people we call “deaf”. Halakhically – and this is the opinion taken by most Orthodox decisors – they aren’t deaf at all. They just speak a different language, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  3. I think the title of this blog post might be a little tasteless, to be honest.
    In any case, the ruling is idiotic. OK, she may not be able to fulfill commandments. Being Deaf, she is exempt from the commandments and thus if she performs a mitzvah anyway it has no religious meaning. If she lights those Shabbat candles it has no greater significance than if she lit candles any other day of the week. That is halakhically valid reasoning, if motivated by audism and bigotry.
    However, the implication of her not being Jewish is that her children would not be Jewish and that her marriage to her (future?) husband would not be religiously recognized.
    Maybe the Israeli government should force these rabbis to get some sensitivity training? (Or ideally, just get rid of the institution altogether, which is what is ideal?)
    I’m willing to go out on a limb and say their next ruling will be that men who infertile can’t convert because they cannot ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Idiots.

  4. Okay, according to Orthodox views, women are exempt from many mitzvot as well. Does this mean we should not convert women?
    As a people without a Beit HaMiqdash, we are also exempt from the sacrificial mitzvot that would require it. ALL of us. Guess we should take the Ocean Parkway approach to conversion, then.

  5. The comparison between child and deaf woman is inexact. While the child may currently be exempted from Mitzvos, it will eventually become obligated- and indeed, have to reaffirm its commitment to conversion. A deaf woman will always be exempt.

  6. Nemo: A deaf woman would not be exempt were she at some point to become hearing. We do not know that she will always be deaf any more than we know that a child will always be a child.
    The child who is converted may someday become an adult, but the reality is they may fall ill and not make it that far. Does that render their conversion invalid?

  7. Probability vs. possibility.
    And that’s assuming that the hearing impaired can gain hearing. It’s a weak argument.

  8. There’s also a non orthodox seminary that trains men and women, dead and hearing to be Rabbis and Jewish Educators. It’s called Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf, in Skokie, IL. I got smicha there.
    There is an opinion out that most deaf people do not meet the definition of cheresh (deaf) from the Talmud, which is completely deaf from birth, unable to speak and lav ben deah, “not a child of knowledge or not possessing full mental capacity. It has been proposed that a new word that more accurately describes deaf people be found. Sorry, my books are all still packed from a recent move so I can’t site anything.
    shalom v’ahava,

  9. This argument is ridiculous. When almost all Orthodox authorities say that Deaf (& deaf-mute) people of today — who do learn and communicate at the same level as their hearing counterparts — are NOT considered to be “cheresh” like the deaf-mute folks of yesteryear — who were not able to — , who is this Rabbi to disagree? And who is Nemo to defend that absurd and ghastly decision?

  10. A. I don’t recall arguing with it. Just pointed out a fatal flaw in the argument’s logic.
    B. Who are you to criticize a case that you have no firsthand knowledge about? Maybe this woman was deemed to be “Lav Bnei Deaih.”

  11. Again, I’ve made no defense for the court’s decision, I’ve merely stated why the author of this blog post is making an invalid argument. Don’t make me into the punching bag for Charedi Jewry.
    However, I have been on a Beis Din with a Charedi Rabbi that converted an obviously down-syndrome child, so, in the famous words of all abstainers: “it’s not so clear.”

  12. Looking at this in terms the Rabbi’s would be familiar with…
    There are two ways to understand “deafness” as it was understood in the times of the original halacha…..
    Use the one that allows her to be converted. Exempt doesn’t mean that another Rabbi cannot perform the conversion. Ruth tried three times, I think this woman needs at least one more shot.

  13. Does anyone know a reliable source on this? The Ynetnews article was an opinion piece and gives no date or context. It only says this statement was made “recently” but then tells us “and so the story goes” that some such case happened “many” years ago. This ruling does indeed sound awful, but do we actually know it’s true? Or that “many years ago” isn’t 1952? Or 1879? What “conversions court”? Where? We presume Israel and part of the Chief Rabbinical Court, but if you read it carefully, it doesn’t actually say that, the reader is just made to assume that is the case.
    This may well all be recent and horrible, but I’m always skeptical of creating a little tempest out of a non-sourced article run as an opinion piece on a Web news site with mediocre journalistic standards.

  14. They were using her deafness as an excuse not to convert her. They found a technicality. Orthodox does not recognize conversion for love and therefore will always try to find a technicality to dismiss the request.. and to b bar navi commons misconception, women are exempt from time bound mitzvot. So for example particular prayers that need to be said at particular times etc

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