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.
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 not Heaven forbid to cause pain to – 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 chapter of the Beth Din of America under the GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) system. Permit me to explain.
While it is true that Rabbi Lookstein has a long and distinguished career of not only being 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 position that he took is important in understanding this issue. That was 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 and thereby cause 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, the GPS set up a system of regional Courts with policies and standards that will allows converts to be confident that their conversion will be recognized and prevents Rabbis from being put under pressure to 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 this wonderful 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.
 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 .
I would put her out front and center every day!