Since the myth of rabbinic infallibility has become entrenched, exaggerated and untrue as it may be, it has unwittingly caused many other dire consequences. Since rabbis are somehow not able to discern the future and to be aware of the true motives and behavior patterns of those congregants and strangers who avail themselves of rabbinic services, rabbis are held accountable for the behavior of those people in their future lives decades later.
I remember that as a young rabbi I prided myself on the fact that for about the first twenty years of my rabbinic career no couple for whom I had performed a marriage ceremony divorced. I began to believe that I had some sort of heavenly magical power and that simply my performance at a wedding ceremony was in itself a guarantee of a couple living together happily ever after.
This arrogant and unfounded thought on my behalf has come crashing down upon me over the past number of decades when unfortunately a number of couples – who were undoubtedly in love with each other and planned to live together for the rest of their lives – divorced, sometimes in bitterness and acrimony.
I have often questioned myself as to whether I somehow bear some responsibility in this later breakup of the marriage. My rational self exonerates me completely. I am not a prophet and I did my duty faithfully according to Jewish halacha and tradition. The fact that the couple years later decided to end the marriage is not my fault and in no way invalidates the marriage ceremony that I performed.
I wish to therefore extrapolate this idea and attitude to the current controversy regarding conversions to Judaism performed in good faith and according to the letter of halacha. If decades later after the actual conversion ceremony, or even a relatively short time later, the convert for whatever reasons is not strictly observant of Jewish law or custom, does that invalidate the previous conversion ceremony itself?
It seems to me to be self-evident that it could not and should not invalidate that conversion nor should the rabbinical court that performed the conversion be held accountable for the later lapses in observance of that convert. The rabbinical court that performs the conversion can only go by what it sees at the moment of the conversion.
If it is convinced that the potential convert will lead a Jewish life and observe Torah, then it has fulfilled its obligation. It cannot peer into the future and know for certainty how the convert will behave in later life. It can only judge, and this is always subject to the errors that accompany every human judgment, the sincerity and commitment of the potential convert that stands before them at that time.
Overwhelmingly, most converts remains sincere and committed Jews. But there will always be exceptional cases when it becomes obvious that somehow the convert has changed his or her mind-or at least their mode of behavior. It is a far stretch to try and invalidate the halachically valid conversion process because of the later behavior of the convert.
Retroactive cancellation of conversions was rarely allowed in Jewish tradition and only under dire circumstances. Resorting to it today because of dubious reasons is very questionable and an unfortunate reminder to us of the weakness of rabbinic leadership in our time.
Attributing prophetic and psychic powers to religious leaders often times results in greater tragedy. Jewish tradition tells us that there are no prophets amongst us, as prophecy disappeared from the Jewish scene millennia ago. Those who hold themselves out to be all-knowing run the risk of being responsible for the later behavior of their students, congregants and the general public that they speak to and influence.
We were cautioned long ago “wise men should be careful with their words,” and certainly with their deeds. There is no rabbi in the world that has not, at one time or another, made a mistake in judgment, speech or in performing religious services. The fallibility of human beings – even of the greatest human beings – is a well-established principle with numerous examples recorded for us in the Bible and in the Talmud.
We are all responsible for the consequences of our errors. However the Talmud explicitly teaches us “a judge can only decide upon what he sees at the given moment when he renders his decision.” Heaven eventually may correct all errors but not all errors will appear on the ledger of the one who was unable to foretell the future. That ability is an interest only to heaven itself.