The upcoming sentencing of Rabbi Barry Freundel has received a good bit of coverage in the media. And, indeed, Freundel should be punished appropriately. Hopefully, the American judicial system will make a wise decision.
That said, there is a systemic problem that almost no one is talking about.
The rabbis of the Talmud were extremely wise. They created a radically decentralized conversion model empowering any three rabbis to perform conversions, and even recognizing as Jewish the converts of three “kosher” (a Halakhic term referring to a person who lives his life in accordance with Halakha) laymen.
The only centralized element of the model was this: once performed, the converts of ANY conversion court, even of “kosher” laymen, are Jewish, at least post facto.
Why did the rabbis create such a radically decentralized model?
Perhaps because converts are, by definition, vulnerable. The very identity which they wish to adopt lies in the hands of the conversion court. As such, they are easy prey for abusive people, including rabbis, like Freundel.
A centralized system creates power. And power is a critical ingredient to corruption and abuse.
A decentralized system is in significantly less danger of creating such abuse. Had converts in Freundel’s court had other options, they could easily have left his court and gone to another. And yes … there were complaints about his behavior before he was caught. But alas, the number of Orthodox conversion courts in America is small. Very small. There were, in fact, no other options for Orthodox converts in the DC area.
From the times of the Mishna, for almost 2,000 years, conversion remained radically decentralized; until very recently, when the Chief Rabbinate began centralizing conversion under its authority, first in Israel, and gradually extending its hegemony throughout the Jewish world.
There are those within the Chief Rabbinate who argue that without centralization the converts will be hurt, because some rabbis/ communities may not accept the converts of other rabbis/ communities. This is, however, a disingenuous concern, to say the least. Until the Chief Rabbinate began their centralization efforts, there was no such thing as rejecting the Jewishness of the converts of ANY Orthodox conversion court. Regarding the converts of non-Orthodox courts, there is a degree of disagreement in the Halakhic literature, but there is no such disagreement about an Orthodox court. It is the Chief Rabbinate itself which worked hard to introduce a Reform into 2,000 years of Halakhic precedent, while masquerading as Orthodox rabbis. And, ironically, the Chief Rabbinate’s attempted Reform backfired and came back as a boomerang to their very own court. Today, there are numerous Orthodox rabbis and communities throughout the world who do not accept as Jewish those converted through none other than the Chief Rabbinate.
There may be yet another reason that the rabbis of the Talmud created a radically decentralized system. Conversion is not an assembly line. It is not something which can be standardized beyond requiring circumcision (for a man), immersion in a mikveh, and acceptance of the Torah and Jewish law, i.e, a commitment of the convert to live as a Jew. But the standards of that commitment and the ultimate decision to accept or reject the potential convert are entirely up to the converting rabbis. There is no formula. It is a complex decision which takes into account a multitude of religious, psychological, sociological, familial, and communal factors. As such, it is entirely impossible to create a centralized measuring stick to weigh these factors.
So while dealing with Freundel is important, we are not effectively dealing with the systemic problem.
We have created a system which breeds abuse. The only systemic remedy is, I believe, to return the system to what it was for nearly 2,000 years, before a monopolistic Chief Rabbinate destroyed it.