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The Rabbinate’s new conversion criteria committee? Same-old, same-old, but now it’s official

Transparency doesn't cut it; the Rabbinate's conversion committee needs an Anglo who knows the American Orthodox scene

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate met this week to form a committee to draft criteria for recognizing the weddings, divorces and conversions of rabbis in the Diaspora. After the messy political firestorm following the rejection of a conversion conducted by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein as well as legal challenges demanding the full list of “approved” rabbis, the Rabbinate finally agreed to establish an official set of criteria.

To those who have hailed this move as an important step forward towards transparency and openness on the part of the Chief Rabbinate, I would caution a great deal of skepticism. From the details of the draft document that have been reported, the Chief Rabbinate seems poised to officially adopt its longstanding practices.

According to the Jerusalem Post,

[Chief Rabbi David] Lau suggested that rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate must work where there are “established and organized rabbinical courts that work in accordance with the principles of Jewish law and whose status is accepted by the community rabbis.” He cited the rabbinical courts in London and Paris as examples.

In addition, Lau said rabbis who operate under the authority of rabbinical associations and rabbinical courts that are approved by such associations would be another criteria, citing organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of America; the US Agudath Harabonim and the Conference of European Rabbis.

Finally, the chief rabbi suggested that in instances where there is no “organized rabbinate,” the individual rabbis and their “path in Jewish law” must be examined by the Chief Rabbinate’s department with the rabbis of the community in question, along with an examination of the rabbi’s ordination and his decision making in Jewish law.

In other words, no individual rabbis’ conversions would be recognized automatically, and these conversions would be examined and scrutinized by the Chief Rabbinate. Meaning, the Rabbinate will continue to do what it has been doing until now, only in an official capacity. This means that the conversions of the London Beit Din, or the Beit Din of America (or South Africa or Detroit) will be accepted without question, but any other conversion will be examined on a case by case basis. Any other rabbi similar to Rabbi Lookstein would be examined and evaluated, as well as his “ordination and his decision making in Jewish law.” That’s a pretty broad definition of scrutiny.

In America, this will mean that a rabbi who performs a conversion outside the RCA’s GPS system or another recognized Beit Din will not automatically be recognized, but will be evaluated individually. There will be no list of individual rabbis. Such a list is legally impossible to defend, ends up growing outdated (leaving many deceased rabbis approved to perform conversions), and generally smacks of favoritism and nepotism.

What does this mean for the thousands of converts who were converted by ad hoc batei din before the GPS system? For those that have been “approved” by the Beth Din of America and its poskim — and there are many — one hopes that the Rabbanut will have the good sense to automatically accept those conversions. On the other hand, I do not believe that conversions performed by individual rabbis who established their own Batei Din will enjoy automatic approval and acceptance by the Rabbanut.

Moreover, liberal Orthodox rabbis and their batei din stand little chance (to my mind) of gaining acceptance by the Chief Rabbinate for their conversions. Does this mean that they shouldn’t perform conversions? Of course not! But it does, in my view, obligate them to be honest and completely open with their prospective converts, and explain to them that currently, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish for the purpose of marriage in Israel. Armed with that information, they will have the ability to make the best choice for themselves.

Finally, what’s most alarming about this report is the fact that the committee does not include any rabbi with any personal familiarity with the rabbis it will actually be evaluating. The joint committee will be comprised of rabbinical judges Rabbis Aharon Katz, Shlomo Shapira and Yitzhak Elmaliach, along with Council of the Chief Rabbinate members rabbis Yitzhak Ralbag and Yehuda Deri. I do not question the expertise, knowledge and piety of any of these rabbis. But their biographies demonstrate that each of the was either born in Israel or raised here from a young age — without any meaningful interaction with the English-speaking Orthodox community. How can rabbis who don’t speak English and have no personal knowledge of the rabbanim in question — their attitudes, writings or teachings — or the scope and nature of the congregations — realistically evaluate whether a rabbi is “appropriate” to conduct conversions, and whether his conversions should, or should not be recognized? If you don’t know the difference between “KJ” and “BMG” — nor what those letters represent, how can you have any understanding of conversions in those respective communities?

Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim has done important work to force the Chief Rabbinate to have taken this step at all. But it will have been in vain if they do not at the very least, add at least one member or advisor to the committee who speaks English, knows the communities in question, and can give the rabbis an honest and clear assessment of the facts on the ground. That, to me, seems to be a most basic demand that the rabbinate could and should accept.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the Overseas Rabbinic Coordinator for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar, and coordinates Jewish status applications on behalf of Tzohar from English speaking countries.

About the Author
Raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Michigan until his aliyah in 2008. He then served as a Judaic studies instructor and Academic Coordinator of the Elkana Campus of the Orot College of Education from 2008 until 2018. Today he is the director of OTS Amiel BaKehila, which sends delegations of educators, Israel-Engagers and Jewish artists to small and medium-sized Jewish communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter also serves as the Shorashim Coordinator for English-speaking countries for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar. A graduate of Yeshiva University with an MA in Secondary Jewish Education and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, he has taught and lectured to groups of all ages in communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter lives with his family in Yad Binyamin, Israel
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