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An open letter to Rabbis Shmuel Goldin and Leonard Matanky

3 questions on the RCA standardization of conversion and a suggestion to resolve the issues for once and for all

Dear Esteemed Rabbis Goldin and Matanky,

I read with great interest your article on conversion in The Jewish Week responding to an earlier opinion piece written by Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss in The Times of Israel. Given the importance to converts around the world of the debate surrounding the wisdom of centralizing and standardizing conversion, with your permission I would like to ask several questions.

First, you write that there were three motivating factors behind the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) standardized and centralized system of conversion, formally established in 2007:

  1. Some RCA members were running “factories,” where there was a profit motive for conversion. Assuming this was truly the case, I can only wonder why those members were not simply expelled from the RCA rather than rejecting a long-standing tradition in Jewish law establishing a decentralized approach to conversion.
  2. In cases of conversion for marriage, pressure was sometimes exerted on the rabbi from members (presumably members of the rabbi’s congregation?) to convert individuals even in cases where commitment was lacking. In other words, if I understand correctly, the drive towards standardization and centralization was designed, in part, to protect rabbis from that pressure. Did I understand correctly? Because if so, I find it troubling that an approach to conversion should take into account any factor other than that which is best for the converts. Rabbis are charged with protecting converts, not themselves.
  3. There was ignorance on the part of some individuals (presumably RCA members) involved in gerut [conversion] as to the proper standards, requirements, and procedures. As you well know, none other than Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh rule that even the conversions of three laymen are valid post facto. I therefore must ask: were there (or are there) members of the RCA who were (or are) yet more ignorant than laymen? If so, how did they succeed in becoming members of the RCA? And once they succeeded, why were/are such ignorant rabbis not expelled from the RCA?

You also write, “We should be searching for ways to ensure that none of our converts to Judaism will ever be open to after-the-fact scrutiny of their conversions.” I agree. But only partially. Certainly, your concern for converts is to be commended. But I would respectfully recommend that rabbinic organizations be concerned for the welfare of all converts, not just “our” converts (i.e., those who converted through “our” rabbinic body). The Torah calls for us to be concerned for the welfare of converts, not just “our” converts.

And finally, just between us rabbis, let’s be honest …

I confess that, as Orthodox rabbis interested in advancing a deep commitment to Jewish belief and practice within the broader Jewish community, we face a difficult normative ruling in Jewish law; a ruling which establishes that even in the case where a proselyte converted through three laymen who did not investigate his motivations for converting, and where the proselyte had not even the most elementary Jewish education, and where he had no intent of abandoning his previous religion — if he was circumcised and immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath) in the presence of the three (observant) Jewish laymen, he is Jewish according to Jewish law. It is true that Maimonides writes that we are suspicious of such converts, but according to Rabbi Kook and a long list of other leading rabbinic scholars, we suspect only their righteousness, not their status as Jews according to Jewish law.

Now the question is: how do we address this difficult normative ruling? I can only make my own humble suggestion. Perhaps we should accept the normative ruling which held true for centuries and simply treat each convert as we would treat him were he a Jew from birth. If he is an observant Jew, we shall treat him as such. If he is a non-observant Jew, we shall treat him as such. And if he is a meshumad (one who abandons Judaism for another religion), we shall treat him as such. In other words, we should treat all Jews equally, whether they are Jewish by birth or via conversion.

To be honest, I do not know if my suggestion is the best solution. I do know, however, that by rejecting a normative ruling in Jewish law, we have harmed a large number of righteous converts along the way. And that is exactly what the Torah prohibits no fewer than 36 times.

I humbly invite your reply.

About the Author
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is an Orthodox rabbi working to promote freedom of religion in Israel. Among his activities toward that end, Rabbi Davidson has led efforts to create alternatives to Israel's Chief Rabbinate in the fields of marriage and conversion to Judaism.
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