Is Modern Orthodoxy Kosher?

The headlines state that the Israeli rabbanut (office of chief rabbi) has rejected the conversions of leading American modern orthodox Rabbis. Those headlines are confusing. A Jewish Week article of September 23 clarifies the situation.

Michele Chabin reports in the Sept.23 edition of the Jewish Week, ‘For the first time since a deal {the GPS} was hammered out with the Rabbinical Council of America nearly a decade ago, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is no longer automatically accepting conversion certifications from any American Orthodox rabbi. That includes two of America’s most prestigious Modern Orthodox rabbis — Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Chicago-based posek (halachic decisor) and av beis din (chair) of the Beth Din of America for the last 25 years, and Mordechai Willig, a leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and deputy av beis din of the Beth Din of America (BDA).’ These conversions were not performed by Rabbi Schwartz or Rabbi Willig. Rather they were conversions performed by other rabbis and later certified by Rabbi Schwartz or by Rabbi Willig. They were certifications of conversions that occurred before the GPS conversion protocol went into effect.

Some background is in order. In 2007, the RCA/BDA initiated the GPS (conversion protocol). The idea was to introduce uniform standards for orthodox conversions in the United States. In order to freeze out conversions by local rabbis, the RCA/BDA made a deal with the Israeli rabbanut (office of the chief rabbi) that the rabbanut would accept only those modern orthodox conversions performed by courts certified by the RCA/BDA.

Concerning certifications of prior conversions, the GPS document states, ‘Although the BDA will no longer issue ‘ishurim’ or endorsements for conversions, all ishurim issued by the BDA, whether concerning conversions performed in the past or in the interim period until the new system is functional, will continue to be recognized.’ It is this provision that is being violated by the rabbanut in the case of the conversion endorsements made by Rabbi Schwartz and Rabbi Willig.

In some newspaper articles, these rejections of conversions by the Israeli rabbanut are being conflated with a conversion performed by Rabbi Lookstein that was also rejected by the rabbanut. When we reported on that conversion in July, we were not aware that the Lookstein conversion was performed outside of the special conversion court system (GPS) set up in the agreement between the Israeli rabbanut and the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America)/BDA. It was performed by an ‘impromptu’ conversion court set up by Rabbi Lookstein.

What’s to be done? It is chutzpah on the part of the Israeli rabbinate to claim to have a right to veto these certifications made by the RCA/BDA. There is an unfortunate perception that the rabbanut is authoritative and diaspora rabbinic groups must defer to it. In fact, the reality is that the status of the rabbanut rests on the deference of the modern orthodox sector in the diaspora and the dati leumii sector in Israel. Haredim and secular Jews ignore the rabbanut. Given the criminal behavior of the last Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the election of both present chief rabbis on the basis of family connections, it’s hard to understand why anyone takes the Israeli rabbanut seriously. It’s time for the RCA/BDA to stop deferring to the rabbanut and to start sanctioning the rabbanut.

To show that the behavior of the Israeli rabbanut is unacceptable, modern orthodox synagogues in the United states must stop showing any respect to rabbis associated with the Israeli rabbanut. This means that they should not be allowed to speak in any venue under the control of the RCA/OU. If they visit our synagogues, they should not be given aliyot. Perhaps stronger bonds should be forged between all modern orthodox rabbinic groups in the diaspora. Such an organization would be a counterweight to an Israeli rabbanut that is out of control.

The RCA has taken a giant step forward in dealing with another problem of personal status — the aguna problem. An aguna is a women whose husband refuses to give her a get (a religious document of divorce). In a resolution of September 22, the RCA states, ‘Therefore the Rabbinical Council of America declares that each of its members must utilize, in any wedding at which he is the officiant (mesader kiddushin), in addition to a ketubah, a rabbinically-sanctioned prenuptial agreement, where available, that aids in our community’s efforts to ensure the timely and unconditional issuance of a get.’

The remaining issues are — What does ‘where available’ mean? It’s pretty easy to download an RCA kosher prenup. Also — what sanctions will be imposed in case of noncompliance? Resolutions need teeth to be meaningful. As this is such a serious issue, perhaps expulsion from the RCA would be in order for those rabbis who perform marriages without a prenup.

G’mar Chatima Tova!

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.