Is Rabbi Lookstein Kosher?

The July 10th issue of the Times of Israel notes that there is no list of Diaspora rabbis whose conversions are accepted by the Israeli chief rabbinate. (But they are working on it.) This became an issue when the conversion of a woman, carried out under the auspices of Rabbi Lookstein of New York, was declared invalid by the Petak Tikva rabbinate. The convert, Nicole, had planned to marry a Petak Tikvah native, Zohar, The application was turned down because Rabbi Lookstein’s name does not appear on a list of Rabbis approved by the rabbanut.

A little background. In 2007, the RCA/BDA (Rabbinical Council of America/Bet Din of America) launched its version of a GPS (Conversion Protocol in this case). The idea was to introduce uniform standards for orthodox conversions in the United States. In order to freeze out local rabbis, the RCA made a deal with the Israeli rabbanut (office of the chief rabbi) that the rabbanut would only accept those modern orthodox conversions performed by rabbinical courts vetted by the RCA/BDA. According to reports at that time, the list of approved courts included regional conversion courts under the direct control of the RCA/BDA as well as ~40 independent Rabbinical Courts. (We have included relevant sections of the Conversion Protocol in the full version of the newsletter).

The regional conversion courts associated with the GPS network can be found on the RCA website. For New York City, the only listing is – Manhattan Beth Din for Conversions, Administrator: Rabbi Zvi Romm. What ever happened to those ~40 independent rabbinical courts? There is no listing of any independent conversion court – either under the auspices of Rabbi Lookstein or under the auspices of any other rabbi. It’s not surprising that Rabbi Lookstein’s name does not appear on an Israeli rabbanut list if it does not appear on an RCA/BDA list.

The appealing aspect of the GPS protocol is that it insulates a congregational rabbi from untoward pressures to perform a conversion. As the GPS document puts it, ‘‘Further, the determination of an objective rabbinic panel as to the conversion candidate’s suitability for giyyur (conversion) envisioned in this document allows a community rabbi to more easily reject unsuitable candidates for conversion.”

In the case of Nicole, it is hard to imagine that there was a need to insulate Rabbi Lookstein from any improper influence. One could fantasize, however, about other circumstances. Imagine, if you will, a situation where the fathers of both a prospective bride (to be converted) and a prospective groom are amoral billionaires. In such a case, the need for insulating a synagogue rabbi is apparent. (Would a GPS regional Beit Din be immune to pressure in such a case?)

What’s to be done? A little transparency goes a long way. There should be a complete, easily available listing of Rabbis whose conversions are accepted by the RCA/BDA. This could be done immediately and would provide potential converts with a guarantee that their conversions would be accepted everywhere in North America if they go to one of the Rabbis on the list.

Further, the RCA should insist that the rabbanut automatically accept the conversions of all Rabbis on this list. It is chutzpah on the part of the Israeli rabbanut to be passing judgment on the qualifications of American rabbis. 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 authority of the rabbanut depends on the deference of the modern orthodox sector in the diaspora. In Israel, the only sector that takes the rabbanut seriously is the Dati Leumi. Haredim and secular Jews ignore the rabbanut. Given the criminal behavior of the last Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the election of the present chief rabbis solely on the basis of family connections, that is not surprising.

What’s the downside of the RCA making such a list available? The only reason that comes to mind is that it might bruise the (not so delicate) egos of some rabbis. A list of authorized Rabbis is also an implicit list of rabbis whose conversions are not acceptable. Clearly the benefits of providing such a list outweigh this downside.

A recent posting on the RCA website reads, ‘The Rabbinical Council of America, the leading organization of orthodox rabbis in North America, appreciates and supports the efforts of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reverse the decision of the local Bet Din of Petach Tikvah which refused to accept its recommendation to recognize the validity of the conversion to Judaism of an applicant for marriage arranged by our colleague Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.’ Instead of posting statements, the RCA should be posting its list of acceptable rabbis. The fault lies more with the RCA than with the Beit Din of Petach Tikvah.

If all else fails Nicole, who was converted by Rabbi Lookstein, and her fiance Zohar might consider being married under the auspices of the Eda Haredi. A YnetNews article of March 6 describes the no-questions-asked approach of the Eda Haredi to those who come to its offices to be married. The article reads like a script for a Looney Tunes cartoon.

It begins with ‘“I’m from a religious family, but my wife is a new olah from the US,” A., who got married a few months ago, said. “When we got to the office of the Chief Rabbinate to register, they told us that would need to prove my wife’s Judaism,” said A. “They requested marriage certificates from her parents, the approval from a rabbi the Rabbinate recognizes in the United States, and other forms of proof. When I told my friend about all of this, he said, ‘what, are you crazy? Just go register with the ultra-Orthodox, they’re really lax. Indeed, we went there and within five minutes got a marriage certificate, without investigations and without harassment.”‘ It goes on to document the pleasures of dealing with the Eda Haredi and bypassing the rabbabut.

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.