The concern for Ivanka Trump’s conversion, which has recently received wide coverage in the media, offers a window into the disturbing reality of rabbinic politics and how they are fought on the backs of laity, especially converts.
As background, in 2008, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), under pressure from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, adopted a centralized, standardized conversion network called GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards), the wisdom of which could be debated. Indeed it could be argued that the very notion of centralizing conversion broke with a nearly 2,000 year tradition of a radically decentralized approach to conversion, whereby local rabbis were empowered to convert proselytes using their own best judgement, and where other rabbis would accept such converts at least post facto (i.e, once they had converted). Note that in Jewish tradition, it is extremely problematic to question any conversion performed by a rabbi who himself leads a life committed to Jewish law as I argue (in Hebrew) in an article soon to be published in a leading journal of Jewish law.
Further, given the decision to convert is phenomenally complex and takes into account a myriad of individual, familial, and communal factors, Jewish law sets no standards beyond a few very broad guidelines. Conversion cannot, in fact, be standardized. It is not an assembly line type of process. Indeed, a number of leading rabbis, including Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, have argued strenuously against standardization and centralization, with Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss expressing opposition specifically in the context of GPS.
Be that as it may, the Chief Rabbinate and RCA had long argued that a centralized and standardized system of conversion is necessary to prevent anarchy, and thus they created such a system. That is certainly their prerogative.
The question then arises — how should we treat a proselyte who converts outside of that system? What is their status according to Jewish law?
None other than the Maimonides (and the Shulchan Arukh, who rules like Maimonides) gives us the answer (Issurei Bi’ah 13:17):
A proselyte whose motivations were never considered or who was never informed about the commandments and the punishment for transgressing them, but was circumcised and immersed (in a ritual bath) in the presence of three laymen … he is (nevertheless) a valid convert according to Jewish law.
In fact, Maimonides applied this ruling to no less than 150,000 (!) proselytes who never intended to abandon idolatry and who were converted by laymen during the times of Samson and King Solomon.
It is true that the Chief Rabbinate and RCA will often not recognize as Jewish those who convert outside of their centralized system, even when converted by rabbis in good standing, much less by laymen.
It is also true that the Chief Rabbinate and RCA have the right to reject Maimonides, the Shulchan Arukh, and centuries of Jewish tradition for the sake of political interests.
And for those Jews committed to Jewish law and tradition, it is certainly our right to ignore the Chief Rabbinate and RCA, to reject their political battles fought on the backs of the innocent, and to welcome these converts with open arms.
May it be our will.