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Where the American Orthodox rabbis go wrong on conversion reform

The Americans' misconceptions about the norms of current Israeli conversion blind them to the value of the reforms that many of their Israeli counterparts see
The Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv on August 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)
The Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv on August 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

As a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and as one who is deeply familiar with the field of conversion in Israel, I was somewhat surprised by the recent statement made by RCA leadership and other Orthodox organizations following their meeting with Minister Matan Kahana. The letter contains, in my opinion, numerous inaccuracies and objectionable statements.

First, the letter, posted in The Times of Israel, describes the “real and serious problem facing Israeli society” as follows:

“Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union and become citizens, serve in the IDF, attend schools, and integrate into Israeli society. Yet, despite their contributions to Israel’s security and economy, they cannot benefit from certain rights available to Jews. Their children are growing up Israeli and intermarrying with Jews.”

Indeed, there is a fear of intermarriage. However, this does not fully capture the issue. Rather, said differently, there are thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are children or grandchildren of Jews who, due to religious persecution, abandoned their Judaism. In the 1980s, I attended rallies each year, along with many current RCA members, hoping and praying that our brethren trapped behind the Iron Curtain would be allowed to immigrate to Israel.  Many of these new Israelis experienced religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, and after moving to Israel, they were raised and educated as Jews, identify as Jews, and many even observe the mitzvot so common among traditional Israeli Jews, including kashrut, Shabbat, and the festivals. The “problem” is not the fear of intermarriage; the “challenge” is how to encourage and enable these Israelis, and their children, to return to their Judaism, which was taken from them only a few generations ago. In other words, conversion is not about “laundering” the non-Jews who currently live in Israel, but rather, it is about returning them to the Jewish people. “Levilti yidach mimenu yidach” – “No one may be kept banished” (Shmuel II 14:10).

This is quite possibly one of the greatest and most important challenges currently facing the Jewish people, especially those in Israel. Instead of fighting those who wish to bring them closer to religious observance, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the Rabbanut calling for Jewish families throughout Israel to host potential converts for the seder this year? Or to organize public shofar blowings and megilla reading in major cities for this population? In fact, what if the Rabbanut would invest in supporting those who converted in their own batei din? Instead, non-Rabbanut organizations such as Tzohar and Ohr Torah Stone have stepped up and organized public shofar blowings and megilla readings, teachers in Ulpanei Giyur have taken to Facebook in an attempt to find host families for their students, and this year two private organizations, Amech Ami and Ohev Ger were established in order to assist converts.

Second, the letter assumes that the current Rabbanut courts have “transparent standards,” in contrast to those proposed by Kahana’s reform. This is not really correct. The “Conversion Authority” does require a minimum period of study for most of its candidates, and Nativ, the army’s conversion program, also requires participation in its educational programming. Similarly, the conversion courts established under a new law would also have a minimum period of study. However, the decision to accept a convert is not based upon a predetermined checklist; the judges determine whether a potential convert is a “worthy candidate,” as determined by the halakha. If the candidate is an adult, the dayanim must believe that the convert has embraced Torah and mitzvot and wishes to join the Jewish people. Regarding a minor, the judges must be convinced that conversion to Judaism is in the best interest of the child.

Those familiar with the various conversion courts are well aware that each beit din, and each dayan (judge), maintains their own “standards” for accepting converts. Furthermore, historically, different batei din, different dayanim, and different chief rabbis, held different opinions regarding this issue. While the chief rabbis do have a limited ability to affect policy, for example, R. Yitzchak Yosef, dismantled the beit din in charge of converting minors, and R. David Lau has attempted to supervise the rulings of each dayan, leading some rabbinic judges to claim that his involvement violates their “judicial autonomy,” there is currently no transparency and there are no set standards regarding the acceptance or rejection of a convert.

Furthermore, the claim of transparency and set standards is not only incorrect, but it is also halakhicly questionable. The Torah entrusts the dayanim with the authority to determine when to accept a convert, “based upon the assessment of the judge” (Beit Yosef). This is true in all areas of halakha. Checklists and “standards” are for driving licenses and kashrut organizations, not for batei din, who rule in accordance with the halakha. The Shulchan Arukh, its commentaries, and the long tradition of halakhic rulings are the standards for rabbinic judges.

Third, the letter’s bold assertion that “those converted by more lenient standards will not be accepted as Jewish by others, creating two communities that cannot marry each other, thus dividing Israelis even more” is not a given, and actually contradicts the talmudic (Yevamot 24b) principle which states that “the law is in accordance with those who recognize all conversions.”  If a conversion is performed by qualified, trained, and trustworthy judges, in accordance with the halakha, then their conversions are to be accepted. The role of a rabbinic organization is to convince other rabbis, and the broader, religious public, to follow the halakha, and not ignore it.

Interestingly, the assumption that conversions currently performed by the Rabbanut are universally “recognized” is also false. Many Rabbanut converts are unable to register for marriage in their own local municipalities, as their local religious councils (moetzot dati’ot) do not recognize conversions performed by the Rabbanut! In addition, throughout the world, conversions performed by the Rabbanut are not automatically recognized. This is rather amazing, in light of the article’s assertion that “the rabbinate’s imposition of a minimum standard contributed greatly to the successful establishment of the Rabbinical Council of America’s “GPS network” of Orthodox conversion courts… it is the Israeli benchmarks that enabled us to establish ours in the US. If Israeli guidelines are internally conflicted, we will quickly lose the ability to maintain a standard in our own communities.” If the Rabbanut does not always recognize its own conversions, and if communities around the world do not automatically accept Rabbanut conversions, then what right did they have to insist that other communities follow their line? And if this is true, in what way will the addition of a few more batei din change this?

I would like to raise, however, a much more fundamental point: What does it mean to “not recognize” a conversion? The notion of blanket recognition or rejection of conversions is a secular idea. Students of the halakha know that a conversion may only be invalidated if the judges are disqualified, or if there was a procedural error regarding one of the stages of conversion (milah, tevilah and kabbalat mitzvot).

There may be many conversions that should not be recognized. However, what does it mean to outright reject a conversion without at least investigating the dayanim (who have yet to be appointed), and the procedural details of the conversion? Would the authors of the statement consider rejecting a convert before speaking to the dayanim, many of whom are roshei yeshivot, city rabbis, and current and former judges on Rabbanut rabbinic courts, and before investigating each convert, and every family, to determine if the conversion was performed properly? What is the basis of this threat, or prediction, regarding the recognition of their conversions? This is not the way of the halakha. The validity of a conversion is determined by examining the details of each case, and not rabbinic pronouncements. This irresponsible statement contributes to the painful “ona’at hager” felt by so many converts.

The letter further expresses concern that a conversion reform may undermine “an effective chief rabbinate as an important component of the Jewish state, both within Israel and in its role for international Jewry.” The role of the Rabbanut in conversion, as well as other areas of religious life, is certainly worthy of discussion. Of course, I would hope that the same concern would be directed towards the numerous “Haredi” religious courts in Israel which perform conversions, supervise kashrut and arrange divorces, whose standards are certainly not “transparent” and often more “lenient” than those of the Rabbanut.

Finally, the claim that the law seeks to “decentralize” conversion is also inaccurate. The law merely calls for the opening of another “branch” of the Conversion Authority, which would be supervised and actually part of the Rabbanut. In fact, the law itself entrusts the formation of conversion courts with rabbis who are actually licensed by and professionally part of the Rabbanut, and many of the rabbinic judges are themselves former Rabbanut judges, far more experienced and qualified than the current chief rabbis, neither of whom are experienced or even qualified dayanim!

I have great respect and admiration for those currently working in the Rabbanut’s conversion programs, including the teachers and the dayanim. However, I am also deeply and intimately aware that numerous issues are preventing the conversion courts from maximizing their potential and accomplishing what they are entrusted to do. Minister Kahana’s reform represents the view of numerous rabbinic leaders, including city and town rabbis, roshei yeshivot, and even current and former dayanim from within the Rabbanut’s conversion courts, who believe that these new courts will improve the state of conversion in Israel.

There are many reasons to support or oppose Minister Kahana’s conversion reform. Personally, I support the premise of the conversion reform, as I see that city and community rabbis, as well as roshei yeshivot and other talmidei chachamim, are fully dedicated and qualified to convert in a proper, halakhic manner. I do not believe, in practice, that these courts will significantly change the demographics of Israel, nor do the other rabbis involved in conversion, but they may offer assistance to those worthy candidates currently seeking a proper, halakhic conversion, and they may succeed at returning thousands of Israelis to religious observance. I believe that is our goal, and responsibility, as rabbis. I do have other reservations about Minister Kahana’s reform, although being that it no longer appears that the reform has any chance of passing, I do not see much benefit in sharing them.

I fully enjoy the friendship and professional camaraderie of the caring and thoughtful members of the RCA and other American Orthodox organizations. Unfortunately, their recent statement reflects a lack of the awareness and understanding that I expect from rabbinic leaders.

About the Author
Rabbi David Brofsky is the author of halakhic compendiums on Tefilla, Moadim and Avelut. He teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Midreshet Torah V’Avodah, and he writes a weekly shiur for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM).
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