RCA’s deal hurts rabbis and converts

NEW YORK (JTA) – The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America have concluded an agreement related to conversion that will allow the two groups to work together. This solves a problem that reached its peak when Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, announced in April 2006 that he would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by rabbis belonging to the RCA, the main union of Orthodox rabbis in America.

According to the terms of the agreement, the Chief Rabbinate approved a list of about 15 RCA rabbinic courts and approximately 40 rabbinic judges whose conversions will be accepted. From this point on, only conversions done by these rabbis or tribunals will be recognized. Any rabbi who wishes to be added to that list needs the approval of two leading Yeshiva University rabbis representing the RCA and one from the Chief Rabbinate. The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate also agreed that all conversions previously performed by rabbis, other than the 40, are subject to re-evaluation by the head of the RCA’s Beth Din of America.

This agreement is deeply disturbing on many levels. What is most troubling is that conversions, done years ago with the informal backing of the RCA, are now being scrutinized. This, we believe, strikes at the very ethical fabric of halacha. Over the years, thousands of people have been halachically converted and now they and their children, and for that matter, their marriages, will all be questioned. The pain that this will cause the convert, a person whom the Torah commands to love, will be unbearable.

Indeed, the RCA’s capitulation to the demand of the Chief Rabbinate to scrutinize past conversions done by its members raises the strong possibility that down the line the bar may be raised even higher. Already, the Israeli institution no longer represents the centrist, religious Zionist ideology, but is, in effect, made up of religious appointees of the haredi world. Years from now a new, more extreme Chief Rabbinate may very well pressure the RCA to question “sanctioned” conversions being done now.

Not only is the convert’s status questioned here, but the respected position of the local rabbi is also at stake. The policy sends a clear message that rabbis who have Orthodox ordination and are not among the chosen 40 do not have sufficient knowledge, judgment and wisdom to perform conversions – and they never have.

There is an irony here in that, from a certain perspective, congregational rabbis have a greater understanding of the issues surrounding conversion than those who are primarily situated in the Beit Midrash. These synagogue rabbis who are “in the trenches” with the potential converts have a unique understanding of the situations and conditions that affect their respective constituents. As is displayed on their ordination documents (smicha klaf), these rabbis are sent to spread Torah to their communities and have been invested with the trust, power and weight of our Torah to help shape the Jewish world. This decision undermines their mission.

If this agreement was meant to develop a mechanism of oversight, there are other ways in which this could have been accomplished. One proposal could have been that junior rabbis in their first three years do conversions under the guidance of senior rabbis. Additionally, the RCA could have questioned individual rabbis whom they suspected were doing conversions improperly.

We are not the first to raise concerns about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Over the last few years, there have been legitimate and important Orthodox voices in Israel that have expressed opposition to its rightward trend and its hard-line position concerning conversions in Israel. Now, through its deal with the RCA, the Chief Rabbinate is dictating its specific conversion standards to those living thousands of miles away in the United States.

Rather than extend the Chief Rabbinate’s reach to the Diaspora, the RCA should display confidence in its loyal members by declaring that their conversions are valid and acceptable in the eyes of God and halacha. This should be our posture as we move forward together with like-minded voices in Israel.

This was a moment of truth. The criteria on conversion as drafted by the RCA/Chief Rabbinate are the most stringent and do not reflect the range of legitimate halachic opinions. The approach insists, for example, that parents converting an adopted child commit to 12 years of yeshiva education. But suppose parents are only prepared to make an eight-year commitment; suppose they are committed to sending their child to a community day school; suppose, as is a growing trend in our Jewish world, they simply cannot afford tuition; and suppose their child has a learning disability and must be sent to a secular school?

We have received reports that such potential converts have already been turned away. What is next? Will past conversions, such as these, now be nullified retroactively?

If these standards become the criteria for who is a Jew, it means there will be only one voice – enforced by just two rabbis – speaking for Modern Orthodoxy in America.

The first issue is the question of who is overseeing the overseers: What are the criteria for appointment? What makes these 40 judges competent and hundreds of others not? What communities do they represent? Are the appointments based on merit? On politics? On being dedicated students of particular rabbis?

To consolidate so much power in the hands of so few rabbis – whether left, center or right – is a frightening step. Making matters worse, the RCA has chosen as its representatives two Y.U. rabbis who speak only for the right-wing of Modern Orthodoxy – effectively abandoning the organization’s trademark commitment to providing a home for both right- and left-wing voices. With its cowering to outside dictates, the RCA appears to have opted to reflect the haredi-controlled voice of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, instead of insisting that the broad spectrum of Modern Orthodox positions be part of the solution.

What makes this chapter especially sad is that the new arrangement not only undermines the power of the local rabbi as teacher and spiritual guide, but even worse, puts fear into the hearts and minds of many wonderful converts who are upstanding Torah-observant and God-fearing Jewish souls.

Rabbi Marc Angel is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and a longtime member of the RCA.

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