by Rabbi Marc D. Angel
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has taken a restrictive, hareidi view on conversions to Judaism. They have imposed "standards" that are unrealistic for many would-be converts, and which are not required by the halakha itself. The Rabbinical Council of America has essentially capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, and is now in the process of establishing regional courts in the U.S. and Canada that will adhere to the extremist opinions relating to conversions. Orthodox rabbis, members in good standing of the RCA, who perform conversions outside the RCA system will not have their conversions endorsed by the RCA. Thus, in order to be "accepted" by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, American converts will now be faced with an increasingly rigid rabbinic bureaucracy.
My views on this topic are well known. I have written a book, Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion (available from the online store on this website), pointing out the diversity of legitimate views within halakha, and arguing that the Orthodox rabbinate and community should be fostering a far more compassionate and inclusive policy. Please see my article "Slamming the Door on Converts" in the Min haMuvhar section of this website; please also see the Responsa section on this website for Prof. Zvi Zohar's article, as well as the piece on Rabbi Uziel's wonderful responsa on the topic. Likewise, please see Rabbi Isaac Sassoon's essay in the Articles section of our website.
Why am I so upset--and why should all thinking Jews be so upset--about the current developments? Here are a few reasons.
1. Halakha provides an array of legitimate views in the area of conversion to Judaism. Indeed, the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh are considerably more "liberal" in this area than are the current leadership of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and the RCA in America. The attempt to create "unified standards" is simply a code phrase that means: the most stringent standards. All other views are dismissed and discredited. This is a crass violation of the halakhic process--that passes itself off as being in the category of "raising standards". It narrows halakha and robs it of its dynamism and grandness of scope. It allows a small group of rabbis to arrogate authority to themselves, at the expense of all those who differ with them.
2. Many people will suffer due to these rabbinic bureaucratic decisions. Over the past years, I have received calls, letters and emails from literally hundreds of desparate individuals seeking Orthodox conversions--but who have been turned away or treated callously by the Orthodox rabbis they approached. As bad as the situation has been, it will now sink to even worse levels. Rabbis who have been inclined to work with potential converts are now told that they either must cede their authority to the rulings of the RCA, or be effectively disenfranchised. Thus, there will be even fewer Orthodox rabbis to whom would-be converts can turn; and even these rabbis will have their hands tied by the dictates of the RCA's policies which grant very little individual discretion to the rabbis.
3. The new policies have built in delay mechanisms so that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for a candidate to be converted in less than two years. In the case of women candidates, this can diminish the number of children they might have; if the women are around 40 years old, it may deprive them of having children at all. Is this fair to these women? Is it fair to the Jewish people? Is it morally acceptable to create unnecessary obstacles to conversion, to prevent Jewish children from being born, to hinder the possibility of couples and families to function within the (Orthodox) Jewish community?
4. The Chief Rabbis and the RCA say that conversions done outside their authority will not be "accepted". I had always thought--and continue to think--that the important thing is for conversions to be performed according to halakha and to be "accepted" by the Almighty! If individuals are converted according to halakha, then the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA have no right whatsoever not to "accept" such conversions. On the contrary, to deny or cast doubt on halakhic conversions is a sin of the first magnitude. Rabbinic tradition teaches that oppressing a convert is a violation of 36 (and some say 46) commandments! If the Chief Rabbis or the RCA do not endorse conversions done by Orthodox rabbis who follow halakhic procedures, then the Chief Rabbis and the RCA will have much to answer for when they have to explain themselves to the Almighty.
5. I have been working with Rabbi Avi Weiss and a number of other Orthodox rabbis to create a new Rabbinic Fellowship, a think-tank for Orthodox rabbis that will be open to candid discussion in a non-authoritarian environment. We had a tremendously successful initial conference last October, and are planning a larger conference in late April. I will report on the Rabbinic Fellowship in a future essay on this website. In connection with the Rabbinic Fellowship, Orthodox rabbis here and in Israel have been discussing establishing an independent Orthodox bet din system that will not be cowed by the extremist, authoritarian views of the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA. We have been threatened with the charge that such a beth din would not be recognized and that conversions done under its authority would not be accepted. My answer is: we are not asking anyone for their approval or acceptance; we are interested in serving God and the Jewish people in a halakhically sound, compassionate and inclusive way. If others will use bureaucratic means to impede our efforts, the sin will be on their heads. Moreover, we have genuine faith in the wisdom of the entire Jewish people who will come to the realization that the future of Judaism cannot be left in the hands of an increasingly extreme, bureaucratic and authoritarian rabbinic establishment. Jews in Israel and the diaspora will insist on the "acceptance" of all those who have converted according to halakha, and will not allow the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to continue its stranglehold on matters of Jewish identity.
6. If you share our views on this matter, please let your voices be heard. Join in the support of our new Rabbinic Fellowship that will bring together like-minded Orthodox rabbis who believe in a halakhically vibrant, respectful, and dynamic Orthodoxy. If we want to turn the tide on authoritarianism and extremism, each of us needs to stand up and be counted. If not us, who? If not now, when?