5/14/2006

How Will the Conversion Issue Shake Out?

In the punchline of the more recent of the Jewish Week articles on the subject, R’ Basil Herring was quoted as saying:
“it is not an attack on Modern Orthodoxy or American Orthodoxy, and it does not represent the haredization of the rabbinate”
These are 2 separate claims. I would like to address each claim independently, and then to offer some alternatives to how this thing can shake out.

Regarding the second claim (which is the easier of the two to demonstrate as false), there is a definite ‘haredization’ of the Rabbanut on conversion issues. In the same Jewish week article, it is reported that:
Rabbi Krispel said he had recently established a committee of three rabbis to determine the qualifications of any rabbi performing conversions.
As Stephen commented, “the identity of those three Rabbis is pretty important. Well, Rav Nochum Eisenstein is one of the three members. I don’t know the identity of the other two. Furthermore, it was overheard at the EJF conference that R’ Ryback, Chairman of the RCA’s Geirus Commision and a signatory on this letter , was trying to convince R’ Nochum to accept RCA-approved conversions.

That R’ Krispel takes his cues from others is corroborated by his testimony at a Knesset hearing involving the conversion of the Indian Bene Menashe. This 25-page Hebrew report can provide some incredible insight into the how the Rabbanut perceives the conversion process and its relationship with batei din all over the world.

I’m not suggesting that R’ Nochum is behind everything, or that the Rabbanut is being controlled. R’ Nochum is a grogger; he makes noise wherever he sees or hears (what he believes to be) Amalek. But he’s been making noise about the RCA and many, many other organizations that engage in giyur. He would disband the RCA tomorrow if he could, and because he thinks that it’s not really Orthodox. And he has found an audience in a Chief Rabbi who is trying to generate universal conversion standards and a bureaucrat, R’ Krispel, who must rely on others for his information about the American Rabbinate. Thus, to the degree that RNE influences decisions about which American Rabbis are acceptable, the Rabbanut is being ‘hareidized’.

This leads to the other issue – is this an attack on American Orthodoxy or Modern Orthodoxy? From the perspective of the Rabbanut, certainly not. But there is a mistrust of the American Orthodox Rabbinate as a whole, and an attempt to impose a standard upon it. It is not insignificant that the RCA was not a major player in a conference whose mission was to bring the standardized conversion agenda to American soil. If the EJF begins to compile its own network of Rabbis, and the Rabbanut accepts their conversions implicitly, then the RCA will have been completely undermined.

Personally, I believe that the RCA doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have universal standards because of the diversity of Orthodox communities in America. The sincerity and commitment of each potential ger must be evaluated in context, and by a beis din who is familiar with the community that the ger wishes to join. Neither RNE nor R’Amar want to leave subjective decisions in the hands of community Rabbis: RNE because he thinks that, as a class, they’re not really Orthodox, and R’ Amar because there’s no objective standard.

So is it a Catch-22 – the RCA either adopts a standard or gets shafted? I hope that it’s not too late and that there’s a third way. Here are what I think would be some of its key points:
  • A thorough house-cleaning, in which RCA members about whom corruption reports surfaced would be investigated and, if need be, ‘defrocked’ from serving as an Av Bet Din for conversion. However, members in good standing MUST be implicitly trusted.

  • The adoption of a curriculum for Hilkhot Gerim for Rabbis-in-training.

  • Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a serious effort to produce halakhic literature which articulates our view of giyur and why we are confident in it and in our ability to engage in the sacred work of bringing people tachat kanfei Ha-Shekhinah.
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