The Rabbanut and RCA Conversions: Clarifications and Response

Since posting my interpretation of the Rabbanut’s procedural changes with regard to RCA-approved conversions, I’ve found myself at or near the center of what’s fast becoming a major news story the Jewish and Orthodox print and electronic media. A number of Jewish bloggers linked back to my post, including one of the most venerable, twice.

The Jewish Week has featured an article on this for the second week in a row (plus a letter from the RCA hoohas), and this week’s interpretation is a lot closer to mine than last week’s was. The speculation about a Tendler family vendetta has been virtually (and thankfully) silenced, and procedural and personnel changes within the Rabbanut have become the focus of attention. I have no idea if my post or my pseudonymous letter to the editor of TJW (which didn’t make it into the paper) had anything to do with their re-evaluation, but it doesn’t seem unlikely.

I’ve altered my original thesis since Monday, as I learn more and have more conversations, but I maintain the central point, namely, that the Vaad HoRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur stands behind the current ‘procedural changes’ in the Rabbanut, and that they are consciously trying to disenfranchise the American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. Since there have been a number of disagreements, refutations, arguments and counter-arguments about this thesis and the details surrounding it, I will try respond and clarify.

There were several details that I got completely wrong. I insinuated that there’s really no difference between Rabbis Ohana and Krispel, and even related to personal interaction that I had with R’ Ohana. The major shift in procedure happened when R’ Krispel replaced R’ Ohana, which happened during the tenure of Chief Rabbi Amar. There seems to be a much broader shake-up going on in the conversion authority. See, for example, this article, which hasn’t been discussed much, but states:

certain rabbinic judges and administrative managers are recalcitrant hardliners who refuse to adhere to authority and have adopted unnecessarily stringent criteria for conversion

R’ Krispel refers to a sort of ‘kitchen cabinet’ of three Rabbis who evaluate conversion affidavits, and who are quite literally starting from scratch, with everyone presumed to be unqualified until it’s shown to be otherwise.

So the question is, why was there a personnel shake-up, and why did it result in stricter policies for the acceptance of conversions?

Part of the answer is with Chief Rabbi Amar. He is a very strong advocate of universal conversion standards. At the EJF conference, he criticized the American Rabbinate for not being as systematic as the Rabbanut, and that there should be more centralization of conversion. Personally, I feel very strongly that the large, impersonal, bureaucratic, and despised Rabbanut has much to learn from the American Rabbinate. That’s why institutions like Itim are so crucial. Furthermore, there is, of necessity, a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to a pre-conversion curriculum (the Rambam and Shulchan Arukh are extremely vague about what must be taught) and subjectivity when determining the sincerity of the potential convert (as the Beis Yosef says in YD 268, following Tos. Shabbos 31a). There are certain issues which are the subject of dispute (for example, if a woman will not cover her hair, or will wear pants, can she be accepted as a convert?), but for which context is extremely important. The situation in a community where women simply don’t cover their hair is different than the situation in Monsey. Without justifying anything, do we demand, a priori, the same degree of commitment from someone who will not have communal support as someone who will? More than ‘experts’ in the issue of giyur (which, after all, is one relatively short siman in Shulchan Arukh), there’s a need for sensitive and compassionate Rabbonim. You’re more likely to find those in out-of-town shuls than behind the desks of the Rabbanut.

The temporal proximity of the change in Rabbanut policy and the EJF conference was, I thought, more than coincidence. EJF’s agenda is very different than the Rabbanut’s or the Vaad’s – the want to encourage the conversion of gentile spouses of Jews. Nevertheless, the issue of standards is an inevitable part of these endeavors.

The EJF states that they follow the guidance of R’ Dovid and R’ Reuven Feinstein and R’ Elyashiv on these matters. That’s not a monolithic group. R’ Elyashiv is far more machmir than the Feinsteins, a point which apparently caused a bit of exasperation for R’ Dovid (IIRC – only one was there, and I’m not sure which), who had a difficult time during a panel discussion dominated by outspoken members of R’ Elyashiv’s camp – R’ Leib Tropper, R’ Nachum Eisenstein, and Dayan Ehrentrau. R’ Hershel Schachter did not attend the conference because of an illness, but gave a single shiur via satellite hook-up.

Thus, the cards are stacked. R’ Amar wants to universalize conversion procedures. EJF does as well, though it’s more of a secondary goal. The Vaad/ R’ Elyashiv camp, and R’ Nochum in particular, has a very long history of opposition to numerous conversion procedures and a desire to universalize according to their own interpretations. R’ Nochum also has a history of animosity toward the RCA, as I think I documented pretty darn well.

Thus, all parties at this conference – the EJF organizers, R’ Amar, the Vaad – can agree that they want to universalize standards and that the greatest barrier to that is the RCA. R’ Schachter wasn’t there, but even if he was, is known to be very independent; he would not feel compelled to defend the RCA. R’ Reuven and R’ Dovid – well, they’re R’ Mordy Tendler’s uncles. Keep quiet, perhaps. Stand up to defend the RCA? No way.

R’ Amar’s relationship with the R’ Elyashiv camp is deeper, though. They were the Israeli contingent at EJF. R’ Amar owes his job to R’ Elyashiv, and even though this is not a halakhic issue per se, it’s naïve to think that R’ Elyashiv’s team would try to influence even procedural issues. R’ Amar, at least according to the Yated, has followed the lead of the Vaad on conversion issues in Israel as well.

What’s still not determined is the degree to which the Vaad is actually influencing the Rabbanut. That they’re bedfellows in the attempt to undermine or replace (and I think that the Vaad definitely wants to replace, not reform) the RCA as the dominant conversion authority in America is, to my mind, clear. Has R’ Amar bought into the Vaad’s anti-RCA rhetoric? Has he retained them as his advisors or consultants, perhaps as members of R’ Krispel’s 3-man advisory panel? I don’t know for certain. That there’s a relationship is undeniable. And that the Vaad would jump on any opportunity to expand its influence and take down its opponents is equally undeniable.
[UPDATE: An anonymous commenter reports that R' Nochum Eisenstein is a member of R' Yigal Krispel's advisory panel; if this is true, as I suspected, then there's nothing left to talk about].

Regarding the semantics of MO vs. Chareidi, Modern Orthodoxy here doesn’t refer to an ideology. Take, for example, my friend, mora d’asra and abdk”k Yehupitz. He’s not what you’d call ideologically MO. But being in Yehupitz, or wherever else, and dealing with PEOPLE, leading a flock, means engaging them ba-asher hem sham. R’ Nochum, representing the eretzyisruldike approach, deems this to be a compromise of the ‘truth’, and chazer-treif. I’m not just talking about conversions now; American Orthodox pulpit Rabbis, as a class, are made out to be a quai-Reform group of one-time Bnei Torah (perhaps) who use their polished English to say what the balabatim want to hear. As such, they are deemed to be inherently untrustworthy. The color of your hat or the yeshiva you attended has nothing to do with it (just ask Natan Slifkin). For American Orthodox Rabbis, there’s no chezkas kashrus: guilty until proven innocent.

Has the Rabbanut bought that story? Again, it’s speculative. But their disregard of the main body of American Orthodox Rabbis indicates that, at least practically speaking, this position has been adopted. Otherwise, there would have been a different process of accreditation of trustworthy Rabbis. Corrupt or unqualified conversion courts – we all have our lists of batei din which we suspect or know are a sham – can be investigated without disenfranchising the RCA. R’ Gedalya Dov Schwartz wouldn’t have been treated as he was. It wouldn’t have been so quick and taken so many off guard.

This battle is over the Rabbanut. The Vaad is using the Rabbanut, to the degree that it can, to advance its own agenda. Our response is twofold – advocate and articulate out own positions vis-à-vis giyur and our credentials to be involved in them, and clean house so that kangaroo conversion courts are, if not disqualified, identified.

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