5/09/2006

The RCA Conversion Scandal: What’s the Real Issue?

The lead story in the Jewish Week this week (also covered here and here), is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s non-acceptance of RCA-approved gerut. There’s speculation in TJW that this is all political, has to do with the Tendler family, etc. Ayen sham, ve-acamo”l.

It seems, however, that the group behind the Rabbanut’s policy is called “The Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur”. This group’s agenda is to try to create a universally recognized standard of conversion. They played a strong role in the recent “Eternal Jewish Family” conference in Florida. In addition to the RCA, they have opposed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF, Norwegian Chief Rabbi and former MK Michael Melchior, and, ironically, the Rabbanut itself. One would be hard-pressed to find a Rabbinical organization that they don’t slam. Their agenda is not limited to American Rabbis and not to those who provoked the Tendlers.

The issue at hand is the credibility of Modern Orthodox Rabbis, no more, no less. Founded by R’ Chaim Kreisworth ob”m, the man whose name is most closely associated with the Vaad is R’ Nachum Eisenstein, an American-born chareidi Rav in the Ma’a lot Dafna neighborhood of Jerusalem. If you live in Ma’alot Dafna, learn in kollel, and don’t wish to pay municipal taxes, R’ Nachum will write a letter on your behalf explaining that you have no real source of income; whether or not you can afford it and are merely exploiting a loophole in a system which doesn’t account for rich in-laws is a side issue. He is also the author of the following statement:
The month of Nisan is the month of geula and we must be strong in our conviction to oppose any cooperation and recognition of the Reform and Conservative before we can be zoche to true redemption.
and other obnoxious statements that can be found here, here, here, and here.

R’ Nachum counts himself as a strong adherent of R’ Elyashiv. You may remember that it was R’ Elyashiv’s inner circle who brokered the deal that brought the current Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel into office. They’d get the jobs, though unqualified, but they’d be under R’ Elyashiv’s thumb for any significant halakhic matter. Those were the terms of the deal, and the current situation is one of its ramifications.

The Rabbanut gets affidavits from batei din the world over. There’s an office within the Rabbanut that’s supposed to decide on those courts, but, of course, that office is occupied by a middling bureaucrat whose credentials include being the nephew of someone with clout. I’ve met with the first occupant of that office, Yitchak Ochanna. The man speaks not a word of English, yet the status of the entire American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate is in his hands. Unable to handle all of this, they turn to an outside organization to make their decisions. That organization is called – you guessed it - the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur. Thus, in essence, Rav Nachum Eisenstein is in the position to be approving or disapproving every Orthodox convert in the US who wishes to make aliyah or get married in Israel. It’s pretty much all spelled out in this article, which seems to be the basis for the recent scandal.

This Vaad is highly problematic on several levels. In the issue of giyur, there are a lot of things that one would hope for lechatchila, but which bediavad don’t disqualify the conversion. As any out-of-town Rabbi can tell you, or anyone who’s ever worked with Ethiopian Jews, Bnei Anusim, or Russian-Israelis, for that matter, we don’t live in a lechatchila world. Sure, we’d love it if every potential convert could do the pin-test of Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchesa before going for a dip, but that’s not realistic. We, in the trenches, might just have a greater sensitivity to the human being that the bureaucrats are so good at disregarding. I’d take Itim over the Vaad any day of the week.

The desire to create a universal standard for giyur is both misleading and misguided. It is misleading because it sounds like a unifying agent, when in fact it means that they are trying to create a chareidi monopoly on conversions by passuling every conversion that’s not chareidi in the hopes that it will force the MO Rabbinate to simply acquiesce. By referring to the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate as ‘so-called Orthodox’, or to the “orthodox” Rabbinical Council of America (R’ Nachum himself puts the quotation marks on the word ‘orthodox’), or describing the RCA by saying “This is the organization of rabbis who call themselves Orthodox, but are known as modern”, R' Nachum and the good folks at the Yated are basically saying that MO Rabbis aren't really Rabbis and Modern Orthodoxy isn't really orthodox. Instead of coming out and saying it, they'll use obnoxious innuendo and quotation mark. Recognizing only individual RCA members means that the Vaad is setting itself up to be the arbiter of which Rabbis are kosher enough. The desire for ‘unity’ is nothing less than a declaration of war on the MO Rabbinate.

It is misguided because there is not, and cannot be, a universal standard for giyur. The Shulchan Arukh says quite clearly that there are certain things which are very difficult to gauge, about which the individual courts must make a judgment. Furthermore, as stated earlier, there is lechatchila and bediavad. Creating a universal standard basically means doing away with the entire question of a bediavad conversion. That may be easy to do from Ma’alot Dafna, but there’s a reason that the concept exists.

Conversion is THE issue which essentially determines whether a particular Rabbi is kosher or treif. When there’s talk of not accepting R and C Rabbis, it basically means that their conversions are not considered good conversions, no more and no less. Now, MO Rabbis are threatened with the same treatment. This is not some political issue that will blow over by next Tuesday. R’ Nachum and his ilk have gained a measure of control over an apparatus that threatens to completely discredit the MO Rabbinate.

This is a moment of truth for the American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. If we do not find a way to win this battle, legitimate the work that we do across the continent and assert our commitment to and execution of das Moshe Ve-Yisrael, then our voices will join our Conservative and Reform colleagues as spectators who can make noise but are barred from playing the game.
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