Let me preface by saying that my goal is not to defend the RCA; rather, it’s to advocate on behalf of the thousands of Gerei Tzedek whose status is being called into question by the Rabbanut’s current refusal to accept the vast majority of American Orthodox conversions.
A valid giyur requires four components (in a nutshell):
- Circumcision (for men; if he was already circumcised, then a small amount of blood is drawn
- Immersion in a kosher mikvah
- Kabbalat Mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments)
- The presence of a kosher Beit Din during the conversion
The first two components are fairly routine. Not a whole lot to call into question (God help us all if the Rabbanut starts calling American circumcisions into question).
The third and fourth components are where the questions are. Thus, the following two issues must be addressed:
1) Is there any reason to question the validity of American Orthodox Rabbis as ksherim la-dun?
2) What constitutes a proper ‘kabbalat mitzvot’ and does that definition fit the standard American ger?
It should be noted that this is not a discussion of what the conversion process SHOULD look like. The Rabbanut is tasked with determining the Jewish status of Israeli citizens. Questions whether or not certain practices or policies are proper is definitely worthwhile, but as long as the post facto result is a proper conversion, it should not enter into discussions of personal status.
R’ Moshe Feinstein presumed all Orthodox Rabbis to be kosher judges, both in terms of knowledge and status, for a conversion Beit Din:
אבל אם היה רב ארטאדקסי שמסתמא עשה הטבילה כדין, אף שאיכא ריעותא עליו על זה שלא הטיף דם ברית מ"מ מה שעשה יש לתלות שעשה כדין
שו"ת אגרות משה חלק אה"ע ג סימן ד
But if it was an Orthodox Rabbi who presumably affected a proper immersion - even though this presumption is blemished by the fact that he didn’t affect a pin-prick of blood – nevertheless, whatever he affected, we may assume that he affected properly
-Igrot Moshe Even Ha-ezer 3:4
הנה בעצם כל עניני הגרות אף אלו שעושין רבנים כשרים אין דעתי נוחה מהם וכן ודאי רוח כל חכמים אינה נוחה מהם דהרי גרותן הוא לשם אישות, ואף שבדיעבד הם גרים…
ולכן אף שאם בא רב כשר לעשות גרות לא שייך שמנהלי המקוה לא יניחו לו, דכיון שרב מורה הוראה עושה אין להם לבדוק אחריו ויש להם להחזיק שמסתמא עושה כאן לכה"פ לענין שיהיה גר בדיעבד, ועל מה שעושה לכתחלה מסתמא יש לו טעם שרשאי ובמה שלא איכפת לו להתחשב הדיוט
שו"ת אגרות משה חלק יו"ד ב סימן קכה
In essence, all of these conversion practices, even those affected by kosher Rabbis, I am displeased with, and certainly all of the Sages are displeased with, because these conversions are for the sake of marriage, even though they are valid post facto…
Therefore, if a kosher Rabbi came to perform a conversion it’s inconceivable that the administrators of the mikvah wouldn’t allow him too, since a Rabbi with Halakhic expertise (from context - as opposed to a Reform or Conservative Rabbi) is performing it they should not check him out, and they may assume that he is presumably performing it in a manner that would render one a ger, al the very least post facto; the fact that he’s doing this a priori means that presumably he has a reason that it’s permitted or he doesn’t care that he’ll be considered a hedyot
-Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:125
שו"ת אגרות משה חלק יו"ד א סימן קס
And this is a substantive rationale to consider her a giyoret; and it gives a slight benefit of the doubt to these Rabbis who accept these gerim that they are not considered worse than hedyotot.
-Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 1:160
R’ Moshe’s position here is crucial because of his disqualification of Conservative Rabbis as dayanim. The response were composed in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Orthodox Rabbis served in OU-affiliated shuls that had no mechitzot, whose parking lots were open on Shabbat, and whose annual banquets involved mixed-dancing. Nevertheless, R’ Moshe did not question their basic ability to constitute a beit din shel hedyotot - a lay court – whose conversions are acceptable post facto.
Part II will address the thornier issue, Kabbalat Mitzvot.