6/03/2007

The RCA and the Rabbanut

I’m a few weeks off, but I wanted to discuss the ramifications of the RCA-Rabbanut agreement.
The first issue is internal to the RCA, and I think that the results are largely positive. The Regional Beit Din Network is a long-overdue idea which will hopefully achieve a balance between complete bureaucratization of giyur and complete decentralization. Local rabbanim will be able to recommend, or ‘sponsor’ potential geirim and to serve on Batie Din. At the same time, the regional batei din will have the final say over who is accepted.
Given that the RCA is an organization – really a confederation – which does not hire its members, there will of necessity be a system of checks and balances in place. Any regional Beit Din which becomes either too draconian or too liberal in its standards will end up being restructured. If all of the LORs aren’t happy, they will make their voices known.
For the same reason, RCA members will respect the Network. They know that regionalizing things can prevent a lot of the problems caused by conversions done by individual Rabbis; if these Rabbis ‘play ball’ with the regional batei din, then there is some quality control. If they don’t, then they further marginalize themselves and risk being regarded as unacceptable conversions in the mainstream of Modern Orthodoxy.
The regional batei din, by the very fact that they are under the auspices of different ga’avads, will have differing standards. One may emphasize Hilkhot Shabbat more, another taharat ha-mishpacha. But each will be respected enough amongst his peers – and if he’s not, he won’t last – for his geruyot to be acceptable.
The new arrangement will also be excellent for those who are regarded as being the fringe of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Rabbi of a “traditional” (orthodox liturgy, mixed seating) synagogue, or in a more contemporary setting, the Rabbi of a ‘Shirah Chadasha’ style minyan or the ever-controversial YCT musmakh will be able to sponsor a potential ger and work with them without having to enter into the extremely sticky question of “Who is an Orthodox Rabbi?”.
The fundamentally democratic nature of the American Rabbinate – the balabatim hire the Rabbis – insures that insures that Rabbanim will have a vested interest in maintaining a unified front. A Rabbi who breaks ranks – to the right or to the left – incurs serious professional risks. Therefore, when the RCA as a body signs an agreement, they can expect adherence from its members.
Of course, there will be cases where people fall through the cracks. There will be sincere gerim who are rejected by the regional Batei Din, and there will be insincere ones who pass through. That much is inevitable. The former scenario is difficult because it undermines the judgment of the sponsoring Rabbi, but, ultimately, that’s the reason for having a regional beit din in the first place. The standards themselves are, in my opinion, a very appropriate blend of yedi’at ha-halakha and good, old-fashioned common sense. It recognizes explicitly the role of the community in acculturating the ger to Jewish life paying specific attention to living within walking distance of a shul and sending kids to an Orthodox day school where available. These are not requirements that you will find in the Shulkhan Arukh, but they make all the sense in the world. The RCA standards also take what I think is a very sensible approach to havchanah. There are batei din out there who can be draconian when it comes to this requirement.
Enter the Rabbanut.
Israeli Rabbis – municipal Chief Rabbis and Dayanim – have what basically amount to lifetime political appointments. They can say what they want and do what they want without endangering themselves professionally. Many times, they act very irresponsibly (the most recent one that I heard was that a Rav, at a secular Bar Mitzvah, taught the halakha that if a Rabbi is drowning and one’s own father is drowning, it is incumbent to save the Rabbi. Aside from being halachically incorrect, it is so unbelievably insensitive and oblivious that it would probably warrant the immediate firing of a Rabbi whose balabatim have that power), or even corruptly. Even if they are not jerks, they have no reason or need to listen to the vox populi. Their jobs are secure no matter what.
Thus, you have a situation where there is little or no incentive for Rabbanut –affiliated Rabbis to adhere to an agreement that the Rabbanut makes. The recent story in Ashdod where a woman who converted 15 years ago with R’ Chaim Druckman, currently the head of the Conversion Authority and Rosh Yeshiva of Or Etzion (and a very mainstream figure in the dati le’umi world, for better or for worse), but whose conversion was retroactively annulled is an excellent case in point. There is no accountability for this type of behavior. There is no Rabbinic statute of limitations – a goy is always a goy, no?
Furthermore, one may be accepted by one Rabbi – an Oleh Chadash can get his or her brank-spanking-new ‘tooty zooty’ with the word ‘Yehudi’ proudly emblazoned upon it, but when it comes time to get married, or one’s kids to get married, then you are once again at the mercy of the local Rabbinate.
To give an example, I know from someone who works very closely with the Rabbanut on matters of Jewish status that there are senior members of the Jerusalem Beit Din for matters of giyur who would not accept a conversion done under the auspices of Rabbi Barry Freundel. Rabbi Freundel was the RCA’s chief negotiator and architect of the current agreement as the Chairman of the RCA’s Geirut Policies and Standards Task Force. He is the director of the Greater Washington regional Beit Din. On a personal note, I did one gerut with him and he approved three others that I did with other Rabbanim while I was living in his general area. He is very serious about the giyur process, even if, like any other ga’avad, he is more machmir in one area and more meikil in another.
The day before Rabbi Freundel met with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar last summer, the latter was visited by senior members of that same Beit Din who tried to passul Rabbi Freundel by demonstrating that there is a Women’s Prayer Group under the auspices of his shul, and that this goes against the wishes of his own Rebbi, R’ Herschel Schechter. For those who are not aware, Rabbi Freundel is the Rav of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, Washington,DC. It is an extremely liberal crowd made of primarily singles and newlyweds. In matters like this, the Rav needs to know his kehilla well and respond to their needs in kind. I think that R’ Freundel’s respect amongst his peers speaks for itself about whether some of his more ‘liberal’ psakim have crossed any boundaries.
The attempt to discredit him then, and the refusal to accept his conversions if the issue arises in the future, was/will be made by a few individuals with a personal agenda. They may have their ‘mehalech’ in Hilchot Giyur, and that’s fine. The point of an agreement is that even if two individuals or groups have different methodologies or standards, each can rely on the other’s decisions as being a halachically sanctioned gerut.
Unfortunately, that is not what the RCA will be getting from the Rabbanut.
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