Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Conversion Controversy Continues

Headquarters of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (VIN)
Conversion to Judaism is a touchy subject. Whenever the subject comes up it almost always guarantees a heated debate. And for good reason. Both sides believe very strongly in the justice of their cause. And both sides can cite Halacha to back them up.

The current controversy in Israel is over the acceptance of converts outside of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate has recently declared that it will no longer automatically recognize all rabbis in the Diaspora attesting the legitimacy of a convert.  From VIN
The Chief Rabbinate does not consider non-Orthodox Judaism to be valid, so it does not accept the authority of Conservative and Reform rabbis. And in recent years, it has had a series of public disputes with Orthodox rabbis whose authority it rejects.
This week, hoping to clarify exactly which Orthodox rabbis meet its standards, the Chief Rabbinate published a list of draft criteria for religious courts in the Diaspora. If a religious court meets the criteria, the Jewish conversions it conducts will be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. If not, the Chief Rabbinate will not consider its converts Jewish.
The same goes for Jewish ritual divorces: The Chief Rabbinate will accept them only if they are performed by a qualified religious court...
The document’s language is in the past tense, which means it could apply retroactively — rejecting the status of Jewish converts who formerly were accepted in Israel. In other words, a convert accepted by the Chief Rabbinate this year could be rejected next year.
The criteria demand that the courts be permanent and operate year-round. Their rabbis must demonstrate fealty to Orthodox Jewish law and be endorsed by a major Orthodox organization. 
This has obviously upset a lot of people. Especially those that feel the Chief Rabbinate’s conversions standards are much stricter than they have to be. An Orthodox rabbinate ejecting Reform and Conservative conversions should not surprise anyone. But it also means that conversions by Orthodox rabbis who have challenged the status quo with controversial innovations widely rejected by Mainstream Orthodoxy - will also be rejected. This includes rabbis ordained by YCT or their founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Even if a conversion was done long before Rabbi Weiss went rogue.

Critics like Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim (a group that works to challenge and navigate the Chief Rabbinate’s bureaucracy) have strongly objected to this kind of thing calling it a power grab by the Chief Rabbinate. Although it might look like that to the casual observer, I am not so quick to agree with him.

The fact is that there was a tremendous amount of abuse in the past. Many people were ‘converted’ by some even Orthodox rabbis that were never really sincere in their promises to be observant. Whether full observance is even necessary is a debate that has been settled in recent years despite the protestations of those who believe we may rely on a lenient Psak (Halachic ruling ) of the past. That Psak is not accepted today by any recognized Orthodox Posek or institution.

I understand Rabbi Farber’s objection and even sympathize with him. He is a compassionate individual that cares about the Jewish people and has tried to do something about what he sees as an intolerable situation. I can only imagine the grief an individual who believes he has converted being told that they are not Jewish and must undergo a new conversion.

But that doesn’t change the Halachic requirements for conversions, which is what the Chief Rabbinate’s guidelines are designed to enforce.

That said, I do have to take issue with their implied retroactive rejection. If someone sincere was converted by a rabbi before he went off the reservation, I don’t think they should be rejected. And if it is it should be applied evenly to all such rabbis on both the right and the left. Including Rabbi Leib Tropper, founder of  the Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) project, which advocated more rigorous conversion standards.  If anyone went off the reservation he did. 

His position of power in the field enabled him to egregiously sexually abuse at least one of his female converts. Much the same way Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein’s positions of power did. Only neither Weinstein nor Cosby were highly respected Orthodox rabbis. If Rabbi Weiss’s conversions are to be retroactively annulled, all the more so should Rabbi Tropper’s conversions be retroactively annulled. Which is grossly unfair to the sincere converts of both rabbis.

In my view anyone converted by a rabbi while he was still accepted, should be considered completely valid. It is all about Ahavas HaGer. The Torah tells us we must love our fellow converts and consider them equals. Telling sincere converts that they are no longer accepted because their converting rabbi is no longer accepted is simply not right.